Standard Def: The Forgotten Generation • Page 2

Have developers and platform holders neglected most of their userbase?

Next up, an analysis of Killzone 2, and with it a new addition to the graph. As before, the green line represents HD, the blue 480p. However, a new orange line has been introduced to represent PAL50 (though maybe a brown line would've been more appropriate), and the frame-rate counter for this line is in the top-centre. The significance of this is that PAL50 is mandatory for SD gameplay on all games on all European PS3s. You can't avoid running at a sub-optimal 50Hz unless you splash out on high-def screen.

The Euro release of Killzone 2 works at SD resolution on any PS3, even if it can only run at PAL50 on a Euro machine. Here, the orange line and centre FPS counter measure PAL50 performance. Warning: story spoilers in the second half of the video.

In short, if you're a Euro PS3 owner playing Killzone 2 on a standard-definition display, you're losing around 17 per cent of the frame-rate owing to the lack of PAL60 support in the PS3 hardware. The game itself isn't slower as such (as was often the case in the Mega Drive/SNES era), and you'll note that it's effectively a sustained 25FPS while the 60Hz versions can be somewhat more variable. But Killzone 2 is already somewhat laggy in its control system and this impacts the feel of the game still further. While there is a 17 per cent increase in resolution, this is far less noticeable than the additional numbness in the controls. Of course, the same issue will be apparent in any 360 game running at PAL50, but the difference is obvious: to the best of my knowledge, all 360 games support PAL60, and the vast majority of SDTVs support it too, making it far less of an issue.

Two more tests on PS3, and two more sets of intriguing results. Grand Theft Auto IV on PS3 could do with all the additional frames it can get, but it too is limited to 25FPS max, and the same thing with Far Cry 2, although the frame-cap did have an intriguing, positive side-effect. The jarring screen-tear found in the game was all but absent in the test clips. The frame-rate had been slowed down to a "sweet spot" whereby the game effectively appears to v-sync itself. But in all cases, while frame-rates were more sustained, the response from the controls was less satisfactory. Fewer new frames on the screen means more time before your controller inputs are registered.

All of which begs the question - what is holding back developers from supporting both the "classic" PAL 50 and the far more preferable 60Hz mode? From peering at the data structure on several game discs, a lot of the time it comes down to those pesky pre-rendered cinematics. 60Hz-compatible movie streams are mandatory in order to support the high-definition modes, but for PAL50 that means that additional movies need to be rendered that don't judder horribly. That eats up disc space - something that isn't in great supply on the Xbox 360. It shouldn't be a problem at all for PS3, however, where most of the releases I've looked at would fit onto a dual-layer DVD, leaving the majority of the Blu-ray's space empty.

This explains why a ton of Xbox 360 releases only work in PAL60, including Epic's Gears of War games: there's simply no room to include support for a tiny minority of displays. It's not ideal, but in my view, it's making the best of a complex and difficult situation where someone, somewhere is always going to lose out. On PS3, things are not so clear-cut. Games like Far Cry 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV have few, if any, in-game video sequences as such, yet the European releases are PAL50 only at SD resolutions, just like the console itself. Even if Sony updated the firmware to allow for 60Hz support, the games themselves would still need to be patched too and, let's be honest, it's not going to happen.

So the question is, what else can the platform holders and publishers do to make the SD experience better for what would appear to be the majority of their customers? And what more can they do to get more people to move across to high definition? In the case of Microsoft, it's hard to make any suggestions: PAL60 is in there, offering - for the most part - identical gaming performance to HDTV users, just with a small resolution penalty and the chance of incompatibility if you run an ancient TV. Not only that, but the company offers what is essentially every single way possible to get a player to upgrade to HD. Chances are that a ton of those Xbox 360s connected to SDTVs in bedrooms and offices across the globe could just as easily be connected a PC monitor instead. Microsoft offers full support for VGA and any DVI display you might care to mention, with native resolution support to boot.

In all honesty, PlayStation 3 is in a bit of a mess and looking at the practicalities it is unlikely that SD gamers will ever get the situation resolved. The lack of PAL60 support means that SDTV users in most cases are playing sub-optimal renditions of the game. Surely Guerrilla Games did not intend for anyone to play Killzone 2 at a constant 25FPS with the additional controller lag that entails, but that's what's happening, and the developers' hands are tied. If HDTV distribution among PS3 owners reflects that of 360 owners, it actually means that the majority of SCEE's European customers are getting a pretty raw deal. There is nothing to stop Sony adding 480p and PAL60 support to the console, it is just electing not to do so - perhaps not surprising for a company that still doggedly insists on 50Hz-only capabilities even for most of its European high-definition camcorders (!). And even if it did upgrade the firmware, it would be opening a big can of worms with games that wouldn't work in PAL60 mode without a patch.

More than that, this policy also throws a spanner into the works of the PS3's laudable region-free credentials over and above the very real issue of region-locked DLC. A US PS3 owner who buys a cheap game in the UK and takes it back to the US could well find it completely unplayable if he only has an SDTV. Two of the games I tested (GTAIV and Far Cry 2) wouldn't work, whereas Killzone 2 and Call of Duty: World at War would. Euro PS3 owners buying games from the NTSC territories could be similarly inconvenienced.

It's also clear that Sony could do more to encourage a more widespread HD take-up, along the lines that Microsoft has taken. In theory there's nothing to stop the old PS2 VGA cable (bundled with the Linux kit) being re-released with full support for the PS3, even if the console's lack of full hardware scaling would limit resolution support. There's also nothing stopping Sony disabling its digital encryption on gameplay, opening up a whole new range of DVI displays that would suddenly work with the PS3 with nothing more than an HDMI-to-DVI cable. While this HDCP encryption is politically important to protect Blu-ray sources (for all the good that's done), where's the danger in exposing the PS3's digital output for gaming?

Overall, Mark Rein's SDTV bombshell teaches developers, publishers and platform holders some important lessons. While HD can and should be the accepted standard, SDTV gamers cannot be dismissed by telling them to bugger off and buy a new display. There's just too many of them, and as such this section of the audience is too important to ignore and there's a strong argument that suggests that perhaps they deserve a bit of love in the form of smoother frame-rates and more responsive controls. The lack of proliferation of HDTVs also brings home the point that there is simply no sense at all in pushing the envelope any further technically. It strongly suggests that there is no need for any next-generation console for several years yet, meaning that there is a clear, golden opportunity for PC to establish itself once again as the frontiersman of super high-end gaming.

And when the new consoles do emerge, there clearly has to be a stronger focus and a better commitment to gamers with older displays, because while their numbers may be reduced by that point, I can still foresee them being a very significant portion of the userbase. That being the case, we shouldn't be seeing embarrassing situations like difficult-to-read text in the likes of Dead Rising and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. And yes, that means that PAL50 and PAL60 functionality should be mandatory in addition to the HD modes. I mean, if the Wii can do it, there's really no excuse not for it to be fully supported on any console.

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