The Padded Room: The Truth About HD Video Game Remakes
Like thousands of other Playstation gamers who have been somewhat re-compensated by Sony for the outage of the Playstation Network during the month of May, I find myself raiding the wastes of the Playstation Store like a ratty scavenger in a Mad Max movie. With my free 30 day Playstation Plus membership card in hand, I am starved, and willing to call a meager can of dog food a bountiful feast which would radiate a sense of joy within me that not even Norman Rockwell could capture. Although there are several gems buried beneath the Playstation 3 wallpapers, avatars, videos, exclusive demos, downloadable Playstation 1(PSX) and PSN games, and my pick of two free full games from a pre-selection of five (from which four I already own), I found myself most intrigued by the 60 minute free video game trial service provided for Playstation Plus members. For $50 a year (the price of a year’s worth of Playstation Plus admission), I can, apparently, select from a very limited group of Playstation 3 titles, download the full game to my PS3’s hard drive, and I can play the game for the span of 1 hour. Though it would be more practical to purchase a subscription to Gamefly or Blockbuster Video (if I actually wanted to play more of the games available to try) I did happen across the God of War High Definition remakes available for these 1 hour ‘free’ trials. Tempted to see whether or not $20 was worth an investment into repurchasing God of War 2 for the updated HD graphics, I downloaded the hour long demo, collected all the trophies I could shoehorn within 60 minutes (only 2 lousy bronzes), and left extremely dissatisfied by what I had seen.
A vast improvement, but……….
Why am I dissatisfied in seeing Kratos and all of Olympus in high definition? Simple:
It’s because that humble God of War 2 Playstation 2 disc that I bought years ago has nearly the same HD potential as the God of War 2 HD remake being resold for $20.
Before I even begin going into detail, I would like to make the opinions I am about to express as simple as I possibly can: This is not a call for a boycott of HD remakes. This is not me standing in the way of capitalism. This is not me thinking that HD remakes should never exist. This is just my presenting information and my personal ideas regarding the trend of reselling your old games back to you all in the name of HD graphics.
The Hidden Potential
While this is nothing new to the tech-savvy or hard core gamers, the majority of casual or young gamers don’t realize that nearly all Playstation 1, Playstation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and other polygon-based video games are capable of true HD graphics right off of the original discs through proper software/hardware rendering. Much like a PC gamer being able to set the resolution of the game he is playing, past video games that rely on polygon models also have the potential to be rendered in higher resolutions. You’ll notice that the increase in quality from the example Playstation 1 (PSX) games when they are (properly) rendered in HD-level resolutions, rather than their native SD resolution. The following screen-captures are from Playstation 1 discs being rendered to near 720p HD (1280 x 720 resolution) by a popular Playstation 1 PC emulator ‘EPSXE’:
Final Fantasy XI running in HD from the original PSX disc
Resident Evil 2 running in HD from the original PSX disc
Silent Hill running in HD from the original PSX disc
If you have ever played any of the games above on a Standard Definition (SD) television, you’re first response will likely be “Fuck me! I can actually see their faces!”. The second likely reply will be: “Fuck me! How did they get the graphics to be so smooth?”.
Since it is impossible to add new textures to an existing game (or at the very least it’s difficult unless you are the game’s original developer or publisher), the truth is that this is exactly how the PSX actually exist. NO JOKE. However the reason why you likely never saw these classic PSX games in such detail is because of the low output power of the Playstation 1 hardware and the low definition of home televisions in the early late 1990’s. Regardless if you hook your old PSX to an HDTV, the outputting power of the PSX is too low to render the graphics any higher than a resolution of 320 x 240, thereby causing the pixelated ‘blur’ look that hinders you from seeing the details that came in your game. However, not all of the details come out looking pristine, as most textures (walls, backgrounds, etc) were deliberately created for 320 x 240 resolutions in order to save disc space (600-700MB max capacity on the black-backed PSX discs), hence the reason why the backgrounds in the Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy IX screenshots (above) still retain their blocky, low res textures. Although, with the use of software/hardware anti-aliasing (minimizing the distortion artifacts) and filtering (texture smoothing), the appearance of ‘jaggies’ can be minimized dramatically.
Current HD Capabilities for Older Games
During the first run of the Playstation 3, Sony did attempt to not only allow gamers to play their Playstation 1 and Playstation 2 games on the Playstation 3, but to also enhance the graphics of both PSX and PS2 games through the powerful hardware of the PS3. However, due to unknown hardware restrictions or just pure laziness, Sony opted to ‘upscale’ the graphics (increasing the number of pixels outputted to fill the screen), rather than fully rendering them in High Definition resolutions. The results are slightly better images, but far from the pristine HD quality that could be obtained from rendering.
Microsoft’s Xbox 360 was once slowly adding backwards compatibility to titles from the original Xbox console, but, like the Playstation 3, the graphics are only upscaled to 720p, 1080i (i: interlaced), 1080p (p: progressive scan), not rendered in full HD using the Xbox 360 hardware.
The only console that currently renders older games is the Wii rendering Nintendo 64 titles via the Virtual Console, however due to hardware restrictions, the Wii only outputs N64 games at 480p (standard definition, or “SD”). However, Nintendo 64, GameCube, and Nintendo Wii games are also capable of HD rendering if the hardware were more powerful.
While Nintendo is hindered by the meager hardware of the GameCube/Wii, the truth as to why the HD console developers, Microsoft and Sony, don’t render their older games in HD is likely the same reason why few of them invest effort in backwards compatibility: They likely believe that A) it requires a lot of programming, but doesn’t yield perfect results, and B) it’s not profitable.
It’s not Konami’s Code
Coding a software emulator for a new console that allows the playing of the games of older consoles (ie: Playing PS1 and PS2 games on a PS3) is a daunting task, in which Sony has taken many shortcuts in the past.
When Sony included backward compatibility for PlayStation 1 games on the PlayStation 2, they took the short cut by simply including an original PlayStation chip inside the PlayStation 2. With the original PlayStation hardware smaller and cheaper to manufacture at the time of the Playstation 2’s release (5 years later), backward compatibility was an almost trivial feature in terms of effort. In the case of the original 20 and 60 GB (Gigabyte) PS3s, Sony repeated history and included the PS2 hardware within each PS3, bypassing the need for software emulation to run PS2 games on the PS3. In order to cut costs, the next iteration of the Playstation 3 dropped the expensive PS2 hardware and instead focused on software emulation. However, software emulation is not an exact science, and the use of software emulation resulted in a larger percentage of Playstation 2 games being unplayable due to graphical glitches or game crashing (aka ‘fatal errors’). Likely due to the fact that all of the Playstation 2 games (a library of literally thousands of games) could never be 100% emulated through software, Sony abandoned PS2 backwards compatibility and instead chose to keep producing Playstation 2 consoles, which are (naturally) far more reliable for PS2 gaming. All Playstation 3 models support software emulation of the original PlayStation, which makes me believe that software rendering is NOT IMPOSSIBLE.
As for Microsoft, it turns out that the graphics card gurus, nVidia, retain ownership of the original Xbox GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) and the chips that process Dolby Digital sound. And because the hardware architectures between the Xbox and the Xbox 360 are vastly different, it forces Microsoft to run Xbox games on the Xbox 360 via software emulation. The result is a messy (but necessary) one where every backwards compatible game has to be emulated INDIVIDUALLY via separate game emulation profiles that are downloaded and saved to your Xbox 360 Hard disc Drive. According to my research, there are currently only 478 (51%) Xbox games currently being emulated for the Xbox 360. As of November 2008, Microsoft announced that it would end development of additional backwards compatible titles due to the 360 being able to stand on its own two feet without need for the support of its past titles.
If The Basement Dwellers Can Do It…
I’m going to say a magical word, and I want you all to remember it:
Emulation is a fancy tech word for a software that pretends to be another. For instance, a Playstation 2 emulator for a PC would be a program that can read Playstation 2 code and run it on a PC computer. Another example might be an Atari 2600 emulator for a PSP, or an N64 emulator on a Playstation 3.
You want to know something funny? Those three examples of emulators that I gave above ALL EXIST. And there’s legions more. Want to play Nintendo Game Boy games on your Xbox 360? There’s emulators that do just that, and they do it fairly accurately. Does this mean that Nintendo 64 games can run on a Sega Game Gear? No, because the hardware of the Game Gear is inferior to the 64, HOWEVER, playing older games on newer hardware is within the realm of possibility. Hell, I just played “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem” for the GameCube on my laptop, and it looks phenomenal in HD.
Now, it’s painfully obvious that the hardware architecture between the Playstation 2 and the Playstation 3, and the Xbox and the Xbox 360 are vastly different, and that -in the case with Microsoft’s backwards compatibility issue earlier- software emulation is required to bridge the gaps. However, what I don’t understand is why do multi-BILLION dollar companies think it’s so impossible to make software emulators for their new consoles that enable backwards compatibility and High Definition when private coders (who likely develop emulators as a passion rather than a profession) are popping them out like rabbits.
However, EMULATION IS NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE (as I mentioned above with Microsoft’s game profile emulation). Successfully emulating modern, 3D polygon-based games can require hours of emulator configuration alone, the hardware requirements for running old games in HD are exceptionally high, and the result emulating games on non-native hardware is hit-or-miss at best. But you have to also realize that the people who code emulators are probably not given the proper tools to essentially reverse-engineer the native system environments that they are attempting to emulate. Furthermore, some games are horribly programmed to begin with, resulting in the need for individual attention and bug fixes for certain games only.
One thing to consider is that every console has different methods of decoding and processing the data from a game. For example, the Playstation 2 code is proprietary and it utilized 128-bit encryption to protect not only the hardware, but the developers’ software from being pirated. However, the PS2 code has been decrypted and successfully emulated to the point where you can now play Playstation 2 games on a PC. Sure, it’s about 15 years after the Playstation 2 was introduced, but if a ragtag group of programmers can not only decrypt the Playstation 2’s code, but also successfully emulate PS2 code on a PC (DirectX, Windows; Microsoft products) then why can’t Sony, the developer of the Playstation 2, emulate its own environment on its latest console? I would imagine that since Sony’s developers and coders know their own products, that they could create an extremely efficient software emulator.
I’m not saying that it would necessarily be easy, but if the hardware boundaries have been broken with most indie-developer emulators, then backwards compatibility and HD rendering on our current-gen consoles is well within the realm of possibility.
The second aspect is that with the coding and debugging of software emulators there is an extremely low profit margin. Imagine investing months or years, and potentially millions of dollars of man-hours creating a software emulator that will only accurately emulate 60-90% of all older games, and which would be used by people to play the games they already own, and thus wouldn’t re-purchase their games without a significant change (ex: HD Graphics). It’s not hard to see how this division of a company could go down the path of financial ruin relatively quickly.
Good Business, Better Business
The whole “Bankrupt” scenario (above) is horseshit. HORSESHIT.
There will ALWAYS be a market for old games. Always. Maybe you never got a chance to play the original “Silent Hill” or “Metal Gear Solid” games on the Playstation 1. Or, maybe you didn’t want to shell out $200 for an unopened copy of the Playstation 1 classic “Final Fantasy VII”. Or, maybe there is an obscure title that was critically acclaimed but sold poorly, and you want to have a chance to play it yourself, like “Beyond Good and Evil”, or “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem”.
Thanks to the ability to download titles, it is relatively easy, and relatively lucrative to resell old games at affordable prices; this is evident with the popularity of the Wii Virtual Console and the Playstation Store. For instance, I have never played “The Legacy of Kain” (PSX), but thanks to the Playstation Store I can own a digital copy of the full game for about $5-7. The same story applies to “Xenogears” and “Vagrant Story” and a host of other Playstation 1 titles that I missed out on while I was playing my Nintendo 64. And because I doubt I’m the only person alive who thinks this way, the demand to purchase older games obviously exists. And that is exactly why publishers like Capcom and Konami are releasing HD collections of their successful franchises, because HD is just an added incentive for people who already own these games to purchase the same game twice.
With every re-released HD version of a past title lies behind it a great sum of invested money, time, and materials. Converting a full game to HD would take valuable time and resources to convert the old code, likely reprogram an ample amount of it so that it runs smoothly on the new consoles, repair broken textures that weren’t noticeable at low SD resolutions, test for glitches or bugs, and then spend a God-awful amount of time making fixes. And then there are the publishing costs, because burning Blu-rays and DVDs, and making the packaging for the games themselves isn’t cheap, nor is transporting the games to your local video game store.
Regardless, before a developer even begins this task, there would need to be an expected return on investment to even consider translating an older game to HD, so unless a developer were confident enough that the money spent on converting your favorite PS2 “Hello Kitty” game to HD would generate a net profit for the company, don’t expect it to ever happen.
The end results are higher expenses to the game developers, which trickle down to being higher expenses for gamers, in addition to the fact that the library of new HD remastered games will be extremely limited to the popular best-sellers, and not the critically acclaimed games that had brief and/or unfruitful runs.
In contrast, if the two HD Console manufacturers (Sony and Microsoft) were to spend their own time developing backwards compatibility systems that rendered older games in HD (via software emulation, most likely), the developers of past games could literally print their own money. Outside of legal mumbo-jumbo regarding creative rights, royalties, etc, the cost of selling a game via digital download would be virtually nil due to the lack of a need to invest in patching or recoding the existing games for newer hardware, as well as the costs of publishing games on expensive physical mediums (Blu-ray, DVDs, packaging, etc). The developers would save money due to their low expenses, which would likely result in gamers, themselves, reaping the benefits of purchasing games via digital downloads at lower prices than hard copy counterparts. In addition, (again not taking into account legal ownership issues) developers could practically dump their entire back catalog onto the digital download service, giving gamers the ability to either dive in and purchase older games till their heart’s content, fish around for a handful of games that they know they want, or just stumble upon interesting, inexpensive games that they want to buy and try for the hell of it.
The likely hangup with this theory is that -going back to the % of games that can run on software emulation- there’s a good chance that not every game will be made available due to complete incompatibility (graphic errors that would make a game look too degraded in HD or entirely unplayable, fatal errors, etc). There will be required testing on the game developer’s part to see what games will be available and which will either require recoding, or will be excluded forever. However, everyone can agree that even accurately emulating 50% of the Xbox’s library of games is still better than 0% of PS2 games being emulated on newer PS3 models, right?
But it’s Sony and Microsoft who will be programming the backwards compatibility and the rendering software, so how do they stand to benefit from all of this?
How about a kickback off of every title downloaded through their services? In October 1, 2008, Sony implemented a $0.16 per Gigabyte (1000 Megabytes) fee to publishers for paid and free downloadable content to cover the costs of the bandwidth used. The result was a lot of pissed off developers, but since Sony didn’t (and still doesn’t) charge for access to the Playstation Network or the Playstation Store, costs had to be recouped somewhere, and the Playstation 3 gamers already made it clear that they weren’t going to open their wallets for a service that wasn’t up to snuff with Xbox Live.
So, should console makers charge the developers to resell their older games through their online stores? They could, but they could just as easily charge the consumer a per Gigabyte fee (seriously, if it costs $7 instead of $5 for the full Metal Gear Solid (PSX) game, and it was playable in HD, would you give a rats ass about the $2?). Internet bandwidth is cheap, and Sony and Microsoft already provide the online downloading service, so if they both moved millions of Gigabytes worth of older games every month (and processed credit card transactions, etc) it’s an extremely inexpensive but lucrative venture. Either way that the game companies would want to work out the bandwidth and service fees wouldn’t lessen the value of the service; the game developers get to make a killing buy tossing their old games on the online marketplace, the console makers are reimbursed for their efforts, and gamers get expansive libraries of older games at extremely affordable prices.
Oh wait… THEY ALREADY DO THAT. Select Playstation 1 (PSX) games are available for online purchase via the Playstation Store for play on BOTH the Playstation 3 and the PSP. In addition, select original Xbox games are available on the Xbox Live Marketplace to play on the Xbox 360. So here’s the next logical question: Which scenario will yield the largest profit for both the game developers (and Sony and Microsoft): Selling 50 old games online, or selling 500? There’s no doubt that the larger the selection the more likely people are going to purchase full games. Additionally, due to Microsoft increasing the downloadable game size limitations from 64MB, to 150MB, to the current 2GB, and Sony apparently not having a size limitation (The “Move Heroes” game is a whopping 10GB download), there’s no reason why they couldn’t have the capability to expand the selection (legal rights, etc aside). The only hangup with this theory is that the 2GB limit on the Xbox 360 is a technical limitation of the file system being used (win 1 for the PS3, eh?). But Microsoft’s limitations aside, imagine being able to download Playstation 2 games (arguably the best video game library known to man) from the Playstation Store and playing them on your Playstation 3? Thousands of titles to choose from, and the developers and Sony all get to have their cake and eat it, too.
The Insanity of it All
With technology, almost anything is possible, and yet game companies are using archaic business practices rather than putting forth the extra effort which could yield not only a valuable service, but an extremely lucrative prospect. An accurate comparison is downloadable music. Before the advent of the internet, to get clearer sounding music you upgraded from cassette tapes to CDs (at $15-20 a pop), but now if you want a clearer version of your favorite song, you can buy a digital copy for about $1. The exact same theory holds true if you want to upgrade from SD games to HD because the existing Playstation 1, Playstation 2, GameCube, Xbox, and even Wii games are naturally capable of ultra-high resolutions (if only the hardware and software of current generation consoles would properly render the graphics) you could either pop in a disc and play the game in HD, or if you don’t own the game you could purchase it for peanuts and play it, rather than pray to God that the used copy of the elusive “Hello Kitty Island Adventure” you bought from ebay or half.com isn’t scratched to hell.
The icing on the cake: Shadow of the Colossus running in HD using a Playstation 2 PC emulator.
(Watch in 720p or 1080p at fullscreen)
If console makers provided the ability for consumers to not only play their original games in High Definition, but also search expansive back catalogs for rare games, and purchase them at little cost to either the developers or the console makers, then what’s there to stop them from accomplishing this? If ragtag programmers can make GameCube games run on a Mac, why is it so impossible for Microsoft to make more Xbox games run on an Xbox 360, or for Sony to make Playstation 2 games run on a Playstation 3? And not only that, but render each game in true HD as these independent emulator programmers have done?
But it’s more likely that the console makers and developers think that consumers will follow the first rule of Government spending:
Why buy one when you can buy two at twice the price?