Getting the very best out of a games console requires a lot of dedicated time and effort. The last few months of development are a mad frenzy of optimisation, to try and get as steady a frame rate as possible. As we’ve seen on plenty of occasions, developers often don’t manage manage to pull it off, whether the goal is 60 frames per second or 30.
Adding more consoles and more hardware configurations into the mix only makes that task more challenging. On PC, there are countless possible combinations of hardware, and that’s a big part of why developers are able to get so much more out of consoles, and why it was such a surprise that Sony are gunning for 4K with the PlayStation 4 Pro, when it’s based on an AMD Polaris GPU that is nowhere near being able to manage that on PC. But you’d actually be quite surprised as to how few people are needed to get a game up and running on PlayStation 4 Pro.
Obviously, without a 4K TV and without HDR support on YouTube, quite a bit is lost in translation for the above video.
Speaking to Jason Connell from Sucker Punch, who are bringing forward compatibility patches for inFamous First Light and inFamous Second Son, and to Graham Aldridge from Bend Studios, who are developing Days Gone, we had a large proportion of the PS4 Pro oriented team in the room with us.
Graham revealed that, “I’ve been the only person working on the implementation of PS4 Pro support and HDR support, […] but there’s been no work from the art team needed.” And similarly, Jason explained that as Tech Art Lead, a role between artist and programmer, there were just two engineers back at Sucker Punch working alongside him on the PS4 Pro forward compatibility patches.
Retrofitting the two inFamous games was actually made a lot easier by already having HDR built into the game engine. “We got very lucky,” Jason said, “in that we were working on [inFamous Second Son] and we implemented this HDR pipeline, and it looked a lot better than not having a HDR pipeline, even though things were gated by SDR TVs.
“So we got very lucky, now that we have these HDR TVs that are vibrant and can utilise this HDR, but we didn’t plan for that or know that future TVs would have it as an option.”
What’s quite interesting is that adding HDR also means that developers can then switch off or tone down various other effects. The last 15 years have seen games simulate how eyes react to changes in light in various different ways, in an attempt to offer a semblance of the vibrancy and contrast that it’s possible to see in the real world, but now those aren’t needed anymore, because your eyes can do the work for themselves.
In lieu of fresh images from Sony, this is Days Gone from E3, originally at 1080p and in SDR.
Graham said, “Our Sun is 1,000 times brighter than our Moon, which is an enormous difference – in the real world that’s even more extreme. The thought is that if we represent those values realistically, then what we will get will be realistic, but that brings huge challenges in dealing with exposure of the scene, preventing eye strain due to things being too bright or too dark, and then dealing with highlights because they can oversaturate quite easily.
“In the demo, we do an awful lot of work for standard [dynamic range] TVs to mitigate that, so if one part of the screen is too bright and another part is too dark, we counterbalance them. There’s all sorts of things to make sure what you’re seeing is natural [in SDR], but a lot of that work is no longer required in HDR, because we can pump out that actual brightness straight to the TV.”
But there is still work to be done in terms of optimising for the PS4 Pro, even with Polaris being an extension and refinement of technologies found in the base PS4’s GPU. There’s still plenty of time to go, but inFamous First Light is currently running at 1800p, the 4K equivalent to the 900p that we see crop up so often. Days Gone, meanwhile, is already running at 2160p (AKA 4K), albeit with the use of checkerboarding to get there.
Thankfully, patches will likely be quite manageable sizes to download. Both PS4 and PS4 Pro feature 8GB of RAM, and that means that there’s the same upper limit to what assets developers can load into the game. That’s fine, though, and even in the middle of the press conference, Mark Cerny was talking about how this isn’t increasing the asset detail, but rather using 4K and HDR to show more of the detail that’s already there.
Again, you’ll want to watch this on a 4K TV for even a vague semblance of the full effect.
The one disappointment for me is that Rise of the Tomb Raider’s graphical options put into effect in more games. That kind of thing will naturally take more time to implement, but it’s something that I hope more third party developers adopt, especially when there’s a PC version of the game to draw upon that has higher tiers of graphical detail. The one disappointment for Tomb Raider will be that, bearing in mind that there are more optimisations to be made, they aren’t currently able to simply double the game’s frame rate at 1080p and let it run at 60 frames per second.
The same misgivings are present with inFamous and Days Gone, where the games will run at 4K and then be supersampled down to 1080p, instead of running natively at 1080p with a higher frame rate. As I’ve said elsewhere, that narrower approach diminishes the appeal of the PS4 Pro unless you have a 4K TV. You don’t get an improved frame rate, you don’t get enhanced lighting or shadow detail beyond the HDR improvements that you can get with the base PS4.
“It’s completely up to the developer, how they choose to use the extra power,” Graham explained. “For us, personally, we choose to take that 4K image and let the hardware apply its extremely high quality downscaling, and it produces a fantastic supersampled image. It’s surprisingly visible, even on a 1080p TV.”
The choice is, of course, entirely up to the developer as to what they want to achieve with the PlayStation 4 Pro, but by and large, it doesn’t seem as if it takes too much . All of this should be quite reassuring for both those planning to get a PS4 Pro and those sticking with existing hardware, but just beware that if you do upgrade, you’ll see the most consistent and tangible gains if you also combine it with a high quality 4K TV.