LCD monitors, resolution dependence, and aspect ratio issues

A few days ago I started thinking about 2d game engines and games that run at fixed (and typically lower) resolutions (e.g. Starcraft). Many older 2d games have no choice when it comes to running at a fixed resolution b/c if the game ran at a higher resolution one of 2 things must occur:

(1) a larger portion of the game world is rendered. This can break many of the gameplay mechanisms of the game and/or decrease the difficultly of the game as the player is able to see more of the game work w/o moving the camera. This can be especially disastrous for multiplayer games where different players may be running the game at different resolutions. Another downside here is that units (which are 2d sprites), although still in proportion with the game world, appear smaller. It should be noted however that some games (typically strategy games, where you have a fog-of-war, such as Age of Empires) have supported multiple resolutions in this way.

(2) The second option is that the game’s rendered output is scaled from its original resolution. The higher the new resolution and the lower the original resolution, the worse the game looks. This is what’s done by LCD screens, since they have a fixed resolution.

Well thinking about 2d games and the fixed resolution problem got me thinking about how a modern “2d” game engine (2d only in terms of gameplay), targeting contemporary hardware, could be designed so that it could run at any resolution? Well if all the units are 3d models, the sprites used are for things such as particle fx – which will typically scale well, and the environment is either a 3d terrain or scalable 2d tiles, the resolution issue seems somewhat solved, as you can go to a higher or lower resolution gracefully … well, yes and no, there’s one other thing you have to consider that will affect any type of rendering engine …

As LCD monitors continue to grow in popularity, the new models have a certain oddity about them; they don’t conform to the historically popular 4:3 aspect ratio that many developers have depended upon. The popular resolutions now seem to be 1280×1024 (5:4) and the wide-screen resolutions such as 1920×1200 (16:10). Of course if you want to target, or eventually target, output to an HDTV you also have to worry about the HD resolutions, 1920×1080 or 1280×720 (16:9). The problem with multiple aspect ratios is that, unlike multiple resolutions at a given aspect ratio, you can’t gracefully go from one aspect ratio to another and retain the look of what your rendering, you have to letterbox/pillerbox the output, stretch the output, or modify the field-of-view (FOV).

Modifying the FOV seems to be the “right thing” to do, but this can lead to problems similar to (1) above, where players with wide-screen monitors can see more of the game world than those with normal monitors, giving them an unfair advantage.

So what’s the solution? I’m not sure. I came across this forum thread a while back (the only one I could find thru google) where 2 posters reply that the stretching really isn’t noticeable (I don’t have a wide-screen monitor, so I can’t give an opinion). FOV may or may not be an issue. Some people find letterboxing and pillarboxing annoying (pillarboxing does annoy me, but I’m comfortable with letterboxing).

Finally, one solution not mentioned is smart stretching. The HDTV my parents have does a smart-stretch on standard definition content, where it, I think, stretches the pixels further away from the center more than it does the pixels that are closer to the center. It actually looks really good and greatly minimizes (to the point where it’s not noticeable) the “squashed-down” look you’d get from running a standard stretch algorithm on a 4:3 picture.

That’s all for now 🙂


  1. Anonymous

    Hello! I read your post and will try to contribute with my tests…

    I´ve tested quake 4 with the latest patch in a dell 22 inch monitor widescreen. And the results are not very satisfying.

    If you switch to the native resolution(1680×1050), you´ll have the only good quality option available, but that will demand a pricey graphics card in order to run it smoothly. To switch to more afordable options like 1024×768, you´ll suffer from stretching the image, and that will be noticeable even if you use the better quality image possible (like 16x AA setting turned on).

    I´m planning also in buying one of these for me, but really LCD monitors are not the best option for gaming at all. Even if you have a gret GPU, scaling down and customizing graphics settings are very important in PC gaming, and I´m really disappointed with the results in that case. In my oppinion, CRT monitors are still best for color output and also for gaming. Hope anyone find a better solution to fix this…



  2. Wow, great post. I love stuff like this.

Leave a Reply