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The State Of Hd Gaming

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#1 twistedsymphony


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Posted 01 April 2007 - 03:15 AM

The State of HD Gaming
Past Present and Future

HDMI, 1080p, ICT, HDCP, LCD, DLP, HD-DVD, BRD, YPbPr, ANA, HANA, True-HD, DTS-HD, CPPM, DSD, are you still with me? If you understand what more than half of those terms mean then kudos to you, you're paying more attention to the technical side of HD gaming than most people spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on Audio/Video equipment. Those making purchase decisions based not on the definitions of these terms, or the implications they carry with them, but under the mistaken impression that all of these things are somehow vitally important; the more letters the merrier. Too bad that's not the way things actually work.

It's OK if Joe six-pack doesn't understand all this crap, it's not like his livelihood depends on it, unfortunately rattling off these terms to a register jockey at your local big box will land you face to face with a blank stare. Not even those who hock most of the HD wares for a living understand all of it. That's annoying, and it IS a problem but it's not a problem the companies pumping out this tech seem to care much about. Based on most of the PR surrounding these things it's pretty clear that they'd rather have people confused, less they understand the REAL implications of their purchase. Why? Because if more people understood most of these terms, and the real world implications they carry with them, they'd be far less likely to spend as much hard earned cash on it.

I often see references to the early adopters as the group that spends enormous amounts of cash to get new tech first. While it's true that enthusiast make up a large portion of early adopters they're never foolish enough to part with their money without first doing their homework, if they buy a widget they know exactly what that widget will deliver. Recently though these early adopters have been avoiding the orphanage; they've taken a wait and see approach. Meanwhile there is a growing group of adopters who think they know what they're buying but on a whole they really don't; enthusiast posers if you will. They've got the cash, they've got vague ideas about what tech terms mean, but they're severely lacking in experience and genuine depth of knowledge. This can be applied to any new Audio Video tech but you might be asking...

How does this apply to video games?
The current generation of video games has been lauded as the "HD era", what that supposedly means is of no consequence, it's nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Regardless of what some shiny domed head in a posh suit tells you, HD does not carry implications of online connectivity, nor wireless accessories, nor customization. HD is a resolution, that's all it is, that's all it will ever be.

How well is that thing defined? Is it highly defined? Yes? Well then it's HD.

HD even gets so technical as to set actual limits. A line in the sand if you will where everything on one side is HD and everything on the other is not. All these other terms are just means to an end. We often look back at past generation when game companies played the numbers game with bits: 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit, stuff like blast processing and FX Chips etc. We can all look back and have a good chuckle at such triumphs as the 64-bit Jaguar that really wasn't any better than any of the 16-bit offerings of the time. Today it's no different; the names have change but it's the same damn game on the same damn filed.

True Resolutions
Out of the factors most professionals agree make for a “beautiful” picture resolution ranks 4th, behind contrast ratio, color saturation, and color accuracy. Putting this in Video game graphics terms it means that things like shadows, lighting effects, textures and pallets are more important to the picture than resolution is. The problem is that both Sony and Microsoft decided to play the numbers game, placing resolution on a pedestal and throwing around terms like 1080p when these machines can actually nail the first three ranks much better than the fourth. The problem is when you shoot for those higher resolutions other things begin to suffer, and more often than not it's bullets one, two and three.

Those who had HDTVs back in the thick of the Xbox 1's days might recall that a select few games supported HD resolutions of 720p and a few even supported 1080i. Anyone who played those game could easily tell you that while HD was nice those games generally looked worse than most other games. The reason was that the graphics were much more simplistic. The resolution was higher but the rest of it usually looked like crap. It was a double edged sword, the only reason you could get HD resolutions was because the rest of the graphics weren't all that impressive (read: system intensive).

High Definition isn’t needed for things to look realistic. Think for a moment, have you ever watched a news program in standard definition and thought the people didn't look real enough? HD simply allows you to see more of the details, but if you short change the details for the sake of the resolution then you get a close up look at the LACK of details and the resulting picture looks even worse than if you left it at a lower resolution. This is the reason that I really hope companies like Sony (MS is off the hook because they made a commitment not to) don’t force developers to use 1080p for the sake of using 1080p because the overall quality of the graphics and other elements will actually suffer as a result.

For the best game graphics they should be placing resolution where it belongs in the list of priorities, cover the important things first or find a happy medium between resolution and the rest. There is no doubt that the PS3 and Xbox 360 can handle HD graphics, but they shouldn't pump up the resolution to the point where the rest of the graphics suffer because of it. I'd rather look at a beautiful game at a lower resolution than an ugly one at a higher resolution.

There is no question that all other things equal 1080p is an improvement over 720p. The unfortunate reality is that when the graphics are being generated on the fly moving from 720p to 1080p does not leave room for all other things to be equal. I don't care what you've been told 1080p is not an automatic ticket to a good looking game. I can render a steaming brown turd in 1080p it doesn't change the fact that it will still look like crap. Based on what the PS3 and Xbox 360 have shown for capabilities so far, I sincerely recommend developers stick to the 720p resolution this generation. There will be the occasional game who's art direction or level design will be such that 1080p is possible without compromising other aspects of the gameplay or graphics. All I'm suggesting is that 1080p not be on any list of priorities; it should be reserved as a nice to have feature implemented only after the need to have features are set and done. Setting 1080p on any list of priorities is simply short changing the remainder of your gaming experience for the sake of a number.

Connecting the dots
1080p resolutions aren't the only over hyped piece of HD era marketing hype that has been pushed on us. HDMI seems to fall into that category as well. They pretty much go hand-in-hand considering one of the biggest selling points for HDMI is that it has better 1080p support; funny that.

Another big HDMI argument is that it is digital as opposed to analog. Though in terms of real world performance it doesn't seem to make all that much of a difference. Some argue that analog is more susceptible to interference than digital, and that's true, but that doesn't mean that digital is off the hook either. It's funny how easily some of those 1s can turn to 0s and visa versa, while analog pictures get fuzzy digital pictures get shimmers and both can develop their own brand of static.

HDMI also offers support for new HD audio formats, which in my personal opinion is the only real reason worth spending the extra cash for it. Though it's still not all that useful to me, for the same reason it's not all that useful to most people. Support for a format doesn't mean that your content has it, nor does it mean that the rest of your equipment supports it. Saying HDMI supports things like Dolby True HD or DTS-HD is like bragging that your bank account is capable of holding millions of dollars. There's a really good chance you'll never see it being used to it's full extent. Today's games will probably never support these audio formats. Though, you might see some HD-DVDs and Blue Ray Discs popping up with support, that doesn't help much either. All of that is useless unless you have a receiver that can decode it. And even if you have a receiver that can decode it. Only those who have surround sound systems in the giggabucks range will actually notice the slight differences in the audio nuances. Plain and simple, most consumers don't have the golden ears required to tell the difference, never mind the desire to spend money on a surround sound system that would even afford them the opportunity to attempt making the distinction.

Perhaps the biggest laugh is the people that want to see MS release an HDMI adapter for existing consoles; further proving that most of the people dropping cash on this stuff know enough to understand what things like HDMI are but not nearly enough to understand why it is important and what it actually does for you in the grand scheme of things.

Those of you waiting for such an adapter, don't hold your breath. VGA/Component to DVI/HDMI converters run in the range of $200 (for those keeping track at home, that’s half to three quarters of the cost of a new Xbox 360). An Official MS brand adapter would most likely be priced in the same range. If you really wanted one of these adapters theres no reason you can’t just buy one right now and start using it. There are two big problems with using an external adapter for HDMI: 1.There’s no HDCP, meaning that when the ICT starts getting enabled on HD-DVD movies down the road you still can’t play them; and 2. Since the data was being converted to analog before being converted back into a digital format you loose whatever added quality you might have been hoping for with an all digital signal. The absolute best you could hope for is as-good-as the analog signal you were starting with. So all in all you just added another 50-75% to the price of your console and gained a big fat NOTHING. The only people who should be using external adapters are those that simply don’t have analog inputs available and only have HDMI or DVI-D. AFAIK there isn’t anyone in that situation. I’ve never seen an HDTV void of analog inputs.

DRM for great JUSTICE!
Perhaps the most prominent feature of HDMI is the DRM it offers content providers. HDCP is a nasty little feature that encrypts the digital audio and video data traveling through a DVI-D or HDMI cable. The idea is that would be pirates can't tap the audio and video data on the digital output and copy things that way. I always get a good chuckle when people talk about HDCP being used in video games. There's no point, I don't really think developers care if you record your gameplay. Anything you could possibly do with that would only serve to help sell more copies of the game. It's not like you could somehow tap the actual game code through the HDMI port.

HDCP is only useful to people making static HD video or HD audio content. They aren't even using it yet, but they plan to start in 2012 (that's 2012, you know, far enough in the future where the PS3 and Xbox 360 will have already been replaced by their respective predecessors); which is when they suspect they'll have enough market saturation that they can turn on the Image Constraint Token and instantly screw over everyone at once. This is the kind of system lock down that consumers should really be weary of, and it's the kind of thing where if people really understood the implications they'd probably start boycotting HD-DVD, Blu-Ray, HDMI and everything else that carries with it the weight of HDCP. Of course it's of no consequence to gamers. It makes sense in the PS3 because it has a BluRay drive, and if you're ok with DRM in your HD movies then by all means. Since the current batch of Xbox 360 owners don't have have HDMI ports it begs the question:

Are existing Xbox 360 Owners left out in the cold?
Much like MS caved into the 1080p hype machine started by Sony they've also recently caved into the HDMI hype with the announcement of the Xbox 360 Elite. While MS was able to just turn on 1080p support for all existing owners via a software update, HDMI isn't so simple as it's a hardware feature, not a software one. The PS3 already supports HDMI but what does an HDMI enabled console mean for existing Xbox 360 owners?

Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything at all, because existing Xbox 360 owners don't have any HDMI ports; and they never will. That doesn't seem to stop people from complaining though. Let me perfectly clear on this:

A new version of the console doesn’t mean you’re being screwed. You knew what you bought when you bought it.

To use a car analogy (everybody’s favorite): Honda wont replace your 2005 Civic when the 2006 model arrives with a fancy new CD player and some extra trunk space. You knew what you bought when you bought it, if you didn’t think an Xbox 360 sans-HDMI was worth the $300-$400 price tag then you shouldn’t have bought it, plain and simple. Similarly if your complaint is that you have the HD-DVD drive and are worried that the big bad ICT will come and murder your non HDCP protected resolution, well then you’re an idiot for buying an HD-DVD drive, or a cheap-skate for buying the gimped Xbox 360 version as opposed to a real player; take your pick.

If your argument is that consoles shouldn’t change, then you’ve been living under a rock; nearly every console in existence has gone through major and frequent redesigns that added or removed features. Some of the changes were more visible than others; the Elite is no different. Heck even the PS2 had a major revision change that included a more reliable DVD drive and built in IR receiver for the DVD remote, among other things, and that was before the Slim PS2. If you’re under the misconception that consoles don’t go through these kinds of revisions then you simply haven’t been paying attention; it has been happening since the invent of Video games in the 70s. Products get new features and lower price tags over time, game consoles are no different.

People who are complaining about being "screwed" with the release of this new Xbox have two problems. First and foremost they don't realize that in the grand scheme of things HDMI really doesn't offer any substantial benefits to what they're currently getting. Xbox 360 games likely wont ever support HD audio formats, most games wont ever support 1080p resolutions, and as long as you're using reasonable quality cables you wont see much of any interference. Beside the fact that only a small portion of the game buying population own HDTVs, and that only a small portion of HDTV owners have HDMI ports, even a smaller amount of people are capable of discerning the differences between an analog signal over component or VGA versus a digital signal over HDMI when administered the Pepsi challenge.

Second of all: SHUT UP AND DEAL WITH IT! If you’re really that broken up about it grow a spine and start taking responsibility for your own actions. No one is stopping you from selling the console you have today sitting on the money and buying an HDMI version when it comes out. Consider difference in price between the sale of the used console with the price of a new one a rental fee for the months of gameplay you got out it. If you can’t deal with being away from your beloved console while you wait, well then HDMI must not really be all that important to you and there’s no real reason for you to complain because you’re not willing to wait for what you want.

Future Proof?
Some might say that support for HDMI and HD-DVD built into the Xbox 360 from the beginning would have helped to future proof the system. O'RLY? Has the lack of either of those features hindered the Xbox 360's performance yet? When you consider that on average a console has 5 holiday seasons before it's replaced buy a newer, faster, sexier model the idea of future proofing starts to look pretty stupid. Not only is the time line too short but if a console lasts beyond it's expected life it will be harder for console makers to move consumers on to the next platform.

Consider this, we've moved well past the Xbox 360's 2nd holiday season and gearing up for it's 3rd... we're half way through the Xbox 360's expected lifespan. I honestly don't see the lack of a built in HD-DVD drive playing much of a factor in the remainder of the Xbox 360's life, nor do I see the late entry of HDMI playing much of a factor either. This holiday there will be two games that will likely span multiple discs. Holiday 08 will likely see a few as well. Only a small handful of these games will even support 1080p natively. By the time we get to Holiday 09 none of it will matter because the dust will have firmly settled on this generation and whoever owns the market at that point will define it. Holiday 2010 will see people turning their attention to another new generation of consoles At which point anything that was left out this generation is sure to be included next time.

HDMI does offer benefit, as does 1080p, blue laser discs, HD Audio and all of the other little things that make up today's home theater tech. However for today's games most of it is not needed. Console horsepower isn't quite up to speed with the rest of the home theater tech yet, besides most gamers don't have the equipment at home to fully utilize it, and even if they did... most wouldn't see the difference. Those few that do have the equipment and can see the difference, need remember that they're in the vast minority, and the console world doesn't revolve around them no matter how self important they think they are.

It's true that PS3 owners have access to BluRay and HDMI, but were those things worth the wait for the console, were they worth the extra cost, and for Sony fans was it worth loosing countless exclusives and market share?

For Xbox 360 owners, would an HD-DVD drive really been worth waiting another year? Would it have been worth an extra $200 on the console's base price? Would HD-DVD have been worth it just for the sake of not having to switch discs on a small handful of games? Would the extra cost of an HDMI port been worth it for the few small games that actually support 1080p natively?

For me the answer to all of those questions is a solid, definitive, and resounding NO. You might still think differently but I'd like to remind you not to take yourself so seriously; this is all just fun and games... maybe Nintendo is onto something after all.

This article is an extension of the articles: Xbox 360 and HDMI, and True Resolutions from thoughthead.com

Edited by twistedsymphony, 03 April 2007 - 01:42 PM.

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