Analysis – Game Resolution Matters As The Intersection Of Art, Science, And Business

by Mike Futter on Oct 13, 2014 at 06:30 AM

As I typically do at too-regular intervals, I looked back over the stories I’d written in the week prior to see what readers were most interested in. While I wasn’t entirely surprised, two stories caught my eye, both about the same, relatively inconsequential topic.

The issue of resolution and framerate in Xbox One and PlayStation 4 games has been a hot-button topic since the consoles launched 11 months ago. We’ve avoided covering unsubstantiated rumors and reports about variances in this area, but when publishers and developers make official statements, we don’t ignore them.

Last week, Assassin’s Creed Unity senior producer Vincent Pontbriand made news by specifically citing “debates” over framerate as a reason his game was normalized across the two console platforms. Ubisoft rushed to change the narrative, but the damage had been done. We covered this story later than some outlets, prioritizing it lower than items we deemed more pressing. It has since received over 43,000 views.

Later in the week, BioWare stepped forward to directly address Dragon Age: Inquisition’s resolution on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4. I happened to see the tweet immediately and quickly wrote the story, suspecting that our readers might be interested. It has received over 64,000 views.

There is a furor over resolutions and frame rates. Some of it comes from console warriors looking at the topic as a psychological warm blanket to reinforce a purchase decision. Others though, are genuinely curious about which platform will see the best performance, even if that discrepancy is only slightly perceptible (depending on screen size, seating distance, etc.)

In the comment sections of our stories and in others where resolution and frame rate are the focus, readers have pondered why we address something some see as inconsequential. This inspired me to examine what makes the topic such a hotbed of discussion. Yes, resolution often doesn’t impact gameplay. Yes, you can have a perfectly satisfying experience at 900p that will likely be no different than the same one at 1080p. Yes, resolution conversations skew away from the reasons we actually play games (entertainment, challenge, narrative engagement, etc.) and not just look at them.

So why bother with resolution?

Games, like every artistic discipline, are an intersection of that artistry, technology, and business. That’s not to say that “art” is always about business. It’s not, as any hobbyist will tell you. But collectively, “the arts” as disciplines have a relationship with business; something I learned in a decade working with non-profit arts organizations. As that’s the case, resolution discrepancies have a very real impact from all three of these intersecting and competing interests.

Resolution from the technical perspective
Whether we as individual gamers agree or not, there is a subset of the consumer base that concerns itself greatly with numbers on a page. The now frequent “how many Ps does your game have?” joke is rooted in the reality that, for some, any variance is enormous.  

Whether or not 900p versus 1080p is perceptible does not matter to these individuals. They want the best entertainment experience they can possibly get, and even the psychological impact of knowing there is a difference influences their ability to derive enjoyment.

Resolution from the artistic perspective
For some, the technical aspects of a game’s visual fidelity are deeply entwined with the actual play experience. How a game looks is as important to a portion of the audience as how it controls, how it sounds, or how its story is told.

There is no sense in faulting this portion of the audience or telling them that they are incorrectly prioritizing. This is engrained in how these individuals consume media, and it is unlikely to change through exhortation. 

And if you prioritize the artistic aspects of a game differently? That’s ok, too. The combination of reasons you play what you love is going to differ than almost everyone else.

Resolution from the business perspective
Here’s where things get a bit tricky. In my “Our Take” in the Dragon Age resolution story, I touched very (maybe too) briefly on the business angle of resolution discrepancies.

There are two different aspects of this that bear examination. First, there are some gamers that already have both an Xbox One and a PlayStation 4. 

Assuming that there are friends on both platforms with whom a consumer wants to play, there are no particular leanings toward either controller, and the user isn’t an EA Access member (which will grant early playtime for Dragon Age: Inquisition), there may be few things to nudge a purchase toward one platform or the other.

Ceteris paribus (all other things held equal), resolution might be the element that leads someone to choose the PlayStation 4 version over the otherwise identical experience for Xbox One. Platform holders derive licensing fees for games sold (the specifics of these arrangements are complex and vary from deal to deal). Overwhelming uptake on one platform versus the other has a financial implication for Sony and Microsoft.

With the holiday season upon us though, there are a number of people looking to make the upgrade to a new console. There are a number of factors one might consider when purchasing one of the two available options:

Which system has the games I want to play? 

Where do my friends play?

What features are available that distinguish the two?

For someone that isn’t particularly moved by the available platform exclusives and isn’t interested in Kinect or television integration, resolution might play into the discussion in two ways. First, as a raw set of data, a user might simply choose PlayStation 4 since it has, on multiple occasions, had a resolution or frame rate advantage. 

Second, the consumer might not care about resolution themselves, but still might be indirectly impacted. If enough friends have been swayed, there is a compelling case for even someone disaffected by the resolution discussion to make a choice. As more players choose for one of these two reasons, there is the potential for real business impact. 

I still believe that players should play what they like and where they want. But I’ve come to realize that for some, resolution is either directly or indirectly involved in that decision. 

Games are greater than the sum of their parts. We should absolutely recognize that the hours-long experience we spend with them is an interplay of systems, technology, and artistic expression. It’s just as important to recognize that the varied and personal weighting of those components influences how we experience those games. 

Does resolution matter? Yes, but not in the same way to everyone. And that’s ok.