Posted on September 29, 2007,

Bungie Weekly Update 09-28-07 – Why Halo 3 is 640p

Halo 3 Header

The post-launch Bungie weekly update is, well, rather short. That’s because there’s probably nothing more for Bungie to give us, or in the immortal words of Austin Powers “… and I’m spent!” Not only that, but many on the Bungie team have been working their butts off the past few week in preparation for the Halo 3 launch. That said, many of those Bungie employees shipped overseas are just now returning home to their families.

Regardless, in the aftermath of the launch, Bungie are still tackling some of underlying Halo 3 issues; many of which aren’t issues at all. To subdue the irritable, Bungie are now providing a convenient Halo 3 Launch Week FAQ to clear up some of the more commonly asked questions. If your question right now is “Where is that damn skull, Bungie!”, don’t expect an answer from any of the Bungie employees as “that’s part of the fun.” Bungie admits that some of the achievements are rather difficult to obtain, but assures us they are indeed possible to obtain.


Of course with a game as largely hyped as Halo 3, it’s almost inevitable the techies would pick it apart piece by piece. Brainiacs over at Beyond 3D have made a big hooplah recently over a discovery of Halo 3 being natively 640p. After taking screen dumps of their 360′s output and dissecting the resulting image, the techies did some quick math to determine that Halo 3 actually scales a 640p image upwards. Scaling isn’t uncommon, as many games are probably doing this to achieve a resulting 720p or 1080p image. The important question is: Does the end user notice the difference? From my point of view, it’s a completely subjective answer. Well, Bungie couldn’t leave this one alone, so they gave their 2 cents on why Halo 3 renders natively at 640p (and trust me, Halo 3 isn’t the only game out there that does something like this):

One item making the interwebs rounds this week was the scandalous revelation that Halo 3 runs at “640p” which isn’t even technically a resolution. However, the interweb detectives did notice that Halo 3’s vertical resolution, when captured from a frame buffer, is indeed 640 pixels. So what gives? Did we short change you 80 pixels?

Naturally it’s more complicated than that. In fact, you could argue we gave you 1280 pixels of vertical resolution, since Halo 3 uses not one, but two frame buffers – both of which render at 1152×640 pixels. The reason we chose this slightly unorthodox resolution and this very complex use of two buffers is simple enough to see – lighting. We wanted to preserve as much dynamic range as possible – so we use one for the high dynamic range and one for the low dynamic range values. Both are combined to create the finished on screen image.

This ability to display a full range of HDR, combined with our advanced lighting, material and postprocessing engine, gives our scenes, large and small, a compelling, convincing and ultimately “real” feeling, and at a steady and smooth frame rate, which in the end was far more important to us than the ability to display a few extra pixels. Making this decision simpler still is the fact that the 360 scales the “almost-720p” image effortlessly all the way up to 1080p if you so desire.

In fact, if you do a comparison shot between the native 1152×640 image and the scaled 1280×720, it’s practically impossible to discern the difference. We would ignore it entirely were it not for the internet’s propensity for drama where none exists. In fact the reason we haven’t mentioned this before in weekly updates, is the simple fact that it would have distracted conversation away from more important aspects of the game, and given tinfoil hats some new gristle to chew on as they catalogued their toenail clippings.

In layman terms, Halo 3 is rendering two scenes and combining (or averaging) the result to give more “realistic” lighting. Of course, we are taking Bungie’s word that the lighting improvement is significant enough to warrant this method. It would be nice if Bungie could provide a side by side comparison of single vs. dual rendering. In any event, the caveat of this dual rendering procedure is performance cost. Rendering two different scenes is almost twice the work (certainly twice the shader work with HDR). Looking at it mathematically, 1280×720 (720p) is 25% more resolution than 1152×640 (640p). Again, looking at it mathematically, 25% certainly sounds like a lot. However, when doing a visual comparison, 640p & 720p are a lot closer than the numbers would have us believe. Let’s take a look at the image below:

Halo3 640p example

Here is my crude attempt at visually showing the “native” difference between 720p and 640p. Obviously, the image above is not a true 720p image, but an approximate ratio. The yellow box in the middle represents where the 640p image would be if placed inside a 720p image. As you can see, a 25% of resolution loss does not seem that much perceptively. Which leads me to side with Bungie when they state consumers won’t notice the difference. If there is indeed a tradeoff here for more stable framerate (and better lighting), then the perceptive loss in resolution is probably acceptable. The ends justify the means.

Of course, technical issues like these are generally one of my biggest beefs with consoles, in that the end user has no control over things like graphical settings. On a PC you can forgo framerate for higher resolution and vice versa. In the case of Halo 3, Bungie made a developer’s call. Unfortunately, as an end user, you are completely at the developer’s whim when judgment calls like these are made. “Control” is why many end up making a big deal out of this. Just remember it’s all about the end user perception.

It’s good these techie guys are dissecting games like this, because it will keep the developers on their toes when it comes to performance tradeoff decisions. In many cases like these, the marketing will try to tout X-brand console game as having 1080p graphics, when in fact it’s just software trickery. And, unfortunately, many consumers get caught up in the whole marketing buzz without really knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. Ignoring the marketing buzz, the question we have to ask is “Will I notice the difference?” In the case of 720p vs. 640p, it’s almost moot since the image gets almost transparently scaled up to 720p. However, when the debate becomes a 720p native render scaled up to 1080p image vs. a native 1080p render, things get very subjective. In fact, we’ll just leave that topic for a future debate.


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12 Comments on Bungie Weekly Update 09-28-07 – Why Halo 3 is 640p

used cisco

On September 29, 2007 at 7:42 am

I think bungie did a pretty good job of spinning the fact that Halo 3 is not an HD game. His answer almost sounded legitimate, you know, if you didn’t understand what he’s saying. To say they are rendering “two scenes” is really deceptive. It makes it sound like they are doing twice the work. They are not. They are simply rendering half the scene (frames) with one set of dynamic lighting and half with another. There isn’t any extra work done, just a different set of shaders for half the frames. The two combined theoretically give a better image. All this is really just a smoke screen to disguise the fact that they couldn’t get Halo 3 running at 720P.

Ok, I’ll give you the “consumer probably won’t notice”, well, except that the consumer DID notice, or this wouldn’t be on the web. So its probably more fair to say MOST consumers won’t notice. The only ones who might will likely be playing on very large screens.

Whats funny to me is reading about this and seeing so many xbox die hards using some of the same lines as the Wii defenders (which I’m guilty of at times). Using terms like, “resolution isn’t everything”, or “its not all about the graphics”, which is pretty much 180 degrees from what they were saying before. I get a kick out of watching people flip flop from one attitude to another because suddenly their favorite game fails to meet a specification you’ve placed so much importance on up to this point. To this I say, welcome to the “resolution isn’t everything” club. Its not so bad here, really.

So Halo 3 is not an HD game. Big deal. As long as its fun and looks good (and I think it does), who cares? I don’t. But then again, I’ve been one of the people saying resolution isn’t everything and games can look fine without HD, since the beginning. 480P, 640P, 720P. Any of these can look good if the devs take some care in the graphics. You don’t need 1080P for a good game.


On September 29, 2007 at 10:09 am

@used cisco

When I read through my post earlier I didn’t like how I had written that “twice the work” part, which is definitely not the case. So I changed that slightly. Don’t know if you posted before or after that, sorry.

It’s obviously less than twice the work. How much depends largely on how much and how fast work can be cloned from one buffer to the next. I don’t think the 360 has unlimited shader power, so you really can’t say that it’s half the work either. It’s somewhere in between.

Being a parallel graphics architecture, the shaders could be working on a single frame per pass or multiple frames per pass (more likely the latter). And often time there are multiple passes required to get even one scene completed. So yeah, impossible to guess but definitely not half the work and definitely less than twice the work ;)

used cisco

On September 29, 2007 at 11:54 am


Sorry for any confusion, I wasn’t saying they were doing half the work. I was saying the work varies on one half the frames (every other) to the next. In actuality the amount of work done is equal. Thats why its spin. And besides, whatever the amount of work, it was clearly too much work to be done to an HD resolution image, thus they had to cut it back and upscale. I’m just saying that instead of admitting they had to cut back the resolution to something lower than HD because the machine couldn’t handle it, they spin it around and mention technical aspects in an attempt to confuse the issue.

The end all/be all is that they either a: made the game too pretty and the 360 couldn’t handle 720P at a respectable frame rate, or b: the code is too inefficient for the 360 to process at a respectable rate. Having seen Gears, CoD4 and others, my guess is its not the hardware.

All this being said, I don’t even CARE if its 640P. I still think it looks damn good. I just think it’s lame that a company trumpets HD as the future of gaming but can’t get their premier franchise running in HD on their platform. And then when people point out the deficiency/hypocrisy they are labeled as whiners, and told that you can’t tell a difference anyway. If we as consumers can’t tell a difference, whats the point to actually making games in HD rather than just upscaling?


On September 29, 2007 at 12:35 pm

Mediocre game, I didn’t expect anything else.


On September 29, 2007 at 12:54 pm

@ Bounce – Good insight to the topic at hand…

As for the article, a few of my points,
1) The game looks absolutely stunning. The explosions are glorious (except when you’re a little too close…then they’re tarnished with your blood). Graphically the best or not, visually, it impresses. Additionally, as said above, graphics aren’t everything anyhow.

2) I certainly didn’t notice. Then again, all I have is a regular 24′ widescreen TV. None of this HD malarky. I can see perfectly fine as it is, not much really compelling me to see it ‘even clearer’.

3) Judging on that pic, the loss is hardly a lot. Well, put it this way; I certainly haven’t noticed it effecting my gameplay. The only reasons I’ve died is due to my own incompetance.


On September 30, 2007 at 5:06 am

“The only reasons I’ve died is due to my own incompetance.”

Take note of this people; this is something a n00b would never say. :D

unfortunately, I can’t say much for the topic at hand, because I’m not a huge buff when it comes to TV resolutions and/or concole games; I’m mope of a PC gamer myself. But I DO understand the fact that they did make a sacrifice for better lighting in place of resolution. I agree that those who own Halo 3 are basically trusting that there WAS a noticeable difference in game development and that Bungie did make the best choice. Whether we will get proof of this soon is another story.

Hopefully I will head over to a friend’s house in a few days and get to finally play the game. If anything seems out of place with the resolution I’ll notice. Oh, and was it just me, or did Halo 2 have a FUBAR resolution compared to Halo? This isn’t exactly off-topic, as I swear to this day that the resolution/aspect ratio/camera threw me off, and yes, did affect my gameplay. Hopefully this won’t be the case in Halo 3.


On September 30, 2007 at 9:11 am

Halo pistols and dual weapons went down the drain. they took away some of the weapons you can dual with. Which sucks because they were my love of my Life, and also the pistol is so freaken slow. I think i’ll wait for Halo wars…


On September 30, 2007 at 9:14 pm

Loved the First Halo at LAN parties on a regular basis, was disappointed with some of the weapons in Halo 2 but loved the live multiplayer, Halo 3 seems to me to be a rather good balance of the 2 so far, and the movies, well wow !


On October 1, 2007 at 7:15 pm



On October 2, 2007 at 5:05 am

:lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :!: :idea: you should of made halo 3 hard ur im 10 yers old and i conplbted it on legndery
ar you mack in a halo 4 :?: be becayse it ended lick it from liamtowell
im 10 yers old and its so esey bi :)


On October 2, 2007 at 5:09 am

:lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :!: :idea: you should of made halo 3 hard ur im 10 yers old and i conplbted it on legndery
ar you mack in a halo 4 :?: becayse it ended lick it.

from liamtowell

im 10 yers old and its so esey bi :) oh yer im not a girl im a boy this is mi nans email address


On October 6, 2007 at 2:11 pm

There is an interesting piece about how many games on the 360 and PS3 actually are 1080p. It would seem that the PS3 actually has 24 games that run at native 1080p while the 360 only has 2 (NBA Street Court and Virtual Tennis 3). Unlike Sony however Microsoft deliberately try and mislead customers into thinking the games are 1080p by listing it on the game case even though it only achieves it by up-scaling.