HDR has been an embarrassment to PC gaming for years. The state of affairs in 2022 isn’t much better than it was five years ago, but to really understand what went wrong I had to speak to an authority on the game development side.
So I spoke to a technical developer at Ubisoft to get his take on the matter. It’s a problem that major developers like Ubisoft are aware of and have even developed tools to combat – but they also say we’re making progress, even if we still have a long way to go.
Nicolas Lopez is Rendering Technical Lead and works on Ubisoft Anvil – the engine behind it Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Rainbow Six Extraction, and the coming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake, among other. Lopez is leading the task of bringing all of the art, mechanics, and code into a final image, and he’s no mince when it comes to HDR: “HDR isn’t being treated as the prime citizen it should be in the gaming industry .”
A big reason for this, according to Lopez, is adoption. HDR on PC monitors hasn’t been as much of a focus as it has on consumer TVs, and for a multiplatform studio like Ubisoft, that means focusing a lot of effort on the SDR outcome. Lopez says the teams at Ubisoft are “very confident about our SDR workflows and outputs, but we know that mileage can vary when working with HDR on PC.”
The vast majority of HDR monitors available today only meet the lowest DisplayHDR 400 level.
Mileage on PC varies so much because PC monitors have unstable standards for what constitutes HDR (even among the best HDR monitors). VESA’s DisplayHDR standard attempts to standardize the appearance of HDR on gaming monitors, but it has some major loopholes. Take the Samsung Odyssey G7 and the MSI MPG32-QD as two examples. Both have DisplayHDR 600 certification, but the MSI monitor has twice as many local dimming zones. This results in a much more natural HDR image, despite both monitors sharing the same certification.
To make matters worse, the vast majority of HDR monitors available today only meet the lowest DisplayHDR 400 level – a certification that doesn’t even come close to meeting the requirements of HDR. TVs, on the other hand, have much better HDR at a much lower price. The Hisense U8G, for example, gets a lot brighter than a gaming monitor and has full-array local dimming (a feature you can only find on gaming monitors above $1,200).
According to Lopez, developers are very aware of the difference between gaming monitors and TVs, and Ubisoft’s teams are prioritizing accordingly: “We anticipate that the vast majority of gamers who will be playing our games on an HDR display will do so what we’re going to do on a connected console is an HDR TV, so that’s our main goal. However, we make sure that all platforms end up looking good.”
Given the vast disparities between HDR gaming monitors, Lopez says Ubisoft’s teams are “trying to make the process as transparent and platform-agnostic as possible” to avoid duplication and speed up production pipelines. For this, Ubisoft uses the Academy Color Encoding System (ACES), a device-independent color space developed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (yes, the Oscars people).
The main advantage of ACES is that it is recorded Everyone of the data and processes them down to the color space of the display used. “Thanks to ACES, you can technically grade your game on an SDR display, and it will still be valid in HDR,” says Lopez. However, he also clarified that “it’s still better to master on an HDR display”.
While a generalist approach is good for a multiplatform studio like Ubisoft, it can’t solve the problems facing HDR gaming monitors today. “HDR support on PC monitors has lagged behind for quite some time compared to consumer TVs,” says Lopez.
Aside from the panels themselves, dynamic metadata is absent as a key feature except for a few game-heavy gaming monitors. HDR 10+ and Dolby Vision are widely supported on TVs like the LG C2 OLED and consoles, both of which offer dynamic metadata to adjust color and brightness scene by scene or even frame by frame.
Using static metadata, Lopez says games set minimum and maximum brightness values once at the outset, essentially covering the full spectrum of colors possible for any possible lighting situation. “With dynamic metadata, we can determine the optimal range of minimum/maximum brightness per image… and produce more accurate colors.”
Ubisoft, and probably most AAA studios, colorize games to make them look good on as many screens as possible. But all that effort still can’t reproduce the exact same image on every display, a problem compounded by the fact that HDR gaming monitors lag behind televisions in terms of panel technology and dynamic metadata. The result: wildly different HDR experiences despite the developers’ intentions and efforts.
It’s easy to assume that a multi-billion dollar company like Ubisoft would have a fleet of high-end HDR displays capable of calibrating games, but I popped the question to Lopez anyway. He says the vast majority of work is still done on SDR displays, while HDR is “usually assigned to a few key people who are equipped with consumer HDR televisions or very specifically calibrated HDR monitors.”
Lopez even shared a story about running game builds across the street with another company to test HDR performance. “At one point we had a deal with a high-end electronic product review company across the street. A few teams brought their game builds there and had the opportunity to test them on a variety of consumer displays.”
“I am confident that we will get there.”
While a major developer like Ubisoft has access to high-quality HDR displays, it’s safe to assume that smaller developers don’t have the same luxury (especially given some of the hurdles a developer like Ubisoft had to jump through). Lopez said this gap has become all the more apparent during the pandemic as the team has had to rely on ACES as developers remotely connected to their SDR work desktops.
At the end of my Q&A, Lopez reiterated that HDR isn’t treated the way the prime citizen should be. Much more development time and effort goes into creating a high-quality SDR version that will hopefully offer a solid HDR experience on consumer TVs. However, Lopez seemed confident that HDR is improving: “It’s been a slow transition and slow adoption, but with the new generation of HDR consoles and vendors ramping up their production lines, I’m confident we’re getting there.”
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