Sony touted the 4K graphics capabilities of its PlayStation Pro video game console at its event in New York City a couple of weeks ago.
VentureBeat’s Harrison Weber attended the event and was able to check out games running on 4K TVs. You could say that Sony really wants gamers to believe in the benefits of almost-4K games and high-dynamic range (HDR) for games such as the upcoming Horizon Zero Dawn, a big sci-fi PS4 exclusive coming early next year.
Developer Guerrilla Games confirmed in a press roundtable that the company isn’t rendering Horizon: Zero Dawn at the 3,840×2,160 resolution that is standard for 4K. Sony itself plainly stated during its event in Manhattan that it didn’t want to make a machine that could fill all 8 million pixels of a 4K television set.
Weber stayed around for a Q&A with Hermen Hulst, the managing director at Guerrilla Games. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation.
Question: This is being marketed as a 4K console for 4K gaming. How are you approaching that as far as the resolution you’re rendering at?
Hermen Hulst: The big thing about the Pro is it can handle 4K and HDR. First, I can tell you that it’s massive in terms of the visual difference, but it’s not massively different in how we make games. Our games have been running HDR since Killzone 3. But only now do we have displays that can actually show that. A lot of our assets are already prepared, future-proofed to be able to handle very high resolutions, but only now do we have displays that can show that as well. A lot of the content in the game is identical. It’s just shown now on these very high-end displays.
Question: Are you talking about the exact rendering resolution at this point? Are you rendering in 4K?
Hulst: There’s a lot of magic happening. It’s all very complicated and Mark Cerny has a fantastic seminar planned in a couple of weeks where he goes into the nitty-gritty of it. It’s not native 4K, but as you’ve seen for yourself on the screens, it’s acceptably so. It’s close enough that you can see the difference with normal human eyes.
Question: Is it safe to say that it will be easy to have a game that works on both the new model and the previous model?
Hulst: Yes. It’s not like we have separate teams working on different versions. We have maybe one or two technicians looking at the specifics of the hardware, but everybody’s making the game. Obviously somebody like JB, as an art director, will specifically look at how we can optimize for HDR, how the image can truly stand out in 4K. But it isn’t something that’s going to split off a second team.
Question: Your current project is very far along in development. Will this affect your development strategy for your next project when you can take it into consideration from the very beginning? Or will you still look at PS4 as the base, and then consider what extra things you can do? How will the Pro factor into your thinking at the start of a project?
Hulst: The biggest thing will be HDR, because it’s quite a paradigm shift in how you deal with color. It gets very nerdy at this point. HDR involves a richer color palette, so we’ll have to rewire how we deal with this, how we can make sure it looks good on both displays. It’ll always look better on an HDR 4K display, but it’ll still look stunning on a normal display. We’ll have to find ways of dealing with that, and that will definitely be part of the next project, whatever that may be. We’ll take that in on the ground level and make sure both versions are really good.
Question: Sony has said it’ll be rolling out HDR to older generations of PlayStations. Is there a difference between the HDR we’ll see from the Pro and older consoles?
Hulst: The only difference there, really, will be resolution.
Question: Will the earlier PS4s have software HDR?
Hulst: Technically, it works a bit differently. It depends on the type of signal that comes out. We’ll get into technical details later.
Question: Are you thinking about games you made previously, your back catalog?
Hulst: Currently, we’re only working on Horizon: Zero Dawn for PS4 Pro. That’s the most ambitious project our studio has ever worked on. We’re very busy with that.
Question: Can you talk about specific points in Horizon that benefit the most from HDR?
Hulst: It’s definitely the sky lighting. We’ve put a lot of effort into making the skies feel very rich, making them look as close to natural as possible. We got really close with normal displays, and then when we got the HDR screens, it’s like, “Oh, there’s so much more we can do.” That’s one area where we’re looking into making things work much better, getting much closer to the majesty of real nature.
There are other aspects as well. We have areas in the game where you see a lot of holograms, and this is a place where we can play with some really vibrant colors, get something out there that we wouldn’t have been able to show on a normal display. There are specific places we can really make a difference.
Question: Can you talk about specific things that may look better with the game running on a Pro, but on a 1080p TV?
Hulst: You’re always making tradeoffs as far as image quality versus performance. With a Pro, we don’t necessarily need to do that anymore. We can have the image quality and the performance without making the subtle tradeoffs – things that most people might never notice, but that we’re very attuned to. That may be one of the areas where—what it’ll do is render the game at 4K, and then use a technique called super-sampling to send it to a 1080p screen. It’s similar to how renders get done for movies, where it’s rendered at a very high sample rate and then sent to a normal screen. It’ll be a much more stable, much more aesthetically pleasing image from a technical point of view.
Question: With super-sampling, does that mean aliased edges will look better?
Hulst: Jagged edges won’t exist. Any graininess will be removed. It’ll be a much crisper image. The resolution will be very even. And the framerate will be positively impacted.
We can automatically detect what your display is. We want to make it very accessible. We don’t want to have to give you a lot of options as far as what filtering techniques to use and so on, like you see on PCs. We know exactly what the hardware can do and what display you have. If you have a 4K screen, we’ll know that and we’ll optimize for it. If you have a 1080p screen, which many people will still have, we’ll optimize for that experience as well. There aren’t any negatives for the vast majority of players who are still on 1080p. They’ll have a very solid 1080p experience.
Question: Can you talk about temporal and spatial AA in a way a non-tech person could understand?
Hulst: Wow. On a very simple level, spatial AA is if you look at a static image and see jaggies, temporal AA is if you look at a moving image and see shimmer. That’s the two things the Pro will be specifically good at combating.
Question: You mentioned the Pro will allow you to have higher framerates?
Hulst: Smoother framerates, which isn’t exactly the same thing. Some games are brilliant, like Uncharted 4 – it runs perfectly and never drops a single frame. But that’s an exception. Not many games are like that. Most games will have moments where framerate drops. That’s especially nasty in a multiplayer game where there are too many explosions going on. Things chug down a bit. Because there’s more power, more room in the Pro, maybe if you’re running your game at 1080, that will all go away. You might have a very stable framerate.
Question: Can you talk more about what’s specifically better in the game because of the Pro hardware?
Hulst: For our game specifically, the colors are very interesting. It allows us to show nature and all these vistas in a way that’s much closer to what reality looks like. That was one of the reasons behind the Horizon: Zero Dawn project. We wanted the fantasy of hunting these robot machines to be set in a kind of BBC nature documentary. It’s a big deal that we have HDR accessible in the experience.
Question: You said that you won’t have user-facing visual settings for HDR specifically. If the game detects that you have an HDR TV, you can’t turn off the HDR image?
Hulst: It should be possible to set your TV to normal HD on that end. But there’s probably not going to be any reason you would want to do that.
Question: I’m sure you were in contact with Sony and Mark Cerny’s team in the process of developing the Pro hardware. Is there anything you as developers pushed for specifically in those conversations?
Hulst: With Mark driving that, it’s great for us that there’s now this improvement in between cycles. From day one, as a studio we were encouraging Sony to do that. We were already pushing the envelope, because we as a studio have a legacy of embracing the hardware and seeing what we can do with it. But there wasn’t so much a specific feature that emanated from a Guerrilla request. Mark has a very nice feel for the development community. Not even just Worldwide Studios, but what the broader development community wants, and what the consumer base wants as well.