Enhanced mode: the challenge of giving games a next-gen upgrade

After what seemed like an age, last November saw the next generation of consoles officially land with Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series. Players were feverish. Expectations were high. Excitement was rife over what all this extra processing power and graphical fidelity would mean for triple-A games in the future. Throughout most of 2021, however, early adopters weren’t exactly showered with next-gen exclusives. Instead, most developers have taken a different approach: giving existing games an enhanced lick of paint.

The process of porting a game from one platform to another is, of course, nothing new. But throughout this year, there’s been a sense that, while the industry takes its time to get used to developing for these new machines, next-gen updates or so-called enhanced editions of pre-existing titles have been relied on more than ever to fill the release gaps. But what is the act of updating, say, a PS4 game to PS5 actually like? After all, the demand from players for games to look better than ever – preferably with 4K visuals, 3D audio implementation, and ray-traced lighting – is at a high. So what’s the appeal of working on a next-gen upgrade for a studio?

“It depends on the developer, of course, but I think there are a couple of situations where it’s a pretty clear-cut benefit,” says Ben Archard, senior rendering programmer at 4A Games, the studio behind the Metro franchise. “There’s the fact that you already have all the content made and the vast majority of development is done. Therefore, it won’t be the whole team working on that upgrade. It’ll be a much smaller subset of the programmers and a few artists for polish tasks. But if that team can implement a set of engine-level improvements, with a noticeable impact on the final product, then they can potentially give that game a new lease of life and hopefully reach new fans.”

Exploring The Caspian section during the height of summer looks warmer than ever in Metro Exodus – Complete Edition.

Metro Exodus released in 2019 to critical acclaim, with many praising its open-ended level design, bleak atmosphere, and strong survival elements. It was also hailed as one of the prettiest games available at the time. The PC version, in particular, impressed through its Nvidia RTX support, which enabled 4A Games to deliver true global illumination. The game’s release hit right at the start of the ray tracing boom, but the team always had ambitions to make Exodus’ settings even more believable – especially after learning that ninth-generation consoles were being built with this tech in mind.

This eventually led 4A Games to relaunch Metro Exodus this year, both as an Enhanced Edition on PC and a Complete Edition for next-gen consoles. The latter introduced ray tracing to this bitter world of monsters and mutants for the first time, alongside a whole host of visual improvements. Above all, though, the endeavour was an excuse for Archard and his team to learn the architecture of these new consoles.

Metro Exodus has you venture through all four seasons, each with their own distinct colour palette and lighting setup.

“There are tools and processes you need to understand how to work with before you can even touch the hardware,” Archard reveals. “In our case, we already had a feature set available on PC, but we really didn’t know how much of that we’d be able to bring across until we started.” This led 4A Games to err on the side of caution at first, experimenting with how much “infinite bounce” lighting the PS5 and Series X could handle before finding a good optimisation level. “Beyond that, once you’re up and running and working with a console, the main challenge becomes balancing your code for specific aspects of the individual architectures. For us, this meant things like moving features around in our rendering pipeline.”

Sometimes the act of updating a last-gen game for modern consoles opens up opportunities the developer originally might have thought weren’t possible. Because while most players might say they’d be happy with 4K visuals and a smooth 60fps simultaneously, often the make or break in developing a good enhanced edition is found in the finer details – the kind of difference that can only be made when the game’s already been out for a while, technology has moved on, and there’s been ample time for re-evaluation.

This was the case for Rebellion Developments, the Oxford-based studio primarily known for its work on Zombie Army and Sniper Elite. Earlier this year, it released a free next-gen upgrade for Sniper Elite 4 to existing players, while being eager to entice new ones with the promise of an increased 4K resolution and 60fps frame rate. Both elements aren’t always possible, but it was a challenge the team strived to take on. “Right out of the gate, we knew we wanted to take advantage of the extra power provided by the latest generation of consoles,” says Arden Aspinall, studio head at Rebellion North. The ultimate goal was to “give a super slick polish to an already stunning game”.

Locations like Italy are testament to how beautiful Sniper Elite 4 was always intended to appear.

Fortunately, unlike some other developers, Rebellion came into the process with an enhanced version of Zombie Army 4 already under its belt. Even then, implementing next-gen updates was still far from simple. Aspinall explains: “The challenge with Sniper Elite 4 is that the game was based on an older version of our engine, so some modernisation had to take place and care had to be taken to limit unforeseen issues that the infrastructural changes would make. Having our own engine with solid design principles gives us the edge in these situations.”

The act of sniping Nazis and popping off headshots from afar already played and looked great before, but such a long gap between the PS4/Xbox One original and upgraded Sniper Elite 4 resulted in a noticeable difference. “We’re always looking to push the hardware to its limit,” says Aspinall. “Whenever some new hardware comes out, it offers an irresistible opportunity to dial the quality up higher and higher. Whether that’s boosting the frame rate, increasing resolution, or even adding new tech, we know our players love this, and as developers, we do too.”

What was the new tech in Sniper Elite 4’s case? “One feature we were keen to implement was a full-screen post-process effect for contrast sharpening – AMD FidelityFX CAS. This allowed us to make details really pop – sharpening areas with less detail while not over-sharpening areas with high levels of detail. The end result is fewer visual artefacts and an overall sharpness not seen in the original game.” Such a visual flourish is a strong example of an aspect even players mightn’t know they’d want from an enhanced edition, since it subtly operates in the background.

Rebellion’s more recent work on Zombie Army 4 (built in its latest engine) informed Sniper Elite 4’s enhanced edition upgrade.

If there’s been one slight downside to this new era of console upgrades, it’s been the constant confusion as to whether the enhancements are worth paying for. System-wide features like Smart Delivery on Xbox Series S and X take the complication out of the process by automatically upgrading players to the best version depending on their console, and equally publishers like Ubisoft seeking to streamline the upgrade path in cross-gen titles like Immortals Fenyx Rising, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Watch Dogs: Legion.

Others, meanwhile, find themselves in a more awkward position. Because while previous console generations deemed it OK to charge extra for remasters, straight ports, and digital re-releases, the expectations of modern audiences have changed. If a player purchased a game not too long ago, does improving lighting and texture detail in the next-gen version warrant an added fee? Studios like 4A Games and Rebellion don’t think so, while a platform-holder such as Sony thinks otherwise with upcoming first-party titles like God of War: Ragnarok and Gran Turismo 7.

It helps in such instances, therefore, to sweeten the deal by leaning on an older tactic: offer players who’ve invested in a new console additional content only available in the next-gen version. This was the route Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VI remake went down when releasing its Intergrade “enhanced” edition exclusively on PlayStation 5. Another developer that saw the generation jump as a chance to entice players with extra DLC was GreedFall from Spiders. An open-world RPG set in the mercantilism era, like Metro Exodus and Sniper Elite, it doesn’t charge pre-existing owners, though new purchasers do gain access to the ‘De Vespe Conspiracy’ story add-on when picking up the game’s next-gen Gold Edition.

“It’s really interesting for any developer to take advantage of all the technical improvements brought by a new-gen console,” says Spiders’ Wilfried Mallet, technical director on GreedFall. “Developing that edition allowed us to learn the new architecture of the consoles and the new development environment too. Thanks to this Gold edition, we’ve also been able to make some massive changes to our engine, in particular porting it from an optimised DX11 version for consoles to a version using a DX12 philosophy entirely on all platforms.”

Greedfall – cobbled streetThe next-gen upgrade works wonders for the smoky industrial atmosphere found in GreedFall’s towns.

Mallet agrees with Archard in that spending the time to update and enhance a game for a release on PS5 and Xbox Series X holds certain benefits. It’s now become accustomed, for example, for load times to be a lot snappier, which can help the play experience in games like GreedFall by not breaking immersion so much. It’s a testament, then, to platform-holders Sony and Microsoft that even last-gen versions running on new hardware can gain certain visual and mechanical improvements. Yet, as all the developers we’ve spoken to tell us, the result will never be quite as good as a dedicated next-gen edition.

GreedFall, while drastically updated on PS5 and Xbox Series X, is emblematic of another common trend that a lot of developers face with next-gen upgrades: simultaneous 4K 60fps simply isn’t possible in every last-gen game due to how it was engineered, so instead, the player is given a choice between selecting dedicated Quality and Performance modes. The former prioritises visual resolution and fidelity, while the latter emphasises a fast frame rate. Early examples of this already existed before, with the launch of PS4 Pro and Xbox One X as mid-generation updates – and now it’s only become more frequent.

So why, unlike Metro Exodus and Sniper Elite 4, are GreedFall’s enhancements handled differently? Mallet explains: “The game wasn’t developed and optimised with that in mind back at the time. Our environments are too big, and there’s too much content for that.” But could that ever change? After all, even the PS5 version of Insomniac’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales offered two visual modes, before offering a best-of-both mixture. “If the game had been directly developed on this gen, we would have probably been able to do even better,” he says, “but given what we had, we’re really happy with the result. The better frame rate enhances the animations, of course, and with the 4K graphical upgrades, we were finally able to highlight the beauty of the environments on consoles.”

As well as improved visuals and reduced load times, GreedFall’s Gold Edition upgrade doubles the frame rate in Performance mode.

If the circumstances surrounding the game’s original development are the issue, then it’s only a matter of time until studios grow wiser and more accustomed to developing for next-gen architecture – until eventually, that’s no longer the case. Already, we’ve learned that the PS4-to-PS5 and Xbox One-to-Xbox Series X process has inspired these developers to update their engines, firmly placing them in a position to excel in future projects. The only remaining obstacle to enjoying near-limitless visuals and performances, then, are cross-gen titles. But, as history so often proves, this will soon iron itself out once next-gen consoles become more widely available.

For 4A Games’ Ben Archard, however, the work to get a game looking as good as possible is never finished. “There’s always room for more features,” he explains. “Our engine is in active development, and we have plenty of plans for the future.” Such persistence is what enabled Metro Exodus to largely avoid the need to separate the PS5/Series X experience into either a ‘performance’ or ‘quality’ mode. Instead, there’s just one improved edition for all next-gen players. “Performance and quality modes are not a concept we outright dismiss. You have to be a bit careful, though, and weigh their value against providing a solid 60fps experience.”

Ultimately, while replaying polished-up games originally released for last-gen consoles isn’t what most people buy new hardware for, in 2021, the practice has served as a necessary stopgap until the next-gen exclusive titles arrive. It’s also an exercise primed to benefit both players and developers, making already-great games look and run better, while laying the technological foundations for future experiences to surpass even those results.

When asked what they think players expect from so-called enhanced editions on PS5 and the Xbox Series, all agree that it’s about giving them a glimpse at what’s to come using familiar templates. “They’ve bought expensive new consoles, and they really want to benefit from their capacities, which is understandable, and that’s what we tried to offer,” posits Mallett. “Most of the players who already played the game on the previous-gen want to rediscover what they loved in the original version, but better, more beautiful, and faster.”

Aspinall concurs: “We can crank up the visuals and provide a silky-smooth gameplay experience beyond what was possible for the original release. Players are always keen to play our games on the latest hardware – as developers, it’s our job to make sure we bring the best of the technology to bear on this”.
The implementation of any new feature is complex. That’s why, new game or not, dedicating resources to squeeze the best performance out of new-gen machines is a worthwhile endeavour. Studios get accustomed to the machines they’ll be developing on for the next decade or so, while an upgraded version of a game rewards existing fans (and hopefully attracts new ones). Plus it’s not always just about pushing the boundaries of graphical fidelity, but rather discovering new programming solutions allowing all of a game’s features to, as Ben Archard sums up, “evolve together”.

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