Feature Article: The Long Road To High-Def Gaming

Posted Wed Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 PM PDT

Editor's Note: With this article, we're pleased to welcome Wayne Santos as a columnist here at High-Def Digest. A dedicated gamer from the infancy of the medium, Wayne is a contributor at IGN and associate editor of Southeast Asian gaming publication GameAxis. In this new semi-regular column, Wayne will be discussing a broad range of topics related to High-Def Gaming. First up: an overview of on the current state of HD gaming, and how we got here.

By Wayne Santos

It's a good time to be a gamer.

It used to be only the home theater enthusiast who could fully take advantage of advances in audio/video technologies. But in the 21st century, the improved image and sound of High Definition is just as effective - if not more so - for the gamer. Surround sound can actually form a crucial component of gaming, while the combination of increased resolution and much more powerful consoles have given modern games a fidelity of image that equals the pre-rendered cut scenes viewed in games just 10 years ago.

In short, games have truly entered the realm of HighDef, and since it's obvious that many in the High-Def Digest community play games as well as watch movies on their set ups, it only follows that this site begin to expand its focus to HD gaming. To kick things off, this article will provide an overview of where High-Def gaming is today, as well as an in-depth look back at how we got here.

The Road To Gran Turismo

The upcoming Gran Turismo 5 Prologue is, without a doubt, one of the highlights of HD Gaming for people thinking in purely visual terms. Aside from the GT franchise's reputation as being one of the most realistic and unforgiving race simulations around, the series has also been widely regarded as a high watermark for visuals. The upcoming release of the latest version of the game - a preview of sorts since it sports only 6 tracks and a smaller number of cars - has already been making waves among fans of the series for its stunning images in full 1080p resolution. Many are already confident that this newest game will once again set the standard for visuals in racing, only to be toppled by the proper version of Gran Turismo 5, whenever it finally debuts.

But while owners of the both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 regularly enjoy HD games piped through an HDMI connection, that interface is a relatively recent addition to the world of High-Def, and even before the introduction of HDMI - or the 360 or the PS3, for that matter - the first steps towards HD gaming were already being taken. And surprisingly, the first real step into HD gaming is a case of the wheel coming "full circle" with a Gran Turismo game being an early pioneer. But let's go back to the beginning.

The First Step: Enhanced Definition

Standard definition images had been the default resolution of consoles for the majority of gaming's lifespan for two simple reasons: the consoles themselves weren't up to the task of putting out anything more complex than that, and the majority of televisions weren't capable of outputting in higher resolutions themselves.

This all changed in the 21st century with the coming of the 6th generation of consoles and the growing proliferation of better televisions. High-Definition wasn't yet a mainstream concept, since most HDTVs were still enormously expensive, but "half-steps" were being taken by some manufacturers in the form of TVs capable of outputting images in what would be known as Enhanced Definition -- in this case, 480 progressive scan. By and large, most gamers didn't have televisions capable of taking advantage of this, but some game developers saw that the ability to upgrade visuals was now there, and pioneering steps were made to take advantage of this increased power. The Playstation 2 was the first of the 6th generation consoles to flirt with both Enhanced and High Definition graphics.

One of the earliest games to make this leap was a light gun game for the Playstation 2 known as Vampire Night. A collaboration between arcade and software giants SEGA and Namco, the game was originally an arcade game equipped with wired, plastic guns that had players shooting at the vampires of the title. The 2000 arcade game saw a 2001 version for the PS2 and the creators of the game saw fit to allow players to enable 480p resolution for televisions cable of ED imagery. While they didn't include an option for the more cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio, this is one of the first times in gaming history when a software developer allowed gamers to take greater advantage of their component cables. It was a signal to both gamers and the industry that things were beginning to change -- consoles were not just toys kept in the basement for kids to use on the spare TV, there was an acknowledgement that some higher end television owners were more than willing to keep a console hooked up to their primary TV and wanted to utilize its improved capabilities.

Vampire Night itself wasn't particularly a hit, as the game was limited by its genre (shooting anything that moves with no ability to control your own movement gets old fast) and the actual quality of the game was questionable. But for the first time, gamers could see a visible upgrade in color and clarity when they played the game on TVs that accepted component cable connections.

From here, more and more games would utilize ED resolution, although often - because such set ups were still a rarity - this resolution wasn't always easily accessible and required inputting specific "secret" actions, such as Electronic Arts SSX3 which required savvy gamers to simultaneously press the triangle and "X" buttons during the game's initial load to activate the menu that would give the option to upgrade to enhanced definition.

But as time passed (and as the Xbox and GameCube brought more intense competition to the field of graphical presentation), more and more games began to embrace the idea of allowing Enhanced Definition resolution to be displayed. And eventually, that led to High Definition.

Getting HD Ready

While HDMI still wasn't around (it wouldn't make its retail debut until 2003), component cables were capable of outputting in - by today's standards - "basic" high definition, meaning 720p or 1080i. However, few games were actually capable of outputting in those resolutions. This was now slowly starting to change thanks to the late introduction of the Xbox, but even the flagship title of the console, Halo: Combat Evolved, only played at 480p with no adjustment for widescreen televisions. HDTV was still considered primarily a luxury item for the rich, and most developers didn't see the need to cater to such a small number of gamers.

However, that doesn't mean ALL developers were like this.

Surprisingly, one of the earliest games to make the jump all the way up to 1080i in 16:9 wasn't a high profile game, at least, not by the standards of the gaming enthusiasts. In 2002, the first 1080i game was released on the Xbox, and it was, of all things, a remake of an 80's arcade classic. Ubisoft released Dragon's Lair 3D for the Xbox, and it was the first game to actually utilize all the bells and whistles of burgeoning HD presentation. The game came complete with 1080i graphics, 5.1 sound and anamorphic 16:9 widescreen. The next year, XS Games brought out Syberia, which had originally been released on the PC, and was ported over to the Xbox. It too sported 1080i graphics and "not quite" 16:9 widescreen since the game - though clearly going beyond the normal 4:3 aspect ratio of televisions - still sported black bars on the left and right side, a telling sign that its journey to High Definition hadn't been a complete success. These were curious choices for technological testing, but they weren't the only games that would garner question marks from gamers.

Despite utilizing older technology, the Playstation 2 still managed to surprise gamers in many ways when it came to dipping its toe in the pool of high definition gaming. The first game to actually go up to 1080i with widescreen support was a children's game. SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom has the honor of being the first high definition game on the Playstation 2 supporting 480p, 720p and 1080i. Game developers, it would seem, were exercising an almost surreal sense of priorities when it came to deciding which games deserved the high definition treatment.

But finally, in December 2004, a franchise with a highly regarded pedigree stepped into the ring. The Gran Turismo series had been widely praised as the final answer to driving simulation for console owners, and it was Gran Turismo 4 that finally took the plunge and showed off - for the time - the limit testing graphical demands it placed on the aging Playstation 2. Despite the older hardware, it managed to still render the game in widescreen at 1080i for those who desired it.

HD gaming had finally arrived.

The 7th Generation The Ups And Downs

By this point, new consoles were on the horizon, but the last years of the 6th console generation saw many high profile games come out on either in either ED or HD resolution. God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, Tony Hawk's Underground and FIFA Street are just a few examples of the games on both the PS2 and Xbox that were capable of outputting to 480p or 720p in the case of Xbox titles. But this would be the last gasp for the 6th generation. Putting games out at such resolutions made demands of the consoles that pushed them above and beyond what they could comfortably handle, and it was starting to become more apparent as graphical bugs like screen tearing became more prevalent.

But with the advent of the Xbox 360 in November of 2005, the world of high end visuals finally entered the realm of HD gaming once and for all. With this new generation of consoles fully optimized for High Definition, such glaring weaknesses in graphical ability were a thing of the past. Games were going to be seen in gorgeous 720p, 1080i and one day, 1080p.

Or so went the theory.

Microsoft made certain omissions to the Xbox 360 when it first launched as a combination of its imperative to keep prices down, and its own error in estimating the speed at which HDTV adoption rates would rise. Though the 360 was the first HD gaming console out of the gates for the 7th generation, it lacked an HDMI port, and didn't output at 1080p. Microsoft's initial snubbing of these features was, at least on record, a belief that HDMI and 1080p were unnecessary in the still young life of HD gaming. Sony, still nearly a year away from releasing their own console, the Playstation 3, used this as bullet point for the virtues of their upcoming console, going so far as to now make a distinction between 720p and 1080p, with 1080p being called "True HD." These arguments vanished a year later when Microsoft-unwilling to look like they were lagging technologically-incorporated 1080p output as a software upgrade, and built HDMI ports into later models of the 360 console.

Once the Playstation 3 debuted in 2006 - curiously omitting the HDMI cable despite touting this output as an advantage - the stage was set for two of the three console manufacturers to finally show the world what HD gaming was all about. Gamers were expecting to have their socks blown off on a regular basis by games so realistic they would make men weep.

They didn't quite get it.

The Tricky Proposition Of High-Def

While this is the first generation of consoles designed from the ground up to present games in HD resolutions, that doesn't mean that these consoles have necessarily mastered the art. The Playstation 1 was the first console to present 3D graphics, but few would say today that it was final word in how to present 3D graphics. The same seems to be holding true of the current generation of consoles.

Both consoles have had their fair share of developer ambitions proving to still be too much sometimes for the technical limitations of the current generation. Microsoft flagship title Halo 3, for example, was a hotly debated talking point for gamers obsessed with numbers when Bungie confirmed that it didn't quite run in HD. It was outputting in 640p instead of the usual 720p that most consider to be the minimum qualifier for high definition, and then scaled up to 720p. This decision was made in order to keep frame-rates smooth as well as maintain the integrity of the dynamic lighting. On the flipside however, the Playstation 3 introduced one of its first hypothetical blockbusters, a game called Lair that tasked players with riding a dragon while causing untold amounts of mayhem in full 1080p. However, that native resolution did little to help the poor gameplay and serious graphical bugs like choppy framerates, screen tearing, clipping (that is, when solid objects pass through each other) and other assorted hiccups that made the game's "maximum HD fidelity" moot. Just because gamers now have consoles that CAN output in high definition, it doesn't necessarily mean that the task of creating quality HD experiences is an easy one, though a better understanding of these newer consoles is improving the quality of newer games.

At the moment for those obsessed with facts and figures, the PS3 seems to be "winning" the HD race. In terms of native 1080p games, the 360 sports only three, while the PS3 currently sports 26, many of those titles being smaller, casual, downloadable games on the Playstation Store. Of course, graphical fidelity has no bearing on either the established pedigree or the actual quality of the game, and this brings us back to Gran Turismo 5 Prologue.

While driving games may not be preferred genre of every gamer, there are few who can argue with the level of graphical beauty each new GT game brings to the fore. For years now the GT series has pushed forward what gamers thought was visually possible on a console, and with the latest iteration, already available in Japan since December, the game sets new standards. Surprisingly, however, the lush visuals come at a cost. While the certain portions of the game such as the garage and virtual showroom run at the accepted convention of 1920x1080p, the actual game itself plays at 1280x1080p, with upscaling to make up the difference. In one sense, the current contender for establishing new visual standards is actually a "hybrid" of custom and full 1080p resolutions. But that small sticking point aside, Gran Turismo Prologue is almost defacto demo material for HD gaming, and is one of the few games likely capable of fooling the casual eye at glance. To the average consumer, from a distance, when there are no impossible camera angles or HUD displays to give it away, it's easy to initially mistake the game simply as race footage. With the North American retail date slated for April 17th, Gran Turismo Prologue is set to do what every GT game has done before it; get the attention of not just gamers, but car lovers, expanding the audience with a new level of visual realism.

Of course, this is just the start. For lovers of HD Gaming, both consoles are still relatively young with lots of room to grow. In just a few months, Metal Gear Solid 4, another graphical powerhouse will lumber onto the scene, while the 360 has already confirmed that Gears of War 2 - precursor to the former champion of best graphics, Gears of War - is on the way. And there are other untried, "dark horse" titles also on the horizon that could turn out to be brilliant (like the first Gears of War) or surprising failures (like Lair) such as Alan Wake for the 360 and Heavy Rain for the PS3.

It's an exciting time for gamers. High Definition has brought graphics to an astounding new level, but with even with this dramatic jump in fidelity, gamers should keep in mind one thing; progressive or interlaced, HD or SD, the visuals only make up one component of a game. It may be great to look at, but the real test comes when you pick up the controller and actually PLAY it. That's when the true worth of a game makes itself known. HD gaming just makes that "worth" prettier to look at.

Wayne Santos's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.

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