The HD Debacle

by David Trammell - June 20, 2005, 11:06 pm PDT

How much will lack of HD really hurt Nintendo, and what can they do about it?

Note: a lexicon of technical terms can be found at the bottom of this article.

According to recent statements by Nintendo officials, Revolution will apparently not feature HD support. There are still many questions such as whether or not this also excludes 480p. However, there’s little doubt that the lack of HD is a huge PR problem for Nintendo. At the same time, it may not be much of an issue for today’s average consumer. Yet, throughout the Revolution’s lifespan, the penetration of HD will increase steadily, spurred on by HD-capable consoles offered by Nintendo’s competitors, along with plummeting HDTV prices. Will it grow enough to make a significant difference to a large enough number of consumers? It’s certainly possible.

The PR side of this issue is much clearer though. Nintendo’s image is primarily controlled by the opinions of individuals who will be much more likely to own an HDTV than the average consumer. Commercial media organizations will purchase HDTVs for their offices, and gaming enthusiasts will buy the TVs for personal use. If any of these people don’t have HDTVs from the beginning, they’ll be dreaming of HD until they buy one, making HD support just as important to them as if they owned an HDTV.

Perhaps a larger problem is that of demo kiosks. Microsoft and Sony will likely populate game retailers with HDTVs to demonstrate the full power of their new toys. Meanwhile, Revolution kiosks will be forced to use 480p at best. Gamers will instantly see a huge difference. Even if Nintendo could manage better pixel shading, HD resolution is simply stunning to behold, particularly if there’s a convenient non-HD display nearby to compare to. No one would notice the differences in shading; certainly not ordinary consumers.

What's worse is that if the standard for Revolution games is 480i with no wide-screen support, the games would look particularly bad on a widescreen HDTV (featuring either black bars on the sides or stretched images). Nintendo could go a long way toward defusing the PR nightmare they’re heading for by requiring that all Revolution games support 480p and especially 16:9 wide-screen. Ports from the Revolution will likely be few and far between (because of the unique interface and Nintendo’s underdog status), but ports to the Revolution should be more common if Nintendo gets significant market share again. Such ports would already be coming from platforms where 16:9 and 4:3 are required, so there’s little reason for Nintendo not to mandate 16:9 support except that it would slightly complicate the development of their own games and a few third party exclusives.

If Nintendo can get over the PR hurdle, there are some significant benefits to retaining 480p as the standard resolution for Revolution. The most obvious benefit is that 480p requires only a third of the fill rate that 720p requires. With a mere third of the pixel shading hardware, the Revolution could keep up with the Xbox 360 in terms of shader quality. On the other side of this coin, if the Revolution features hardware equal to the Xbox 360 (minus the HD out), Revolution developers could theoretically focus three times the shading power into each pixel. The final hardware is likely to be somewhere in the middle. It would be able to keep up graphically with the PS3 and Xbox 360 in every way except resolution and may have a bit of spare power to ensure high framerates. Another potential benefit is cost. The one time saving of a hundred dollars (give or take) will be a transient benefit for consumers, but it may help sell a few more Revolutions, benefiting Nintendo.

Some people believe that increased pixel shading power and the detail in higher polygon models would be lost on current displays. A quick glance at the beautiful FMV footage in games such as Final Fantasy X puts this idea to rest though. With proper full-screen anti-aliasing (FSAA) and anisotropic texture filtering, a lot more detail can be rendered even without increasing the resolution. Surfaces that aren’t facing directly toward the camera tend to have their details blurred in today’s games. This is a known technical problem of trilinear filtering that anisotropic filtering is designed to solve. Fortunately, ATi’s GPUs have featured excellent and cheap anisotropic filtering since the Radeon 9700. The story is the same with FSAA. ATi’s algorithm for FSAA is efficient and produces excellent results. These two techniques combined will help produce sharper images with less jagged edges, the two primary benefits of increasing resolution. Of course, increased resolution is the more desirable choice, especially when combined with the aforementioned techniques as it will be on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Yet Revolution graphics should still look very nice.

The PC version of Doom 3 neatly demonstrates the difference between trilinear filtering (left) and anisotropic filtering (right).

Nintendo has a lot of work ahead of them if they want to convince consumers and especially media that they can live without HD. However, I believe it can be done if they require 16:9 support in all games and don’t skimp too much on the rest of the hardware. On the other hand, I’m one of those consumers who is dreaming of HD. I will definitely purchase an HDTV by the end of 2006, and it’s going to be disappointing to play Revolution games in standard definition even if Nintendo’s position is somewhat understandable.

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480i – An interlaced display mode with 480 horizontal lines each composed of 640 pixels. Every second, 60 fields are displayed, and each field contains either the odd or even numbered horizontal lines of a frame. Interlacing causes the image to lose a bit of focus, but it was a necessary sacrifice for the sake of performance when the format was created decades ago.

480p – A progressive display mode with 480 horizontal lines each composed of 640 pixels. Every second 60 full frames are displayed. Progressive scanning results in a much more clear and stable picture compared to interlaced scanning. Computer monitors are always progressive displays.

720p – A progressive display mode with 720 horizontal lines each composed of 1280 pixels. This mode contains 50% more vertical resolution and 100% more horizontal resolution than 480p, resulting in three times the number of pixels per frame. This resolution is intended for 16:9 wide-screen displays.

4:3 – The ratio of an ordinary TV’s width to its height. For every 4 inches of width, a TV screen has 3 inches of height.

16:9 – The ratio of a wide-screen display’s width to its height. For every 16 inches of width, a wide-screen display has 9 inches of height.

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