Gaming’s early days of HDR mastering

This year I finally swapped out my aging 10-year old Sony Bravia TV for a new Vizio P-series. In the intervening weeks of staring at this new screen, well mastered HDR content has been the most impressive improvement. HDR in conjunction with the full array local dimming (FALD) of the TV provides a brightness and contrast boost that surpasses what I experience in NY movie theaters, even well-calibrated ones at the Alamo Drafthouse and Nitehawk. And critically, almost every piece of media benefits from the tech, from TV crime procedurals to Planet Earth II, from Netflix to a la carte streaming rentals and even select Youtube channels.

But that same wow factor hasn’t translated as well to gaming. Of the five HDR capable games installed on my PS4, only two significantly improve the gaming experience.

Admittedly, the high spots are noteworthy. Gran Turismo Sport HDR enhances visuals to the point it feels like a fully transformed game. The paint jobs pop, the neon and sunsets intense. It looks so good that I’ve found myself running time trials just to watch the HDR replays. MLB The Show 19 also shines. On paper, MLB makes the most conservative visual tweaks of the HDR compatible games in my library. But the fine details in the sun reflections off players, the intensity of stadium lights, and extra sky detail generate a more realistic looking game of baseball.

The other three titles are a disappointment. Everybody’s Golf improves the sky but other changes are a wash. FIFA 19 enhances details in the kit uniform and provides a better rendering of stadium atmosphere, but the whites are too bright, leaving visible artifacts on the pitch. And Red Dead Redemption 2 shoves an SDR dynamic range into an “HDR container”, giving a washed out, muddy image as the final effect. It’s the only game with HDR rendering so poor I’ve turned it off entirely.

Speaking of HDR toggling, HDR setup among each game differs widely. On one extreme is Gran Turismo, providing a great two-step setup process. There’s an opening screen to calibrate peak brightness against a checkerboard pattern, followed by multiple test screens of different race conditions to adjust the midpoint gamma. Three others provide far less: FIFA allows you to set peak HDR brightness, but the option is buried at the end of several other video calibration screens. You can’t turn HDR off in FIFA without disabling it on a system level. MLB and Everybody’s Golf provide only a single on/off toggle with no other customization options.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to such uneven results. HDR is still a new technology, and games are very dynamic; I can imagine far more extreme lighting conditions compared to your average movie. And from what I’ve read about HDR treatment in more recent titles (Battlefield V, Spiderman), HDR rendering and its associated in-game setup process will only improve over time. But over the next year I hope to see:

  • HDR adoption by not just AAA studios, but smaller indie titles as well. HDR becomes the norm, not the exception, for most current generation games.
  • Every HDR game has an adjustable peak brightness within a full-featured calibration screen. There’s also always an option to disable HDR entirely.
  • Every HDR title takes full advantage of the format, meaning bright spots trend well above the SDR max of 100 nits of brightness. This doesn’t mean visuals are necessarily “heightened”, with colors saturated off the scale. Like for HDR films, it comes down to the intended look of the game.

HDR is a game changer, a graphical enhancement that can deliver far greater impact on the experience than 4K. But unlike a resolution bump, good HDR requires a new approach to light mastering that based on my brief experience is in its early days. I’m hoping a year from now when gaming’s attention turns to the PS4 and Xbox One successor, we’ll be in far better shape.