What Else Could Developers Do If They Pursued A 1080p Target On The PS4 Pro Instead of Upscaled 4K?

How PS4 Pro’s power can be used instead of just upscaled 4K in AAA games.

Posted By | On 26th, Oct. 2016 Under Article, Graphics Analysis

They say that with great power comes great responsibility. We’re not denying that the PlayStation 4 Pro is a powerful system. It is (at least until the Scorpio comes along, next year), the most powerful console ever. It does offer you marginally less graphics horsepower than the original $1000 GTX Titan from 2013. When you think about it that way, it’s nothing short of incredible. There’s a lot you could do with that kind of power.

Sadly, Neither Sony nor Microsoft seems interested in making the most of their powerful new hardware. There are justifiable reasons behind this, the most glaring of which is the very fact that the traditional console upgrade cycle has been broken. An awful lot of angry PS4 and Xbox One owners (somewhere in the vicinity of 75 million angry people, yikes!) would be less than happy if their fixed hardware (which they paid good money to ensure it’d stay that way) is no longer relevant.

It’d be especially ironic considering that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 continue to receive a handful of multiplats, more than a decade after they were released. The PS4 and Xbox One came out in an uncertain era. In 2013, mobile was on the upswing, PC gaming had made a major comeback, with even entry-level PCs offering better-than-console experiences, and with the rise of streaming services, the way in which people consumed media had changed fundamentally.

"While Sony hasn’t explicitly stated that devs can’t develop 1080p content tailored to the PS4 Pro, the need for platform parity means that in almost every case that we’ve seen so far, the Pro simply runs existing PS4 games, with visuals on par with the PS4, at higher resolutions. Set aside economics and angry buyers for a moment: what could developers do if they pursued a 1080p target on the PS4 Pro?"

Neither Sony nor Microsoft was in a great position financially, with Microsoft having just acquired Nokia (which turned out to be a bad idea), and Sony struggling to make a line of phones no one was really interested in buying. Which was also Microsoft’s problem, when you think about it. Consequently, the PS4 and Xbox One were conservative platforms, made with cheap, off-the-shelf components with just enough oomph to add an extra layer of gloss over games that, by and large, adhered to last-gen gameplay and design standards. Even then, it was hard to see how a whole generation could be driven by what was bargain-basement PC hardware at launch.

A lot of us, including me, strapped in for what looked like a long era of gaming stagnation. If the Xbox One and PS4 hadn’t sold as well as they did, this would have been the likely outcome. But sales, especially of the PS4, surged unexpectedly. In this age of “console-quality” smartphones, there were still a lot of people that wanted a great, core console experience. And where there’s a market, there’s a way. That’s why the PS4 Pro exists. In many ways, it’s what the PS4 ought to have been. Going from the PC experience, the Pro’s hardware is precisely fast enough to offer a fantastic 1080p experience. And this is where Sony kinda lost the picture.

Sure, 4K and 4K gaming are the “in” things these days, but positioning the PS4 Pro as a “4K” console is a tremendous waste of potential. Yes, we do get the rationale: rendering the PS4 obsolete a mere years after just three years is a surefire way of losing the very customers that have driven console sales since 2013. By positioning the PS4 Pro as a “4K option,” meant primarily for the small portion of people who own 4K screens, the PS4 Pro ends up hurting no one: the PS4 stays relevant because, despite a 2x increase in graphics performance, the PS4 Pro has to work twice as hard to hit render targets above 1080p. While Sony hasn’t explicitly stated that devs can’t develop 1080p content tailored to the PS4 Pro, the need for platform parity means that in almost every case that we’ve seen so far, the Pro simply runs existing PS4 games, with visuals on par with the PS4, at higher resolutions. Set aside economics and angry buyers for a moment: what could developers do if they pursued a 1080p target on the PS4 Pro?

Higher Framerates? Yes and No

1080p/60 FPS has long been the vaunted gold standard for the ideal gaming experience. With the outing of the GTX 970 in 2014 (and now with the even more affordable RX 480), 1080p/60 FPS gaming is very much a mainstream possibility on PC. But this is, in large part, thanks to the fact that even entry-level PCs are substantially less CPU-bottlenecked than the consoles, including the PS4 Pro. In all but a handful of horribly unoptimized titles, a Core i3 is enough to reliably hit 1080p/60, provide your graphics hardware is up to snuff.

Unfortunately, the PS4 Pro is lacking on the CPU front, that it will struggle to hit 60 FPS reliably in most high end AAA games at higher resolutions. This is why even a GPU-bound gameswhich reliably hit 60 FPS with midrange PC hardware (at Very High settings), will be targeting 4K/30 on the PS4 Pro. The Pro’s processor just can’t keep pace with it’s graphics component at higher framerates. On the flip side, sticking to 1080p with enhanced visual effects can very well offer enough GPU headroom to ensure a rock-solid 30 FPS lock. There is nothing worse than fumbling to aim with a controller in a shooter that’s chugging along in the mid-20s. A reliable 1080/ 30 FPS lock with high graphical settings could make for far more consistent experiences on the PS4 Pro.

PC-like visuals? Yes!

4K is a lot of pixels. Even if the PS4 Pro makes use of checkerboard upscaling, it will be rendering games at a resolution that’s almost twice than 1080p. If, instead, the Pro were to run games at 1080p, it would have a tremendous amount of GPU headroom, especially if a 30 FPS lock is being targeted. Because there is such a large capability difference between today’s consoles and high-end PCs, most games are built with a good deal of scaleability in mind, retaining core graphical assets on PS4 and Xbox One, but offering PC owners the benefits of drastically enhanced draw distances, particle effects, and higher res textures and shadows.

If the PS4 Pro’s hardware were utilised to deliver a 1080p/30 FPS experience, graphical detail could be significantly enhanced compared to the PS4. The Witcher 3 is a case in point. Running at what’s broadly equivalent to PC’s medium preset, the PS4 version of the game struggles to hand in a consistent 30 FPS experience in some sequences. If the Pro were put to use at 1080p, it’d be able to offer a much more consistent 30 FPS experience, with richer visuals: The Witcher 3’s tremendous foliage draw distance on PC is a key differentiator. Yes, we know CDPR’s gone on record to state that they won’t be outing a PS4 Pro patch for The Witcher 3, but, regardless this is the kind of difference prospective Pro owners could benefit from, especially considering the fact that most people still game on 1080p monitors/TVs. 

Like it or not, consoles are the real drive behind technical innovation in games: With the exception of a handful of titles like Star Citizen, few PC exclusives are in the making that really push the visual front on high-end PC, simply because the market’s not large enough. AAA developers are incentivized to implement higher-end rendering techniques only when consoles are capable of handling them. That’s simple economics. If/when developers start widely adopting a 1080p render target on the Pro, they’ll be able to feature higher-poly meshes, real-time Global Illumination, particle turbulence, and a whole host of rich, “next-gen” features that they otherwise couldn’t, bringing visuals ever closer to the CGI standard.

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