Thanks to the release of the Xbox One S and PS4 Pro, along with the announcement of Project Scorpio, this year has been absolutely littered with chants of ‘4K’ and ‘HDR’. Many gamers and analysts have debated if these enhancements will really make that big of a difference to the visual fidelity of current-gen games on consoles. To an extent, they do, but the difference is rather small when you compare it to past visual boosts. The Head of Xbox agrees with that statement.
Phil Spencer recently had an interview with Game Informer Australia where he was asked about how he felt about enhancements like 4K and HDR. Since both Microsoft and Sony have been making such a big fuss over both features, you’d think he’d give an enthusiastic and positive response. Actually, he admitted that it isn’t a “big leap” over what we have now:
Big leap is an interesting one… I’ve been around Xbox since the original Xbox and I remember the shift from SD to HD. I remember seeing Gears of War 1, which for us was the first game that I saw on pre-release 360 hardware, and I went, “Wow, that just looks like something new…” The first time you saw a sporting event on live TV in HD, you went, “Okay, that is something different.”
One of the challenges for the generation we’re in now is the jump from 360 to Xbox One, or frankly PS3 to PS4, is visible on screen but not at that same level. It’s not a 2D to 3D transition or an SD to HD transition. You have to be closer to understanding the content and appreciating the content, because those late-gen 360 games look pretty good.
When I see 4K games, they look demonstrably better, but it’s not the same difference that we saw from SD to HD, or from 2D to 3D when gaming went that direction. HDR is the same way: I love the way movies and games look in HDR, but I don’t think it’s that same transformative thing that we saw with [earlier leaps].
Phil Spencer’s response was definitely honest. I like how he touched on past transitions: 2D to 3D and SD to HD. All one has to do is look at just about any “Evolution of [Insert franchise here]” on YouTube, and you’ll see that we really had some pretty massive jumps. People were awe-inspired by the transition from 8-bit to 16-bit, but that was practically nothing compared to when 3D games started to become that norm; that transition literally changed the whole the industry. Games didn’t just look better, they played totally differently than ever before, and the size and scale of the new virtual worlds seemed alien at first. There were titles that came along that wouldn’t have even been possible in 2D—it really was a big deal.
The jump from standard definition to high definition was big, but this mainly affected the visual quality. Games were definitely bigger and a lot more complex than before, but the most exciting thing was definitely seeing the rich details that could now be added to really bring out the ‘realism factor’; games truly began to look like real life. Now, they pretty much are photorealistic. When it comes to graphics, we’ve hit the limit. Titles like Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Forza Horizon 3, Ryse and many others can pretty much fool the untrained eye. The enhancements of 4K and HDR further push the limit, but we’ve already come to such a high level that it’s not nearly as noticeable as before. 8-bit to 16-bit was pretty much a bigger jump. This generation has only made HD games ‘HDer’, as evidenced by the many “remasters” that have come to the PS4 and Xbox One.
With that said, it will be interesting to see if the PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio really take off. While gamers are excited about the added power and prettier visuals, will the average Joe see the difference? And even if he does notice it, will he truly care? The PS4 Slim and Xbox One S will continue to be sold alongside the more powerful systems, so at the end of the day, these enhancements will only be enjoyed by a select number of people, not everyone.
In all honesty, the only players that have truly enjoyed a big visual leap this generation has been those who play Nintendo console titles. Since the company didn’t bother making the original Wii powerful enough to render games in HD, its franchises spent an extra six years in the realm of standard definition. The Wii U finally brought the likes of Super Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and others into the world of high definition. Despite the fact that the Wii U is the weakest of the 8th generation home consoles, it still has somehow has some of the best looking games like Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8, Yoshi’s Woolly World, Paper Mario: Color Splash, Mario Kart 8 and definitely the upcoming Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is the most detailed game that Nintendo has produced to date. Perhaps other developers should take a note from Nintendo: it’s not about just using horsepower to make the game look good, it’s about the graphical style.