i3 | April 25, 2017

4K Video Games Transform Entertainment

John Gaudiosi
Man playing video game

The videogame industry has always embraced new technology. PC gaming has been at the forefront of many new innovations. Consider virtual reality as well as 4K gaming, which has been buoyed by an influx of 4K PC monitors from companies like Dell, Samsung and BenQ. Now the console business is following suit.

According to research firm IHS, by 2019, 34 percent of American homes will have a 4K Ultra HDTV. By 2019, 4K UHD TVs will be present in 25 percent of homes in the European Union and 14 percent of Japanese homes. The recent rise of 4K TVs, thanks in large part to lower retail pricing, took place after Sony launched its PlayStation 4 and Microsoft unleashed its Xbox One in November 2013. So in a move that hadn’t previously been seen in the industry, both companies have released upgrades to their current hardware offerings that still play current and future games.

Each company is taking a different approach with its hardware. Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro (nicknamed the PS4K) retails for $400 and comes with an improved CPU (an eight core AMD Jaguar) and increased GPU (4.2 teraflops AMD Radeon), which allows developers to achieve faster framerates and advanced visual effects. Of course, the key differentiator is video can be displayed in 4K (4096×2160 pixels), which is a huge improvement over PS4’s HD (1920x1080) visuals.

Andrew House, CEO at Sony Interactive Entertainment, says the upgrade to 4K will transform entertainment like gamers haven’t seen since the transition from standard-definition to high-definition between PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3.

“Our vision is to present a clear choice to gamers,” House says. “We want to offer an option for those who want to heighten the experience.”

At the same time, House says the goal is for PS4 to remain a single unified community, which means the same discs and downloads will work across all consoles.

“PlayStation 4 Pro sits alongside the standard PS4 and is part of this generation of consoles,” House says. “It’s targeted toward the hardcore gamer or those who have invested in 4K TVs.”

Microsoft, which fought the adoption of Blu-ray by pushing the now discontinued HD-DVD format with its Xbox 360 console, is embracing the new 4K Blu-ray Disc player this time around. Its $300 Xbox One S comes with the player. Dave McCarthy, head of operations for Xbox, says the philosophy is all about choice.

“It’s not about us dictating what machine you need because you have that guarantee of your content and your accessories working across the lineup overall,” McCarthy says. “There will obviously be different price points that people enter. Xbox One S in particular, if you’re still on 360 — which is a really thriving community for us still to this day — and you’ve been wondering about jumping in, or you haven’t been a part of the Xbox family of console devices yet, the value that we’re delivering at $299 — a lot of the 4K Blu-ray players right now are over $299. People can choose when they want to do it, but they don’t have to worry about being left behind.”

Shawn Layden, chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios, says the PS4 Pro doesn’t include a 4K Ultra HD player because more than 90 percent of PS4 gamers consume their movies and entertainment digitally. This generation of millennial and younger gamers hasn’t just cut the cord, they’ve skipped the disc.

“Users are watching YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, our own PlayStation Vue service here in America, via streaming,” Layden says. “We decided that we’re looking at a streaming generation and we made our choices about design to optimize for the best 4K streaming experience.”

PS4 Pro supports 4K streaming, including special 4K channels featuring Netflix and YouTube. And the console automatically upgrades the visuals of select PS4 games on a 4K TV via its “Pro Mode”. But Sony is also working with both internal development teams and third-party publishers to enhance older titles. More than a dozen titles are available now with enhanced visuals including big titles like Activision’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, Guerrilla Games’ Horizon: Zero Dawn, Bend Studios’ Days Gone and Electronic Arts’ Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Microsoft is not currently offering a lineup of games in 4K. They’re waiting until 2017’s holiday season when they launch their next console, dubbed Project Scorpio. That refresh of the Xbox One will feature an eight-core AMD APU with six teraflops of graphical computing power, which is four times better than the current Xbox One. It’s designed to play 4K games and will offer high fidelity virtual reality experiences. (See sidebar on Microsoft’s new virtual reality business.)

“If you want an indication of what’s going on in the true 4K space, Windows 10 Gears of War Ultimate Edition is a great example. We’re learning a lot in that space. We’re listening to our developers. We’re hearing that the six teraflops bar is critical to deliver what gamers are enjoying in the PC space right now. We anticipate offering that to our customers and unlocking those great experiences that you can only enjoy in the PC space right now.”

Microsoft has been promoting cross-platform play across Windows 10 and Xbox One (and Xbox One S) with key releases like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3. The company is also providing backwards compatibility for more than 100 Xbox 360 games across Xbox One, Xbox One S and the upcoming Project Scorpio, allowing gamers to play previously purchased games on the new console. Sony decided not to make PS4 backwards compatible to PS3 games, although that decision hasn’t hurt its place in the current console landscape.

According to Michael Pachter, analyst for Wedbush Securities, Sony already has won the current console battle with more than 57 million PS4s, compared to 24 million Xbox Ones and 14 million Nintendo Wii Us in homes around the globe in 2016. Nintendo and Microsoft have all but conceded by announcing new devices for 2017 with the Nintendo Switch launching this spring and Project Scorpio readying for a holiday 2017 debut.

A New High Dynamic Range

Sony provided a free update to its original PS4 and the PS4 Slim to include high dynamic range (HDR) support. This technology is also featured in both the PS4K and the Xbox One S, and will be part of Project Scorpio’s feature set. HDR makes everything from live action to videogames more realistic and lifelike by adding more contrast, brightness and color to the picture. This technology applies to both HD and 4K, but the visual difference is much more dynamic on a 4K screen.

Mark Cerny, Sony’s architect of PlayStation 4, says HDR is the most exciting advance in TV technology in the last decade because current HDTVs only offer a fraction of the colors the human eye can see.

“HDR is a new technology and the standards are still in flux, so game creators are still figuring out how to take advantage of it,” Cerny says.

But the early games show off more immersive environments, more life-like characters and amazing visual effects. When coupled with 4K, the difference is night and day. And it’s something that can easily be displayed at retail on 4K TVs.

John Koller, vice president of marketing at Sony Interactive Entertainment, says the PlayStation division (Sony Interactive Entertainment) and the other Sony divisions — particularly Sony Pictures and Sony Electronics — have been very bullish on working together and aligning around opportunities in 4K.

“Our ultimate goal is always to provide the best and most relevant content for our gaming community, so we’re excited to heighten gaming and entertainment experiences on PS4 Pro,” Koller says.

Brandt Varner, general manager of TV product marketing at Samsung, says with each passing generation of gaming hardware, gamers want and expect to be blown away by incredible graphics, dynamic brightness, optimal contrast and more vibrant colors than ever before.

“This is what the promise of 4K and HDR gaming can be — especially when paired with a high-end TV like Samsung’s flagship KS9800 TV to enjoy true 4K gaming,” Verner says. “Gaming in 4K HDR opens up a whole new world, allowing players to experience even the tiniest of details (even in dark scenes) due to the tremendous resolution, increased contrast, wider color gamut delivering more depth, range, and accuracy.”

The fact that Sony is offering HDR to all of its PS4 consumers will ensure wide adoption of HDR for games moving forward. And, over time, the early adopter gamers who have helped Sony emerge as the bestselling games console of this generation, will also help consumer electronics companies move 4K TVs.

Koller believes the adoption of 4K TVs extends beyond hardcore gamers, so we expect to see significant amounts of casual gamers and general entertainment consumers purchasing 4K TVs to enjoy richer content on devices like PS4 Pro.

“This console is great for 4K content providers but particularly positive for game developers, who have constantly been on the cutting edge of technological evolutions and now have the opportunity to paint on an even broader canvas,” Koller says.

“Once the games industry and content catch up to the improved hardware, videogames stand to be amongst the biggest beneficiaries of 4K and HDR and it will make a huge difference in their gaming experiences,” Verner says.

Microsoft and Mixed Reality

Microsoft made its first foray into virtual reality by partnering with Facebook-owned Oculus VR on the Rift, which includes an Xbox One controller in every box and access to Windows 10 games. But the tech giant is going all-in with mixed reality this spring. Microsoft has partnered with HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, and Acer to launch a line of $300 Windows 10-powered headsets that will unlock augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality experiences for game developers, Hollywood and app makers.

One thing differentiating these new headsets from current PC offerings like Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive is inside-out six-degree-of-freedom sensors, which can track their own position with internal sensors. Current PC VR offerings require base stations and dedicated spaces.

Another important factor is that these headsets will work across a broader range of PCs, including $500 models. Rift and Vive require more expensive PC setups.

“Microsoft’s new VR headset is the next stage of VR going mass consumer,” Digi-Capital CE Tim Merel says. “For consumers, inside-out tracking without the need to buy or set up external sensors in a dedicated VR playroom is huge. The $299 price point is much less expensive than other PC-based VR products. However, the greatest potential for the Microsoft VR headset could come from bundling it with Project Scorpio.”

Merel says Microsoft could use its new VR headset to leapfrog competitors in two markets at the same time, leveraging for VR some of the great work already done by Phil Spencer, Alex Kipman and Kudo Tsunoda with Windows 10 and HoloLens in the adjacent augmented reality market.

Despite trailing behind the release of other VR offerings, Microsoft’s headset will benefit from a solid foundation of Windows 10 and Xbox One games. This library of titles, combined with a lower cost of entry, puts Microsoft in a strong position to shake up the virtual reality marketplace this spring.

Nintendo’s Big Switch

Nintendo dominated the videogame landscape two generations ago with Wii, which sold more than 110 million consoles and more than 872 million games. That hasn’t been the case with Wii U, which has sold more than 14 million consoles and more than 93 million games. Nintendo hopes to return to the success it’s enjoyed for many decades in the videogame business with its new Switch, which launched this March.

The Switch is a hybrid home console and portable device, expanding upon the Wii U Gamepad tablet concept. Every game developed for the Switch, including new Mario and Legend of Zelda titles, will work on the big screen TV as well as on its HD screen. The concept bridges the gap between Nintendo’s two long-standing businesses with the Nintendo 3DS and the console.

The Switch has been designed for single and multiplayer gaming both at home and on-the-go. The device slides in and out of a charging dock that connects to the TV. And when in portable mode, Joy-Con or Nintendo Switch Pro Controllers can be used for single or multiplayer experiences.

“Nintendo Switch allows gamers the freedom to play however they like,” says Reggie Fils-Aime, president and COO, Nintendo of America. “It gives game developers new abilities to bring their creative visions to life by opening up the concept of gaming without boundaries.”

Switch is powered by NVIDIA technology, which also powers the NVIDIA Shield Android TV. While the Shield boasts 4K games, Nintendo is focusing on HD gaming with its newest platform.

March/April 2017 i3 Cover Issue

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