Lack of Definition, HD that is

Gamasutra just published a nice round-up of answers from three industry experts on two burning questions: “Are Microsoft and Sony emphasizing HDTV too much, not enough, or just enough? Has Nintendo made a mistake by not providing HDTV resolution for the Wii?” Both the Xbox 360 and Sony’s upcoming PS3 boast high definition as a major feature, and the emphasis has become so pronounced, HD-centric games like Dead Rising and Peter Jackson’s King Kong took criticism for looking lousy on standard television monitors. This despite the dearth of HDTV owners, with just 15 million worldwide who own a high-resolution set, versus some hundred million who own a non-HDTV game console. (With PS2 at 106 million, Xbox at 24 million, Gamecube at 21 million.)

Amazingly, all three analysts are bullish on HDTV, particularly Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities (“I think HD resolution is the essential difference between this cycle and the last”) and Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies. (“I do not think the gaming industry is jumping in prematurely at all”) In my read, only Mike Wolf of ABI Research couches his bullishness with caution, saying “HDTV is a critical feature of the new generation of consoles, particularly down the road 2-3 years.” [Emp. mine]

Their opinions bring up a personal peeve of mine: on the whole, most folks on the business side of the game industry don’t seem to be gamers themselves, and what’s more, are fairly disconnected from the nuts and bolts of game development.

Would you pay $2000 so you could see this screenshot in high definition?

I’m guessing at least Pachter and Bajarin fall in that category, because neither of them mention that most crucial of factors, when gamers buy a console: game play. Leaving it to Mike Wolf to do so, acknowledging that while graphics are selling point, “Equally important is inventive game play, which is the main focus of Nintendo with the Wii.”

A gamer could tell you that, just by glancing at the console bestseller list: for the Playstation 2, the top sellers are the Grand Turisimo and Grand Theft Auto games, and while both have great graphics, they’re popular because of their realistic physics and simulation qualities, for the former, and open-ended “sandbox gameplay” for the latter. Same goes for Halo and Halo 2, top sellers of the Xbox: gorgeous-looking games, yes, but popular for their supremely well-designed multiplayer combat and physics. Realistic graphics per se do not sell games, let alone sell consoles– let alone incent a gamer to plunk down a few thousand dollars to buy a plasma HDTV.

From a developer’s point of view, this industry fixation on high definition is all the more worrisome, and that’s due to what Raph Koster called “Moore’s Wall“, which is, as summarized by designer Greg Costikyan, this: “As processing power increases, machines become capable of producing higher quality media, and in a competitive market, it becomes mandatory to create higher quality media if you are competing in the most popular genres (because otherwise your real time strategy game won’t look as good as a competitor’s.) This means that budgets spiral ever upward, and as they do, the unit sales required for financial success spiral ever upward.”

This phenomenon is bad enough now, on console games designed for standard television, imagine how worse it’ll be, when developers are expected to create graphics for the HDTV. Meaning a corporate bloodbath, as publishers spend hundreds of millions in an unwinnable arms race of pretty pictures.

Gamasutra’s Analyze This: Are Gamers Really Saying “I Want My HDTV!”?

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