Of Pixels And Melodrama

Like so many Wednesday and Thursday nights, I find myself sitting on my Ikea couch, kids in bed, the lights dimmed, volume up, playing Battlefield 4.  I’m hanging outside of a Little Bird and shooting rockets at tanks that we’re on a collision course with, pulling off that perfectly placed shot the destroys the tank just as we do a nosedive straight into the ground.  There are many positive thoughts that I have from playing a game built for teamwork like this, and one that looks as beautiful as it does.  But do you know the one thought that doesn’t cross my mind?

“Man.  I bet you I would be having more fun if this was 900p like that other console.”

Now before I start down this console-centric diatribe, let’s get some things straight.  First, I’m not going to say that I can’t notice the differences between resolutions, or that they don’t matter at all, or that I was never one to tout how my console was better than your console.  Don’t get me wrong.  I would be lying if I said that I’ve never had a rabid devotion to a specific gaming brand.  Back when I was in middle school (that’s right, MIDDLE SCHOOL), I console-warriored with the best of them.  My brother and I sold all of our NES stuff to help save up money for a brand spanking new SNES, and we were convinced that it was the best gaming experience in the neighborhood.  Sure, we had plenty of friends that owned the Genesis, maybe even that one weird friend that had a TG16 (he probably licked his shoes everyday), but if you wanted multiplayer mayhem?  You had to come to our house.  The controllers, the stereo sound, the 256 on-screen colors.  C’mon, how can you not understand how superior this is to your dumb Sega box?!  I’ve had an understanding of the details for some time, and have had to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of each console I’ve owned.

Forget Gretzky, it was all about the Bure in my house.

I’d like to think that I’ve grown up, perhaps even matured slightly when it comes to brand loyalty.  Actually, I’d like to think that baseline game fans everywhere have grown up a little in regards to their dialogue about differences, but if you take a look at console news recently, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  It’s the same argument, but just with different names.  720p vs 1080p.  Scaling.  Frames per second.  Resolution-gate.  The debate has swirled all over recently and the topic goes by so many different titles, but it comes down to this: the PS4’s hardware has several advantages at its disposal that currently give developers more graphical bandwidth, which has typically translated into better FPS, and/or higher visual resolutions.  And there you have it.  Marketing strategies aside, that’s the big talking point right now, and the crux in the mind of the pundit as to whether or not the XBox One can survive long-term.

Let me take a moment to state my own opinion: I don’t get it.

For me, I honestly don’t understand why this is becoming the definitive talking point.  There are plenty of issues at hand to discuss when it comes to understanding why the console is where it’s at right now (Microsoft’s messaging, the executive-level debate about the value of the games division, etc.), and there are certainly responsible journalists out there that have attempted to take it all in as part of a bigger picture.  Kudos to them.  But a majority of the press and forums debates out there have been cooked, baked, double-fried, and seared down into that single talking point: XBox can’t do 1080p, yo.  (Which is a misnomer in itself, it can do 1080p, just not at the graphical… forget it, I’m losing you).  I even read one publication just this very week that in its preview for Titanfall, stated that the game was “plagued” by a 792p resolution.  Plagued!  It’s accompanied by a video that shows the FPS output of a play session over a few minutes, with the framerate dipping to the 50s and occasional high 40s during some large explosions.  The two are linked together in the article as if I’m supposed to imagine the person behind the controller saying in a dramatic voice, “Alas, my fun is but a sine wave, a hapless refugee aboard this fluctuating framerate!”  Faint, and scene.  

Do we actually expect real people to feel upset about things like this?  Are we really expecting people to pause, take notice of the framerate dip, and feel a sting of disappointment?  Are we expected to now chide development teams that may dare to make games 30fps in the new generation, as if the gameplay experience will be broken without the fulfillment of this technical requirement?  

Let me go out on a limb and just say No.  No to all of that.

My point is, when weighed against the entirety and infancy of this next generation of gaming, this a really stupid thing to argue about.  More importantly, we need to stop pretending that this is the first time one console had a hill to climb.

For the longest time, consoles have had distinct advantages and disadvantages that were and always have been a result of juggling features, power, and price point.  In turn, developers have always had to take those points into account when designing games in order for them to create the best experience for the consumer; it is a delicate balancing act between designing for, and around, the facets of the hardware, and harmonizing those differences when making cross-platformers. However, even though the differences between console architecture and the resulting consumer experience have become less apparent than they have in the past (they have, think about it), it seems like the public has become even more obsessed with finding them, and for some reason, they carry more weight than ever!  Framerate measurements?  Really?  Has anyone even bothered to remember how significant the differences between consoles used to be, and how much more of an impact those differences actually had on the consumer’s experience?  

Can you remember, say, the differences between Earthworm Jim on the Genesis and SNES?  Sure, the SNES had richer hues, actual alpha masking, and (in my opinion) better music.  But the Genesis had a much cleaner sound palette and, prepare yourself, an extra level.  32 meg cart (SNES) vs 40 meg cart (Genesis) that actually translated into something.  

Genesis on left, SNES on right.  One of the goofiest platformers on either.

Based on the machine configurations in past eras, there were some easily apparent differentiations between cross-platform titles, as well as exclusive ones.  However, the king of contrast was in the 32/64-bit era.  You know which two I’m talking about.  CD vs cartridge.  Raw polys vs texture resolution.  Four standard controller ports vs two.  Analog stick vs digital only.  Redbook audio vs sound being shoved through the main co-processor.  With the PSX and N64, we were no longer talking differences in color palette structure, but wholesale contrasting strategies within the machines’ architectures that had phenomenal impacts on the approach that a developer had to take in order to fully leverage the power of the machine.  Despite the weaknesses of one console versus the other, there are countless examples of games where it came together because the developer played to the respective hardware’s strengths, instead of dwelling on its weaknesses.

Now walk back to the present day and compare all of this with the original, primary disadvantage of the XBox that will apparently doom the entire system: it is currently displaying games at a resolution lower than its nearest competitor.  Not that it has less levels, or fewer controller buttons, or a lack of transparency masking, or an inability to play online.  Its first games in its lifecycle are running at a lower resolution than its nearest competitor.  Just how dumb does this sound now?

And make no mistake.  Just as it happened in generations past, there are, and will be ways that developers will find ways to make both of these machines sing in the same exact manner as they [we, I get to say we now!] have in the past: not by squeezing more juice out of the core, but by changing the approach in how we deliver or run the data.  It’s why I have to laugh when I see articles that talk about both the PS4 and XBone in general, about how developers have “already fully tapped” into their power.  

With workflows from the previous generation?  Perhaps.  With the new technologies that are on the horizon?  Absolutely not.  

Personally, I love my XBox One for gaming, damn the visual differences that-I-couldn’t-care-less-about-because-I’m-not-playing-it-side-by-side-with-a-PS4-equivalent.  (I also love it for the set top box aspects, but let's focus here.) Being able to set my GPS in Need For Speed by simply saying where I want to go out loud?  That’s pretty slick.  Switching to my favorite player in Madden and calling a blitz by simply telling the machine what to do?  Fantastic.  Leaning around walls in BF4 and controlling the helicopter swivel with my shoulders and head, respectively?  Wicked fun.  It’s early glimpses of development teams that are taking advantage of unique system capabilities to make the gameplay experience flourish, instead of attempting to make the same experience across the board, at the expense of the “have-not” platform, be it visual effects, audible abilities, or yes, resolution throughput.  This is a good thing.

Just, seriously.  Stop with the doom and gloom.

This sometimes reminds me of my kids at home.  It used to be if you served them different drinks, one of them would complain that the other had the beverage that they actually wanted.  Then it changed into a comparison of the amount of food contents, sometimes coming down to a specific count of something, like raisins or the like.  As parents, we’ve seamlessly adapted to these pratfalls, and what it’s turned into is a homogenization of the respective presentations: every child’s meal is identical by design.  Same cup style, same plate color, same food, same portions.  But even when you have mealtime distribution down to a science, taking into account all variable factors, another point to complain about somehow, some way, always surfaces.

“I wanted the pink fork!”

Mealtime ruined.

We gamers like to think that we’re a grown up and sophisticated bunch.  But until we stop acting like children in our discussions, we will continue to sound like them as we argue over who’s having more fun, instead of concentrating on actually having it.

This is the first time since that 32/64-bit era where we have multiple systems that despite their architectural similarities, have technological philosophies that could potentially create unique approaches to gameplay and delivery of said gameplay on each system to the benefit of the end user.  The experience you have with a game on the Wii-U will be different from the one you have on the XBox One, and the experience you have on the XBox One could potentially be different from the one you have on the PS4.  We have a very real chance of seeing a shakeup in what it means to play a game.  I’m actually excited at the prospect of digging back to an era where developers had to be notably creative with their approach to each respective console.  

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m excited at mealtime experiencing a little bit of a mixup.

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