Tech Focus: Extreme Resolution Gameplay

Digital Foundry on the arrival of Retina screens and next-gen 4K HDTVs - is the graphics power there to run cutting-edge gameplay on these phenomenal displays?

The latest rumblings from the increasingly more accurate Apple rumour mill are suggesting that we'll shortly be witnessing the arrival of a brand new, Retina display driven, 13.3-inch Macbook Pro. Where the Cupertino superpower leads, others inevitably follow - but where does this leave games development? Is the graphics hardware out there that can provide AAA gameplay experiences to match display resolutions that dwarf the living room standard 1080p?

"Apple set the pace for display quality and precision in the mobile and tablet markets, but the danger is that there simply isn't enough GPU power to support these extreme resolutions."

To begin with, let's assess the impact that Apple's move towards ultra-resolution displays has had on the market. The introduction of the Retina-equipped iPad at the same price as its predecessor poses some interesting questions, not just for competitors in the tablet space, but for laptop manufacturers too. The bog standard 1366x768 displays found in most entry and mid-level notebooks look positively hideous in comparison to the iPad screen, and while those PCs will comprehensively best the Apple tablet in terms of processing power, the functionality, portability and beautiful display gives consumers pause when it comes to assessing their next £400 tech purchase. The screen is the primary interface in a mobile device and it's surely only a matter of time before display upgrades will become the norm across the market.

Apple's demand for excellence in its screens is causing ripples already. Just the expectation that Apple would upgrade the Macbook Air was enough for Asus to pack its own Zenbook ultrabook platforms with pristine quality 1080p displays, even though the Retina upgrade has still yet to actually occur. Without Apple's drive towards higher quality displays, it's unlikely that this would have ever happened.

In the tablet space, Apple's influence has been even more remarkable - lower-quality TN displays are the preserve of cheapo Chinese tablets only, while superior IPS display tech is effectively the standard on devices from all major manufacturers. While Retina resolutions are still the preserve of Apple (mostly due to manufacturing shortages) already we see the arrival of 1080p screens - in Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet and the Acer Iconia Tab A700, for instance.

But the move towards extreme resolution gaming may not be limited simply to mobile devices, it's going to be a factor for PC and next-gen console too. We've already reached the point in the PC space where economies of scale have conspired to make 1080p the standard resolution even for entry-level displays. Current-gen consoles target 720p for native resolution - yet often still fall short - but we should reasonably expect 1080p to be the target for the next-gen boxes, as we've now reached the point where "full HD" displays are now more widespread than their lower resolution "HD Ready" equivalents. But the circa-2m pixels found in a 1080p display is nothing compared with what is to come.

Sony looks set to bless us with yet another new initiative designed to make us want to our upgrade our TVs. With stereoscopic 3D having failed to gain traction, we now hear rumours that PlayStation 4 will offer the ability to run games at 4K resolution - that's an astonishing 3840x2160, or 8.2m pixels - on its upcoming range of ultra-resolution displays.

"The Retina Macbook Pro is simply the most beautiful laptop I've ever used, but the mixture of a next-gen display with a mid-level GPU makes 3D gaming applications somewhat limited."

All of which leaves game-makers facing a very difficult challenge. While the pixel densities of game displays are increasing rapidly, the graphics hardware within these units isn't keeping pace. The Retina iPad features a 4x pixel boost over its predecessor, but only a 2x GPU power increase to service it. Looking at the new Retina Macbook Pro, it features the exact same graphics core as the non-Retina model, just with an extra 512MB of GDDR5 RAM attached. Looking ahead to the PlayStation 4, we should realistically be expecting a 6x to 8x performance boost - yet 4K resolution represents a 9x increase in pixel density over current-gen 720p. To be brutally frank, we're looking for more from next-gen visuals than a simple increase in resolution, indeed NVIDIA's Timothy Lottes has already made a convincing argument that these graphical resources should be deployed elsewhere.

Solutions to this issue have been somewhat thin on the ground. Of all the devices moving towards ultra-resolution gaming, it's the iPad that has managed to cope best. Game-makers seek to craft their games for as large a range of iOS devices as possible, and they're often 2D in nature - this combination ensures that a majority of apps can run at Retina resolution with no problem at all. But on demanding 3D titles, there can be issues. Epic released a "Retina" upgrade to Infinity Blade 2, but it doesn't run at the native resolution of the latest iPad, instead scaling pixel throughput to 2x that of the iPad 2 - matching the boost in rendering capabilities, but not the display. Other games run at sub-native resolutions, or introduce resolution sliders like Riptide GP, effectively allowing users to choose between frame-rate or pixel depth. Some games simply ignore the GPU deficit with poor results: Modern Combat 3 from GameLoft runs at Retina resolution but features much lower frame-rates than the same game running on iPad 2. NOVA 3 is even worse, cutting out a lot of the excellent effects work that you'll only see by running the game on the older (!) iPad 2.

We see the same issues with the Retina Macbook Pro. Less demanding 2D titles run beautifully, and look simply wonderful on what is by far and away the most beautiful display I've ever used on a laptop, but 3D games are a mixed bag. Older games with lower GPU requirements still have trouble running at smooth frame-rates at the 2880x1800 Retina resolution, and the near-perfect screen showcases the shortcomings of the original artwork with brutal clarity. Games like Battlefield 3 and Crysis 2 simply don't have the horsepower to run at native resolution at all without often dropping into single digit frame-rates.

However, there are some pleasant surprises. Drop back to medium quality settings and the RMBP can run both Batman: Arkham City and Skyrim fairly well, with frame-rates in the region of 30FPS. Diablo 3 is a bit of a wash-out but StarCraft 2 seems to run perfectly adequately in the campaign levels I tested. These games all have something in common - a rich amount of detail in the visuals, brought out beautifully by the Retina display. However, these are using far from the highest quality settings so what we're seeing is essentially a trade-off in effects work in favour of resolution.

What we are seeing with Apple's Retina devices is a quantum leap in one area of hardware design that's waiting for the rest of the hardware to catch up - something that is perhaps to be expected bearing in mind that these are first generation products. In the case of the iPad, we already know the roadmap here: the arrival of PowerVR Rogue graphics tech next year will see a jump in mobile GPU performance that should in theory eclipse that of the jump in pixel depth Retina represents. Things are less clear with the laptops - more powerful GPUs will require thermal headroom that simply isn't available in current notebook form-factors, especially Apple's, which are exceptionally thin already. The Retina Macbook Pro already features a 28nm graphics core - and further shrinks in the fabrication technology are likely to be years away.

"It's difficult to imagine that PS4's 4K support will be any different from 1080p gaming on PS3: rarely deployed, with developers more likely to target mainstream full HD displays."

On the plus side at least, it's difficult to imagine that pixel density will be increasing much beyond Retina level in the next few years. It's just a case of waiting for the GPU technology to catch up as it inevitably will. On top of this, once there are established standards for ultra-resolution displays, then it's more likely that developers will target them specifically, just as they have done for 720p and 1080p.

With regards Sony and the rumours of 4K support, it's difficult to avoid a general feeling of déjà vu - PlayStation 3 launched in 2006 with great fanfare amid claims for support for the emerging 1080p standard. Launch titles like Ridge Racer 7 showed some promise, but true native 1080p titles proved to be somewhat thin on the ground - and even showcase titles like GT5 took short-cuts by running at sub-native resolution: 1280x1080 in the case of the Polyphony classic. I can't help but feel that 4K will go the same way - why target a display that only a tiny minority will have? Why expend GPU resources on pixel fill-rate when higher levels of detail and more lavish effects are possible at a lower resolution?

That said, we know that Sony is experimenting with 4K gameplay. Polyphony Digital has a 4K Gran Turismo 5 demo working by networking four PS3s together, each rendering a quarter-screen of the action. The surprise results of the Retina Macbook Pro on titles like StarCraft 2, Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City, suggest that even a relatively modest graphics core can produce worthwhile results at extreme resolutions. The power boost we'll find in the PlayStation 4 GPU in combination with the sheer will of Sony in promoting its new displays could produce some interesting results. That said, most developers will almost certainly target the most popular displays, and true 1080p looks like the natural choice for both PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Durango: a good fit generally for the 6x to 8x performance increase we can expect from current-gen consoles with their 720p target resolution...

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Latest comments (23)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
Excellent article.
It is so true about displays jumping ahead of the power to drive them. Twice. With the PS3 and 360 then again with the current Apple retina products.

However the big problem for the game industry is not the technical one of balancing framerate against resolution. It is the challenge of doing all the extra work to create all those extra bits on the screen. Going to HD created a massive jump in console game development team size which made development a whole lot more expensive and effectively put the lid on creativity, because it became too risky. 4K would present a similar problem.
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Nick Parker Consultant 9 years ago
Interesting. It seems that screen resolution is a ratcheted evolution; achieve development norms on a technology introduced into the mainstream 7 years ago (1080p) and that becomes the current norm. Retina display development will then become the norm in 5 years, by which time a better resolution will have been launched.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent9 years ago
I'm not saying you can't tell the difference, but do we need 4K. Ever?

I'm all for progress, but I don't see the geometric doubling of pixels as offering the same benefits we've seen in consumer photography over the last decade. Movies, games, both look amazing in 1080p. For such expensive and resource-hungry technology, it offers nothing to the consumer beyond adding several superfluous metres to the average nerd cock, and more, it's harmful to financially pragmatic game deveopment a factor of increasing importance if our industry is to survive.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 17th October 2012 9:54am

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Show all comments (23)
Resolutions larger than 1080p make sense for reading text and using content creation software, but not exactly playing games.
I'd rather have 1080p with excellent AA quality.

You will see a difference between 1080p and 4k, but it will only be really noticeable on PC games where the screen is right in front of your face. For console gaming, it won't be a huge difference, definitely not worth sacrificing rendering quality for. And as the article mentions, you have to sacrifice huge amounts of quality to render at such high resolutions.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago
At this stage those resolutions are no more than a crusade in my personal opinion and I haven't caved into the hype, especially given the lack of processing power and tailor made software to truly take advantage of it.
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Stephen Richards Game Deisgner 9 years ago
I think we're going to hit other limiting factors here - 4k screens will require larger tvs than most people have space for in their living rooms.

That said, I'm still looking forward to them, just so annoying iPad users stop using the word 'resolutionary'.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
For gaming, there are no real benefits to a 4K resolution without a very massive monitor. The pixel density below a certain screen size just makes it pointless.

I also doubt the PS4 will utilize 4K in many gaming situations. Downloadable titles, sure. Big budget AAA titles, not going to happen.

Even that 4K Gran Turismo 5 event was not actually 4K. As Richard noted, GT5 actually runs at 1280 x 1080 rather than 1920 x 1080. That means the actual resolution in that demo was 2560 x 2160 (5,529,600 pixels) entire 1920 x 1080 screen short (2,073,600 pixels) of true 4K resolution: 3840 x 2160 (8,294,400 pixels).
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Tamir Ibrahim Programmer, Splash Damage9 years ago
Maybe someone can clear this up but I'm confused as to what, exactly, defines a resolution as being "retina". The article states "While Retina resolutions are still the preserve of Apple"

The iPad 3 has ~264 ppi pixel density and is regarded as retina.
The 4s ~330 ppi pixel density. Is this is also regarded as retina?

Some Android devices Galaxy Nexus (~316 ppi), Samsung SIII(~306 ppi), HTC One X(~312 ppi). Do these devices have retina displayed? I'm genuinely asking.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
Tamir, it's just a marketing term they are using to denote devices with a pixels density higher than their older model units. 220 ppi seems to be the lowest density they've affixed the marketing term to.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development9 years ago
what, exactly, defines a resolution as being "retina".
It's down the the single pixel viewing angle, although the MacBook Pro (3rd Gen) has a resolution of 220ppi, at a viewing distance of 20 inches it has a Single Pixel Viewing Angle of 0.78 arcminutes (source).
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development9 years ago
There's a difference between what consumers want and what they think they want. Is like asking someone "do you want to pay no taxes?"

Our Great Big War Game was coming to market right on launch of the new iPad 3. We did some forum polls asking people generally if they'd prefer us to use the iPad3 power by either supporting retina or leaving the screen as it is as doubling the content, adding more visual effects and upping the frame rate.

Guess what won. So there's us redoing all the GUI art at stupid size and doubling the size of our universal download for everybody. This thing is just a pita.

I could even understand this on an 80" tv the other end of your lounge, but on a display thats only several inches across, there's just no need for microscopic pixels - we don't all have microscopes!
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
I'm a little disappointed by this article; it didn't really seem to address just why Apple's bumped the resolution of their displays and whether or not games should really follow that resolution bump.

One plausible explanation is that the reason for having such extreme resolutions is nothing to do with gaming and is instead designed to improve the quality of non-moving graphics, such as still photographs and particularly text, which it does admirably. From that point of view, it might be perfectly reasonable for games to stick to their traditional lower resolutions when running on the new hardware, even as they ignore other new features such as voice dictation. From this point of view, considering whether or not you should use every pixel on the screen is akin to considering whether or not you should use every key on the keyboard.

What I'd really like to see is a more in-depth analysis and comparison of the tradeoffs. Does the game look better at full resolution with no AA or at quarter resolution with MSAA, for example? Does a resolution bump add enough beauty to make up for the loss of effects?

While there seems to be a sense in Internet articles that a game not using the full resolution of the system (with the major exception of console games running at 720p rather than 1080p) is somehow short-changing you, clearly developers think otherwise, since it's more common than not to trade resolution for other uses of the GPU resources available. The press takes a much more sensible approach to the similar issue of 30 vs. 60 FPS: running at 30 FPS is considered design decision rather than short-changing the consumer.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
Curt, I think the difference is that tablets come with their own screen so gamers expect the game to utilize that screen completely. A console or a PC has an independent screen which can have a wildly ranging resolutions.

Imagine the same situation on a portable console. How would gamers react if the resolution of a game on their 3DS, PSP or Vita was half of what the screen is actually capable of rendering?

I do agree with your question regarding the difference in full resolution or quarter resolution with AA.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
Jim, my point is exactly about those built-in screen on a tablet or laptop: gamers should not expect it to be "used completely" any more than they should expect a game on a laptop to use every key on the keyboard, or a game on an iPhone 5 to use the voice recording feature.

I believe you're correct that gamers would react badly if they thought a game was not using the full resolution of the screen on a Vita or whatever; they already do so when that's been done on consoles such as the Xbox 360. (It's not a common technique to render at a resolution lower than 720p, but it's far from unknown, either.) I also believe that they're wrong to react that way. Clearly, the game designers made the trade-off for a reason: they're not rendering at a lower resolution because they think it makes the game look and play worse than it would otherwise!
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Jeremie Sinic9 years ago
Just wanted to rectify:
Infinity Blade 2 (top) doesn't actually run at full 2560x1536 resolution, despite a 'Retina' update.
Apple's New iPad product page:
2048-by-1536-pixel resolution at 264 pixels per inch (ppi)
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Curt, pretty much all games on current game consoles are rendered at below native resolution and scaled up. Especially FPS games.

Little big planet vita and Metal Gear Solid HD collection are also rendered below the native resolution on vita.
Upscaling just looks plain bad, period. It's even more annoying when you have such a nicely sharp display right under your nose, as with the ipad3 or vita. It's much easier to deal with on a screen meters away from you.

So yeah, the reason why the resolution was upped is because of 2D applications and backwards compatibility, but I don't think it's unreasonable of customers to expect games to support this resolution. If anything, it means full-fledged 3D games don't have such a bright future on iPad and 2D is where it's at (or stays at)
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
Now the game has been moved on another notch. HTC Butterfly. 5 inch 1080p display, 440 PPI.
Just wow. Want one.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 9 years ago
Even on a desktop, you need a really powerful graphics card to be able to run games above 30FPS at 2560x1440.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
The upgrade to 1080p gaming cost me money. Im pretty happy with it. dont plan to upgrade anytime soon. 4K resolution. Thats nice but where the hell can I store a movie file or even download a 2 hour movie at that resolution. It will not only cost me a new TV or 4K output device, but it will cost me a higher bandwithc internet connection and massive amounts of storage media. No thanx.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago

If I'm not mistaken Uncharted runs at 50% the native resolution on PSV too.
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High resolutions are really just a complete waste IMO. The only reason resolutions started going up, is because the nature of 3D rendering has everything scale up and artifacts (jaggies) and texturing looks better at higher resolutions. Its a "lazy" way to make things look better, because it doesn't require (significant) code changes.

The problem is, its a highly diminishing scale. Going to 4K is just ridiculous - the only reason I can for it is having massive screens at todays DPI. Problem is - screens are already at 50''-60'' (and I have seen them at 80''). People tend to have space for a 40''-50'' ... but a 100''? Majority of people just *wouldn't want one*.

As I think was touched on in the article, we'll be much better served continuing to improve (or replace) traditional rendering techniques. "TV" (real-life) at 480p still looks (from a "graphics POV") much better than any game running at 1080p or beyond.
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Henry Durrant Programmer, SUMO Digital9 years ago
At average sofa-to-tv distances, doubling the resolution is almost pointless, I would much rather see the effort in hardware go towards higher fillrate/FPS with current 1080p resolutions. 120fps @ 1080p is far more attractive than 30fps @ 4kp.
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John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam9 years ago
To be fair, I doubt people could tell the difference in frame rate once you go over 60fps either, but anything much beyond 1080p seems pretty pointless too, especially if you've got decent anti-aliasing to get rid of any remaining jaggies and artefacts. I have a 47" TV just a couple of meters from my sofa, and even I can't see any individual pixels on it, so I don't see what I'd gain by doubling the resolution on each axis.
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