Xbox One Resolution Brouhaha: When Graphics Matter, and When They Don’t

Tune-out the technophile chest-beating.

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Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

Attendees walk between signs for Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox on the first day of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, California, June 11, 2013.

My favorite game from the last generation of set-top game systems was Xenoblade Chronicles. It arrived early last year, though late to the U.S., after a successful fan campaign petitioning Nintendo to have it translated from the original Japanese and released stateside. It happens to be one of the most beautiful roleplaying games I’ve ever played, this generation or any, and it ran at a resolution that’s been common since the Dreamcast tapped EDTV at the close of the 20th century, becoming the first games console to output a VGA signal.

Think about that. The bestselling current-generation games console in the world today — still Nintendo’s Wii, by install base numbers — tops out at the same resolution: 720 by 480 pixels, or 480p. I realize some of you think the Wii’s a glorified doorstop, but the numbers are what they are. All the gnashing-of-teeth in the world about screen resolutions or under-the-hood horsepower won’t change sales figures.

The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are capable of both rendering and outputting at up to 1080p, or 1920 by 1080 pixels. A handful of games actually do this, of course, because neither system’s powerful enough, say, to give us a Grand Theft Auto V in native 1080p glory. Most games on the PS3 and Xbox 360 run at 720p, or 1280 x 720 pixels, and upscale if your television is 1080p native. Occasionally, games run at lower-than-720p resolutions internally — more in the PS3 and Xbox 360’s early days — as developers grappled with optimizing multi-platform versions of their game engines. “Frame rate” was the watch-phrase. If a game wasn’t hitting something like 30 frames per second consistently, dropping the resolution was the simplest way to bolster performance.

Given the architectural disparities between the PS3 and Xbox 360, this led to sometimes noticeable differences between multi-platform games. But those differences don’t align with generalizations about either system’s raw performance. Take Rockstar’s RAGE engine, powering all of its games (Table Tennis aside) from Grand Theft Auto IV forward. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) looked a little sharper and cleaner on the Xbox 360 (rendered natively at 720p), though some preferred the PS3’s softer visual filtering (upscaled from 640p). Red Dead Redemption (2010), by contrast, looked markedly better on the Xbox 360 (again, rendered natively at 720p) compared to the interpolated fuzziness of the PS3 version (again, upscaled from 640p).

By Max Payne 3 (2012), Rockstar had RAGE in hand, and both systems could output that game at native 720p, with slight visual edges awardable to either system (otherwise, the two versions looked identical). Grand Theft Auto V put paid to the assumption that earlier visual disparities had more to do with developers coming to grips with crafting identical versions of ridiculously complex game worlds on profoundly different platforms. GTA V is one of the best-looking sandbox games ever made — one of these “apotheosis of world-building” exercises — and it’s rendered identically on either system.

The point, if it’s not obvious, is that early assumptions about rendering disparities and performance capabilities weren’t just off target, they were head-screwed-on-backwards wrong. Remember all the “PS3 is significantly more powerful than the Xbox 360″ pet theories scrambling around game forums in 2006? Sound like any of the pet theories scrambling around said forums today? Theory and execution rarely align in the messy world of high-turnover studios, ever-evolving SDKs, grappling with multi-platform versions of games and delivering finished products on strict timescales.

With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, we seem to be time-warping backwards, regressing to rote bickering over rumor and innuendo. The lazy story that emerged mid-September about the PS4 being “50% faster” than Xbox One, sourcing anonymous developers from who-knows-where, was nebulous link bait, crafted to grab the attention of partisan gamers and professional trolls. They emerged, dutifully, to graffiti up the place and wag the conversation off a cliff. You can’t have a meaningful conversation about a contextually incomprehensible abstract percentile.

This more recent controversy involving Call of Duty: Ghosts, by contrast, involves a thoughtful visual analysis by a respected game site, as well as tweets from official studio reps. The informational difference is stark: Here, at last, are metrics to dig into.

I’ll summarize: Activision’s Call of Duty: Ghosts for the Xbox One renders natively at 720p, whereas it renders natively at 1080p on the PlayStation 4. Assuming you have a 1080p-native television, that’s a difference worth talking about. The Xbox One version upscales to 1080p, of course, and Infinity Ward claims the visual differences between the versions running on 1080p TVs are all but indiscernible, but Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry effectively says that’s too dismissive — that there are differences, and in some cases those differences are substantial.

This is all moot, by the way, if your TV tops out at 720p, a point not to be overlooked (I don’t have install figures for TVs by native resolution, but I’d wager 720p sets still top 1080p ones). Furthermore, the PlayStation 4 isn’t a lock on native 1080p gaming — even it winds up dropping to 1600 by 900, or 900p, when outputting a game like EA’s Battlefield 4 (though here again, the Xbox One renders that game natively at 720p). But yes, as Digital Foundry puts it, the Xbox One, at least at launch, comes off looking like “the more expensive console offering the sub-optimal experience in key titles.”

As I said at the outset, Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the most beautiful roleplaying games I’ve ever played (I include Skyrim when I say this). The visual downshift, pixel-wise, didn’t bother me. After playing for a few minutes, I’m in Monolith Soft and Tetsuya Takahashi’s world and 480p be damned. “This is what it feels like to crawl around on the cosmic bodies of gods,” says my brain, ignoring the world’s slightly unfocused look. I’ll take a thoughtful, artful 480p game like that over a generic 4K Ultra HD one any day of the week.

If you’re a videophile, on the other hand, you have my sympathies. Most gamers probably haven’t owned a device capable of outputting at native 480p for years. 480p games on a 720p or 1080p TV are interpolated, the 720 by 480 output stretched to accommodate the TV’s native 1280 by 720 or 1920 by 1080 pixels. It’s a shortcoming of LCDs we skipped over in our haste to adopt flatter, lighter televisions — this inability to shift native resolutions on-the-fly the way CRTs could. With fixed-pixel displays, you have one optimal resolution and one optimal resolution alone. If you value display clarity — and who could blame you for doing so — there’s a reasonable argument for going with a system that meets your display’s criteria. If you’re a videophile, you despise scaling, so a system that doesn’t (scale), all other things being equal, is more desirable. It’s not what drives me, but as a sometimes-audiophile who cares deeply about the differences between compressed and uncompressed audio, I can understand why it drives you.

If, on the other hand, you just want to play “my system’s more powerful than yours,” what can I say? The 20th century called and wants its juvenile worldview back? Armchair presumptions about platform power are no way to justify a purchase. Power might make a game more architecturally complex in terms of abstract pixel-triangle-vertice-texel metrics, but it can’t make that game beautiful or the gameplay artful. And if you think you’re buying headroom, think again — today’s high-end PCs are already vastly more powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One, but that hasn’t brought a game like Grand Theft Auto V to the PC any faster (Rockstar has yet to confirm a PC port). Power won’t buy you much, in the end: bragging rights in a forum or social circle, and snarky posts or comments that feel cathartic now, but that you’ll probably look back at in a decade or so with embarrassment.

In any event, it’s too soon to say — much less know — whether one system trumps another performance-wise, or whether such an advantage ought to guide your decision-making process. You’re investing in a platform, of which a power differential is one slice. Think bigger. Think about interface innovation and software creativity and the ecosystem in which those things live. The latter’s already likely defining who buys what or goes where. If your friends live on Xbox Live, shifting to the PlayStation 4 is like sailing off to terra incognita. Unless your friends come with, you’re abandoning your social network, and vice versa if you’ve been living on the PlayStation Network and shift to the Xbox One.

Platforms are so much more than mere hardware. Let that principle be your guide as you consider a system this holiday, be it the PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, a new or upgraded PC — whatever. Unless you have to have native 1080p gaming, day one, tune out this very old, very boring, utterly predictable strain of technophile chest-beating. That’s not me defending one system’s hypothetical technical deficiencies, it’s a defense of gaming as much more than the sum of one part.