The Technological Evolution of Screen Capturing

I started working as a strategy guide author back in the early summer of 2000: my first assignment was writing the 1-900 tip line script for the now-infamous PC shooter Daikatana. Humble beginnings, indeed. The nature of that particular project didn't require any screen captures or illustrations of any kind, but it wasn't long before I began writing IGN's guide to Covert Ops: Nuclear Dawn, an Activision game for the PSOne that could best be described as a poor-man's Syphon Filter, which itself was considered by many to be the poor man's Metal Gear Solid. That guide, which you can still view here (note that I also had to create the navigation banners), did require that I include screenshots and thus a never-ending struggle was begun.

Capturing screenshots on the PSone was typically done with a USB "clicker" device that I recall tapping with my foot while playing the game. The images were 640x480 jpegs and routinely required heavy editing in Photoshop. It wasn't unusual to need to crop off a black border, sharpen an image, adjust its saturation, and above all, crank up the gamma value. Repeat ad nauseum.

I used many of these devices before finally splurging on a mini-DV camcorder that accepted an S-video input. This was my setup for several years. I would record all of the gameplay on the mini-DV tapes then watch the gameplay back and either hit the Photo Button on the remote control to snap a freeze-frame image onto the built-in Memory Stick or output the video signal to the computer and use an off-the-shelf consumer-grade capture program to capture the screenshots (I actually often used Microsoft's freebie program Movie Maker for the actual screen capturing of stills). The advantage to doing this was that I could concentrate on playing the game with both hands (and feet) and then take the screenshots later while reviewing the video and writing the text. Unfortunately, even though this was the method of choice from about 2001 to 2004 and spanned more than one generation of gaming consoles, the screenshots still typically required moderate editing and gamma-adjusting after the fact. Not to mention the popularity of increased frame-rates meant a lot of blurred interlaced screenshots due to the equipments inability to capture faster than 30 fps. And they were still always in that low-res 640x480 jpeg resolution. Not the best for full-color glossy prints.

The arrival of component video and progressive scan graphics forced another technology upgrade for those of us doing heavy amounts of screen capturing. Oddly enough this meant retiring the thousand dollar mini-DV camcorder and, instead, opting for the much more affordable Pyro A/V Link, a device that had component inputs, composite and firewire outputs and could capture at 720x480 resolution. The trick with this device was to record all gameplay as an uncompressed avi file (4 gigs per 18 minutes) and, as with the camcorder footage, go back and capture stills from the video at a later time. The shots were a big improvement over what we were getting with the mini-DV, and I even used this technique for a few early X360 titles, but the eventual onslaught of High Definition gaming soon made this technique obsolete too.

I posted earlier about the upgrade of my machine for HD video capture and while it's true that I am fully equipped now to capture and edit HD-quality videos that could be made available for download on Xbox Live Marketplace, that's not the big improvement I want to discuss. No, what has me sitting here marveling at how far we've come are the 1920x1080 screenshots I'm currently sorting through.

The technology has finally evolved to the point where even us lowly strategy guide authors are given access to the screencapture utilities that allow for screen-capturing directly from the development kits. And all it takes is the hardware's software and a network cable. Oh, sure, you still have to have an HDMI cable and a monitor that can make use of the (relatively) new 1080p resolution. Imagine that! The technology has improved by leaps and bounds and now, finally, the captures not only don't require any touch-ups (they're pixel-perfect renders straight from the innards of the console) but there really isn't any superfluous capture devices cluttering the desk anymore either. All it takes is a right-click of the mouse. Well, actually, I use a macro program to do that right-clicking for me every several seconds while I'm playing the game.

I used to squint into the monitor and zoom in close on a particular screenshot to read the subtitles that might be on it or to check the score or to make sure it wasn't suffereing from any clipping or interlacing problems, but now? Now, I'm leaned back in my chair looking at a 26" widescreen monitor with a screenshot that literally fills the screen from edge to edge. And the zoom is 99% of the actual image size.

I think it can be hard sometimes for people to truly appreciate the technical advancement that has taken place over the past two generations of gaming. And part of this is the way these games are marketed. How many times have you read about high-definition graphics making it possible to see beads of sweat or arm hair or individual blades of grass. On the surface, these are pretty trivial details and certainly don't impact the gameplay experience. Even moreso when the images you've been playing all these years were always designed to scale up to fit your television screen, regardless the dimensions. But take the actual raw image from the consoles over the years and compare them side-by-side in their native resolutions, and the improvements are startling.

From 640x480 to 720x480 to 1080x720 to 1900x1080 in just a few short years?

Looking back over the years at the thousands upon thousands of screenshots I've captured, sorted, renamed, and submitted for publishing, I have to say that this advancement is not unlike a baby learning to crawl, walk and run, except it's more like learning to crawl, walk, then drive a Ferrari.

1900x1080 screenshots... hot damn!

1 comment:

Joe said...

The HD era is really more impressive in general than I think it's been given credit for yet. Not taking anything for granted, let's remember that from the 80s until roughly 2~3 years ago screen and image quality did not appreciably increase. S-Video, Component Video, and DVDs over Coaxial, Composite, and Beta/VHS is a pale shadow of the fidelity increase going to current HD. I find the jump from PS2/Xbox to 360/PS3 just as impressive, if not moreso, than the jump from Genesis/SNES to PS1/PS2 (beginning of 3D/polygon era). 3D gaming has finally matured in both presentation and function and the image has 5 times more information packed into it than before. It's a nice synergy. We've gone from Pac-man to SMB to Starfox to Mario 64 to Gran Turismo to SOTC and now to Bioshock and GTA4. I've been gaming, and seriously gaming, since I was a child, but it grew stale for me recently. The HD era has revived my enthusiasm greatly.