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Dolby Vision Gaming: not much more than a nice bonus… for now

Dolby Vision Gaming: not much more than a nice bonus… for now

The Xbox Series S/X get it first, but the market is not ready to play along yet - why, exactly?
Microsoft’s Xbox Series S|X are the first home entertainment systems to offer Dolby Vision Gaming compatibility — but what does that mean in 2021, exactly? (Image: Billy Freeman, Unsplash)

The original announcement regarding this new development was made way back in September 2020, but the time has finally come and it’s now official: Microsoft brings Dolby Vision Gaming support to all Xbox Series S|X owners via an update that was in beta testing for several months and is now live. Dolby Vision Gaming could potentially push the envelope of graphics quality in modern video games further than ever before when it comes to color reproduction, in pretty much the same way that Dolby Vision can bring the best possible representation of a modern movie’s look on compatible televisions via Ultra HD Blu-ray or streaming services.

This is partly true — and this is how Microsoft would like everyone to think about Dolby Vision Gaming, as it’s only supported by its own home entertainment systems at the moment — but… it’s not that simple. Here’s why.

First of all — despite what Dolby, Microsoft or everyone else involved might be saying at the moment — right now there’s not a single true Dolby Vision video game available. None. The press release mentions that “more than 100 next-gen titles optimized for Series S|X are available now or coming soon in Dolby Vision” but this is a misleading statement that is not helping matters. All “Dolby Vision compatible” games currently available or coming soon are, in truth, HDR10-based titles “converted” to Dolby Vision via a procedure that just changes the way content dictates how colors are mapped according to a display’s capabilities. In essence, though, it is the same color palette — and that is why beta testers of the Dolby Vision Gaming feature were not reporting any major differences between DV and HDR10 representations of the same Xbox games during the last few months.

If implemented properly, Dolby Vision can offer much better color reproduction in games than the “base” HDR10 tech can and spectacularly better than plain old SDR tech could ever dream of. (Image: Dolby)

For a video game to offer true Dolby Vision support — to dynamically change its color palette scene by scene or even frame by frame, instead of sticking with a predetermined palette from beginning to end in the same way HDR10 works — it will have to take this feature into account fairly early in its development process. It’s no coincidence that Dolby does not mention a single Dolby Vision game in its official website for this feature, while it mentions several Dolby Atmos ones: no AAA Xbox title has started and completed development since Dolby Vision Gaming was announced in 2020, so as to offer graphics properly displayed in DV. It’s as simple as that.

Microsoft also mentions that it worked with Dolby in order to bring Dolby Vision support to older — or much, much older — Xbox games, “thousands” of them, that take advantage of the much-discussed AutoHDR feature. That is a whole other can of worms. The AutoHDR function strives, on a system level, to convert SDR titles as old as first-generation Xbox ones — yes, we’re talking about games released in 2002 or 2003 here — to HDR10. Yes, it really is as hit-and-miss an effort as it sounds. Games that old were never designed to be displayed in HDR, so many look OK or even very nice at times, while many others look a mess or become downright unplayable in some cases. Converting those games to Dolby Vision seems almost pointless, as even HDR10 often does not work as intended.

The Xbox Series S|X have a potential future advantage in Dolby Vision Gaming support over the PlayStation5 and Sony should definitely take note. (Image: Microsoft)

Then there’s the matter of television support on a hardware level. Not all modern TVs support Dolby Vision and, of those that do, very few can display Dolby Vision content in a gaming context. Samsung TVs, for instance, do not support Dolby Vision at all. Sony, LG, Philips, Panasonic and others do but, for now, only specific LG OLED models can display games in Dolby Vision while Variable Refresh Rate (an important feature to gamers) is activated. Plus, most other TVs also don’t offer a Dolby Vision-specific Gaming Mode, meaning that even if they offer titles in Dolby Vision without VRR, they cannot do so while keeping input lag at bay (equally important for precise control). In other words: most TVs just aren’t ready for proper Dolby Vision Gaming yet. They will be, but certainly not in 2021, maybe not in 2022 either.

So Dolby Vision Gaming, as of right now, is not as relevant or important as Microsoft would lead people to believe. But it clearly can be, so it’s better to think of it as a forward-thinking feature: it’s now available for game developers to play with and see how they can make use of, so as to deliver impressive and accurate color in all kinds of titles in the future. When working as intended on fully compatible televisions, Dolby Vision Gaming will solve the current problem of HDR calibration in games — and that’ll be no small feat: owners of expensive as well as mid-range or even cheap TVs will be able to expect that, through Dolby Vision color mapping, their sets will display modern games as well as they possibly can. Here’s hope that Sony follows Microsoft’s example so that we can finally have video games that look as good on screen as modern blockbuster movies do. Any year now!

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