Just 10 years ago, high-definition gaming on consoles was nothing but a fantasy. Back then, the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox were gaining momentum. Gamers were delighted as one-polygon faces and viewing distances of a few centimetres were replaced with impossibly smooth graphics. Nobody cared about HD, in fact it's unlikely that many people even had a TV capable of displaying it. But the HD flat screen revolution soon changed things.
Suddenly, living rooms around the world were toting TVs measuring 20 inches, 30 inches, sometimes even 40 inches. Experiencing media at such a size in one's home was unheard of, and at that moment it dawned upon gamers that standard-definition games looked a bit lacking on such a monumental viewing device. As always, bigger was better and people demanded that games be capable of looking as good as their cutting-edge HD-DVD movies.
The games industry soon responded with an exciting new generation of consoles, or at least Microsoft and Sony did. Games would be rendered in high definition — you'd be able to see every crack, every pore! Suddenly those big TVs had more pixels than they knew what to do with. High-resolution gorgeousness was pouring out of them, and gamers were loving it.
TVs have continued getting bigger. Whereas 40 inches used to be considered the upper limit, now it's becoming frightfully common to see 50–70 inches worth of TV dominating someone's home. HD is more than capable of keeping things crisp at such sizes though, so games should remain nice and sharp.
The problem is, most current-gen games aren't HD. As many people were told by eager salesmen, full HD is 1080p and nothing less will do. But almost every console game you play today uses no more than 720p, which sits about halfway between standard definition and full HD. The result is that on bigger TVs, 720p looks almost as bad as standard definition did back on those first flat screen TVs. Even on not-so-big TVs, 720p is visibly inferior to 1080p.
It gets worse. Many developers don't even render their games at 720p, instead upscaling resolutions that are sometimes practically standard definition. Like blowing up a photo, it generally doesn't look good. So we have games that aren't even meeting the minimum HD specification being enlarged to fill huge HD TVs. Comparatively, viewing a game running at 1080p is like putting on a pair of glasses after years of coping with poor vision.
Why would developers do this? For performance. It's no secret to PC gamers — who were playing HD games long before console gamers — that the higher the resolution, the lower the frame rate. So in order to keep pushing graphics forward and impressing gamers, resolution has been sacrificed. People weren't bothered initially because anything was better than standard definition, but with viewing devices' fidelity only getting better it's quite appropriate for games to follow suit.
Resolution makes a dramatic difference to games' visual quality due to phenomena unique to the medium such as aliasing (ie: jagged edges). To compare to traditional PC resolutions, most current-gen console games run at close to 800x600 whereas full HD is close to 1920x1200. The difference in clarity and sharpness is considerable, as anyone who's switched between those resolutions on a computer likely knows.
So, what's going to happen during the next generation? Sony has said that it's 'pushing' developers to use 1080p; I'm not aware of any comparable statements by Microsoft. Sony has also said that it's encouraging developers to maintain a frame rate of 60 FPS, compared to the 30 FPS that's virtually standard in current-gen games. But that's a whole other topic.
My belief is that 1080p should be a mandated requirement when developing next-gen games. It's not right to describe games as HD when they're actually running closer to standard definition than they are to full HD. And developers are throwing away a great opportunity to enhance gamers' experience more than any graphical flourish or special effect could — to continue that trend into the next generation in the name of a slightly faster frame rate would be, in my opinion, a great shame.