Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Editorial: Why Sony Mandates 720p For 3D Gaming

Creating games in 3D is an arduous task, with the need to render two separate frames (one for each eye) baring a heavy load both on the consoles and for the developer, the quest to reach that mythical 18080p status weighing in on the back of their minds against the ever increasing demands of the consumers this generation.

The solution then, it seems, is simply not to participate in such an endeavour in the first place, instead dictating somewhat more manageable terms to developers and anyone looking to venture into the 3D space. And this is exactly what Sony are said to be doing, mandating a standard of 720p for all developers wanting to make their games in 3D.

Just a few weeks after Housemarque and Ilari Kuittinen revealed on the PlayStation Blog that they had Super Stardust HD running at 1080p and 60fps in 3D, Sony's Simon Benson recently commented at the Develop conference in Brighton that the company was planning to enforce a 720p maximum resolution mandate to developers. This means that even if you are able to get your game running at a higher resolution it will be downscaled by the machine into 720p, much like what will be happening Super Stardust HD as soon as the next PS3 firmware arrives.

The reason behind the move is simple. It’s partly due to the HDMI 1.4 specification not supporting 1080p60 officially (1080p24 is the highest it will go), and to make things easier for developers by taking the pressure off in trying to get things running in 3D at 1080p by removing the option. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing as many games struggle to render in native 720p let alone 1080p, and at 60fps that whole scenario dramatically worsens considerably.

Benson also came to this conclusion and mentioned at the conference that despite the mandate being applied to most games, some ‘more cinematic’ titles which could benefit from using a higher resolution and lower framerate would be allowed access to the 1080p24 3D rendering mode supported by the console. No games would be able to use 1080p60 even if the developers had comfortably implemented it.

Sony’s argument over the use of 1080p60 then, or rather, 1080p for 3D gaming in general seems to be directly aimed at the stresses of getting games running to that standard in the first place. Benson emphasised the difficulties that many developers would be facing and told attendees that this mandate was a way of curtailing that. A preventative measure of some sorts, restrictive but at the same time ultimately beneficial, especially when you think that having more stuff on screen at 720p is usually far more impressive than a game being cut back in order to hit 1080p.

However, rendering at 1080p60 in 3D doesn’t have to mean rendering one frame for each eye, as Crytek has shown so enthusiastically at this year’s E3. Instead it is possible to render in one single frame for 3D, like with normal 2D rendering, and to simply apply a form of 2D displacement tech to the image (2D to 3D conversion) thus creating a final 3D display without any of the usual workload involved. We talked about Cytek’s solution here, although Sony have also said in the past that they were working on something very similar.

So the question is why are Sony restricting the rendering resolution on 3D games when clearly they have, or will have in the near future, a solution which circumvents rendering two frames instead of one. Surely that in itself would make things much easier for developers without taking away another all important check-box feature. But perhaps that’s the point, that for this generation 1080p is largely just that, a check-box feature that has more use on paper than practically in games development, and when you consider the potential performance costs incurred by running in 3D then it makes perfect sense.

Either way, the removal of 1080p60 and 1080p24 does very little to harm the end user. When you consider how many titles actually use the resolution effectively, and that contain more detail and visual effects when running in this mode, you can see why the chase for the supposed holy grail that is 1080p isn’t particularly justified, and could even be described as wasted.

That said, there is no doubt that some of us out there will still salivate over the potential of seeing another title pushing that magical 1080p60 resolution on consoles. It’s an incredible feat when you see it in 2D, so how much more spectacular would it be seeing it in 3D, full 1920x1080 no less. This is not something that we will be able to tell you with Sony’s proposed plans, but is it really going to make all the difference? I suspect a resounding no is the answer.

Personally I’d much rather be seeing more titles running in full 720p and with at least 2x multisampling anti-aliasing, or morphological AA at 60fps than a misguided attempt at 1080p with absolutely none of those benefits. And judging by Sony’s reaction, and indeed Crytek’s 2D displacement tech, many developers feel the same way.

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