1080p. Ten-eighty-pee. If you have been paying any attention to video game news over the past year or two, you've probably seen the term pop up quite a bit, in everything from technical breakdowns to E3 press conferences. It's Today's Big Buzzword.
1080p, which is shorthand for 1920x1080, is commonly referred to as Full HD. It's pretty much the highest native resolution you can get from today's console video games, which is one of the reasons E3 2014 was full of marketers and presenters shouting about it. "Our game will be 1080p!" they'd screech. To some it sounded like robot speak, but to many people, it was a meaningful boast, and it represented what "next-gen" really meant. "1080p" means more pixels. More details. Better-looking games.
See, last fall's expensive new Xbox One and PS4 consoles were delivered with lofty promises—"next-gen" games would be bigger! More interesting! Better looking! And although some have argued, quite fairly, that a pedantic focus on graphical fidelity over artistic value has limited what video games can do, it's undeniable that there's a significant visual difference between a game that runs at 1080p and, say, a game that runs at 720p.
So many game developers have made it a priority to make games that can run at a native resolution of 1920x1080p. For people who care about graphics—or people who want to feel like their expensive console purchases were worth every penny—that's a big deal.
With all that in mind, consider what happened this week. Let's call it the Parity Problem.
In an article published on Monday, Ubisoft Montreal producer Vincent Pontbriand set off a firestorm by saying his team had capped November's Assassin's Creed Unity at 900p resolution for both Xbox One and PS4 in order to dodge console wars. "We decided to lock them at the same specs to avoid all the debates and stuff," he said. In other words, they wanted parity.
As of now, Assassin's Creed Unity is locked at 900p. But why "stop" there? "We know a lot of gamers consider 1080p with 60 frames per second to be the gold standard, especially on the new generation of consoles," Pontbriand says. "We realise we had also pushed for 1080p in some of our previous games, including AC4. But we made the right decision to focus our resources on delivering the best gameplay experience, and resolution is just one factor. There is a real cost to all those NPCs, to all the details in the city, to all the systems working together, and to the seamless co-op gameplay. We wanted to be absolutely uncompromising when it comes to the overall gameplay experience. Those additional pixels could only come at a cost to the gameplay."
Seems reasonable, right? Nope. People were furious.
See, history has shown us that the PS4 and Xbox One are not technically equivalent. While both Sony and Microsoft have built impressive, powerful consoles—and the Xbox One's multitasking features are getting better and better—the new PlayStation is slightly more powerful. It's got faster RAM and a better GPU. From a technical perspective, it's the superior console right now.
Consequently, a lot of observers are reading between the lines of Ubisoft's comments and concluding that the publisher could have made Unity run at a higher resolution of the PS4, but didn't. Because of parity.
Meanwhile, here comes BioWare, touting in a tweet just this afternoon that their own big November game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, is milking out as much as possible from both consoles. The timing sure makes this seem like a subtle dig at Ubisoft.
Confirmed: #DAI resolution is 1080p on PS4, and 900p on Xbox One. We maximised the current potential of each platform.
— Dragon Age (@dragonage) October 10, 2014
Now, just to reiterate:
Assassin's Creed Unity: 900p on PS4; 900p on Xbox One
Dragon Age Inquisition: 1080p on PS4; 900p on Xbox One
A quick look back at other multiplatform releases over the past year reveals that for the most part, the PS4 versions tend to run at higher native resolutions. Call of Duty, Battlefield, and even Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed IV all performed better on the PlayStation 4 than they did on the Xbox One.
Of course—and this important—that doesn't mean the Xbox One versions weren't gorgeous. The PS4, the Xbox One, and even the way-technically-inferior Wii U have all seen some incredible-looking games over the past year.
But! Many PS4 owners bought their systems in hopes that big game developers would max out the capabilities of that shiny £350 box. And to those PS4 owners, it doesn't make much sense that the folks at Ubisoft couldn't eke better specs out of Unity for the PlayStation 4 version.
I've seen some pundits and journalists theorise that this is all about console wars—puerile battles over slavish company loyalty—but I really don't think that's true. I think it's fairly reasonable for PS4 owners to get mad when a company appears to be limiting a game's capabilities. If the PS4 is capable of delivering a better technical performance—and history has proven that it is—why shouldn't PS4 owners hope for better-looking games? BioWare's tweet just adds fuel to the 1080p fire.
Meanwhile, sadly, the Wii U versions of both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Assassin's Creed Unity are running at a subpar zero-p.