I remember two distinct moments in the past decade where new hardware allowed for new, incredible possibilities in graphics. Behind closed doors at this year’s ongoing Game Developers Conference, Epic showed what would have been another potential moment (see the gorgeous picture above), but this time, I’m not as impressed. Why?
The first moment for me was at MacWorld 2001 when Steve Jobs brought John Carmack on-stage – the programming monster at id software that brought us Doom and Quake – to show off new game tech running on a then-amazing GeForce3 setup. This was graphical power similar to what was going to be in the original Xbox later that year. When I saw this video a decade ago, it gave me high hopes about what developers could achieve with new advancements in lighting (as you see above, in moody abundance) and normal mapping (being able to apply a texture to a model to create the appearance of a higher resolution 3D model without having seventy billion more polygons).
The second moment came when we went to see Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 at E3 2004. It seems like a long time ago now, but the effects shown off on this video set the tone for the generation of consoles that we still use today (it helps that Gears of War assets were used, long before the game was ever announced). Watching this in real-time in Nvidia’s theater was incredible; effects that normally took my computer hours to render using a 3D program like Bryce were completed in Unreal as I stared at the projection.
But one thing that the Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 demonstrated is that there’s little reason at this point to unleash a whole new generation of consoles. Nintendo showed us that we don’t need new, fancier graphics every five years, we need new gameplay that a traditional controller can’t give us. Microsoft showed us that we don’t need new hardware to create a new user experience that can, in effect, redraw your target demographic with a major, highly-publicized update. (Remember getting the New Xbox Experience in 2008 and losing those blades forever? Yep.) Sony showed us that we don’t need a new PlayStation to get daily updates for anything under the sun. In effect, all three have shown us that it’s no longer a graphics arms race or a matter of which hardware is more powerful, but rather the experience you receive after you plug everything in. The internet can make each console a whole new pony with just a few hundred megs.
So why is Epic’s next gen graphics demonstration not a big deal? Probably because we aren’t going to see them for years to come. They’re gorgeous, absolutely, but are they pretty enough to force a new wave of $400-$500 consoles? Nope. None of the current consoles can power them and the one platform that could (with a high-end setup) is the PC – and in this day and age, who’s up for spending $20-$30 million developing a PC-exclusive title that isn’t World of Warcraft? Exactly. Don’t you remember the complaints from publishers when the Xbox 360 launched? That they were required to spend millions of dollars more on game development because the new graphic fidelity required a much larger investment in game assets? Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V.
The way I see it, there will probably only be one or two more console generations ever, demonstrated by this generation’s nearly endless upgradability, so if we’re going to push the graphics envelope, why not wait until something far closer to photorealism is possible?
We can wait.