Higher rendering resolution, performance or vastly improved graphical parameters?
The Xbox One X has powerful internals, there’s no doubt about that. We were a fair bit surprised when Microsoft announced final specifications for the platform at E3. And then, of course, there were the lush, 4K game demos. There’s no doubt about the One X’s credentials as an entry-point to 4K gaming. Microsoft had always made clear that the Scorpio/Xbox One X was essentially a 4K Xbox One, capable of running the latter’s titles in 4K, with broadly comparable performance and quality. There’s no need for rendering tricks here. Because the Xbox One X features graphics hardware that’s broadly on par with the RX 480 and 390X, there is genuinely enough power on tap to deliver a native 4K gaming experience.
The One X can do 4K. The PS4 Pro…kinda can as well. Both of these are immensely powerful machines, compared to what’s come before in the console space. We’re not questioning that. What we’re interested in seeing over the next couple years is just how much Microsoft’s marketing pitch as “4K console” impacts the way developers treat them. How far can the Xbox One X stand on its own?
If you were to ask Microsoft or Sony, the answer would be “not very far at all.” Both have been adamant in insisting that these consoles are nothing more than new SKUs in their existing lines. Even before the PS4 Pro was outed, leaked whitepapers revealed Sony’s stance on the Pro–anything that runs on the Pro must run on the original PS4. Microsoft’s position on the Xbox One X isn’t too different: apart from the possibility of maybe a handful of VR exclusives arriving some day.
While the lack of exclusives that’s almost baked into the Xbox One X’s value proposition may not seem like a big deal in the here and now, it has signficant implications in the years to come.
Let’s talk about visuals: every console generation is accompanied by a leap in graphics quality, made possible by the use of new rendering techniques that require faster hardware to work. This generation, techniques such as tessellation, physically-based rendering, and global illumination have defined the nature of visuals–compared to seventh-gen titles, almost every game on current-gen platforms features complex lighting, realistic materials, higher-res textures, and more detailed models. Making games look this good is only possible when it’s economically viable: when you don’t have to ensure compatibility with older platforms that are still in use. This is the reason why “true next-gen” games like Assassin’s Creed: Unity look markedly better than cross-gen titles like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, even if there’s only a year’s gap separating the two.
Eighth-gen titles came into their own visually when developers stopped supporting the older consoles. Unfortunately, such a break is not going to happen with the Xbox One X, not because of technical infeasibility, but simply because the platform owner don’t want it to happen. Retaining compatibility with the Xbox One will mean that there’s limited space for game visuals to evolve, even as late as 2020–they’ll be held back by the things the Xbox One can’t do, not what’s possible with the Xbox One X.
Resolution’s another key factor. The question of whether 4K console gaming’s even warranted is likely to be valid for at least as long as the One X and PS4 Pro remain on the market.
Going from the PS3/Xbox 360 to the current gen saw an uptick in typical rendering resolution from 720p to 900p/1080p. This isn’t a great leap by any measure–from 720p to 1080p, we’re only talking about a 2x increase in pixel count. Going from 720p to 900p is even less a jump–just a 50 percent increase in pixel count. And let’s not get into the fact that a handful of PS3 titles actually did run at a native 1080p. The bump in resolution just wasn’t that great, meaning that graphics resources could be better utilized elsewhere. With the Xbox One X, we’re talking about a 4x increase in pixel count, moving up to 4K: just getting today’s games to perform reasonably well at that resolution is a challenge in and of itself.
This imposes a hard limit on just how much developers can innovate in terms of visuals in the coming years: games not only need to run at 1080p/900p on the Xbox One, they also need to run at higher resolutions on the One X. Unsurprisingly, an increasing number of games offer an enhanced 1080p mode on the PS4 Pro, sacrificing resolution for enhanced visual quality. If developers were to target 1080p on the Pro and Xbox One X rather than 4K, the situation might improve, but this isn’t likely to happen considering the amount of effort both platform holders have spent on projecting the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X as 4K consoles.
Saddled with the requirement of having to run games at such a high resolution, it’s unlikely that developers will try to utilize the full potential of Xbox One at standard resolutions like 1080p, where the increased graphic horsepower could go a long way towards providing photorealistic experiences. One possibility here is that when the successors to the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio arrive, the older platforms might finally be allowed to stretch their legs at 1080p. But at this point, we don’t even objectively know if there’s going to be a 9th gen for Xbox (There have been rumors that Microsoft are already working on a new console which may be a iteration of the Xbox One X, thereby maintaining backwards compatability and totally rejecting the concept of console generations. On the other hand, Sony have already confirmed that there is going to be a PlayStation 5 which may be an actual new generation).
Between having to render games at incredibly high resolutions and Microsoft’s insistence on backwards compatibility, we don’t see much scope for developers to utilize the full potential of the Xbox One X at standard resolutions. It’s certainly possible at a technical level, because of the frankly terrible market positioning for these new consoles, it’s unlikely that we’ll see real innovation in game visuals before 2020.