With the releases of the next Xbox and Playstation consoles looming overhead, visions of the next generation are getting clearer to see. Keeping things simple, What are the main graphical improvements that we have to come from these sexy, shiny and fresh beasts?
Environment + Models
Last gen: Blocky models, frequent load-screens and simplified scenes.
Previously, developers created high-polygon 3d models and then had to downgrade them to function on consoles. Certain lighting and shadowing had to be pre-rendered instead of produced in real-time. Developers were generally limited by the constraints of home-console hardware, next generation there will be power to spare.
We will finally get to play with character models that actually look as realistic as the concept art, with hair that is composed of individual dynamic strands and skin that has multiple light-reflecting layers and 3d pores. Characters and locales will animate fully and we'll also have more numerous precise reflections and lighting. The resource heavy "ray-tracing", once touted as a target for hardware capabilities, won't be in use, Cryengine3 and others have much lighter replacements.
In addition, with the latest DirectX kit, numerous graphical elements have been enhanced and made easier for developers to implement and new features, such as tessellation, can be used to increase fidelity. Game environments will not only be more realistic but more convincing. Ultimately though, the power is in the hands of the artists; a skilled artist can create great visuals on any piece of hardware.
Last gen: The first steps.
Last generation we had signposts of things to come; the mechanics (seen above) used in the Amnesia HPL engine, weapon orientation with the Wii-mote, increased environmental destruction and interactive in-game screens in ID Tech titles such as Doom3.
With new control-methods and more processing power we should see these object manipulation methods expanded upon and implemented more frequently, providing gamers with more power over game worlds. Expect to see environments that are highly destructable with bendable objects, breakable ceilings and rooms that can be re-arranged at will. Imagine being able to unscrew a door's knob or block it when you can't lock it. Have you ever seen the underside of your favourite weapon?
Environments and the objects within them will definitely be much more interactive. The ability to change ones environment is one of liberation, adding to enjoyment and immersion but game creators shouldnt be eager to give gamers full control. The main reason developers leave object manipulation out of games (or in but oversimplified) is: game mechanics; if you can play with absolutely everything, you’ll have too much freedom.
Last gen: canned textures for blood splashes, simplified simulation of liquids.
As anyone would imagine: realistic rendering of liquids and blobs is very complex and strenuous work for a modest peice of hardware like an Xbox360 or a PS3. Oceans and rivers in the last-gen could look impressive because, as with blood splashes, they consisted of canned, animated textures and were not actually watery forms. Particle and liquid computation techniques have advanced so impressively that, with more power available, developers will undoubtedly reach 'real' water in the next generation.
When you shoot an enemy’s arm off, making blood spray, you will be able to watch the droplets of blood organically land and leave marks on surfaces accurately. Water will behave like real water and consist of splitting, reformable masses. Raindrops will fill cups.
The consoles calculating muscle is key for this one. A few titles such as Bioshock and Hydrophobia have shown that simplified but accurate water simulation is possible on an aged Xbox360. The weak, similarly powerful, processor inside of the "next-gen" WiiU is unable to provide enough power to calculate 'real-water' but we should expect the 6+core chips in Microsoft and Sony's next consoles to be capable of comfortably handling such strenuous calculations.
Last gen: Surfaces looking pixelated /blurred when viewed up close, loading slow /popping in.
Textures are downsampled in resolution according to the distance away from the viewpoint. These littler versions are known as LOD’s and tend have visible transitions between them. The fact is, it's actually easy and non-problematic to remove the low-res LOD textures from being displayed, only using the maximum resolution textures, yet this aim is still having debates. Crytek claims that they have a new ‘tech’ that will eliminate texture pop-in. The impact on performance with current methods of texture enhancement is slight but required is an advanced, expensive graphics chip with lots of memory.
This area is, for the most part, bound by the speed and amount of graphics memory in the system and its supporting transporters. The PS3 and 360 had 512MB each at 666Mhz, that amount would have been enough to produce levels with uniformly pin-sharp textures at 720p but each environment would be small, have little visual variety and be shortly followed by a loading screen. Brilliant usage of texture streaming and compression can only go so far. Next generation it will undoubtedly be possible to have high resolution textures on every visible surface in a game at a minor performance trade off.
The case of ZombiU’s muddy textures is a good example of RFI with texturing, something we are soon to see much less of. The WiiU reportedly has more than 1Gb of graphics memory but over half of it isn't expected to be utilised until after the other companies' machines are released. This 1Gb that the WiiU packs will allow for very impressive textures, better than anything seen on current-gen consoles.
This generation’s consoles struggled to deliver the ‘FullHD’ specification on their renderers, with most titles running at 720p. The next generation of televisions are reported to be running at ‘4k’ (3840x2160); around 3x the best that most consumers have today. Both the PS4 and nextXbox will be 4k capable but due to power optimisation most games will run on 4k TV's at 1080p ‘FullHD’ upscaled.
RFI – Room for Improvement
Last gen: Wildly varying graphical quality between titles.
One thing that should be acknowledged when concerning any form of sequential production is room for improvement. Companies need to leave themselves with the ability to technically surpass their previous products, explaining how we got San Andreas on the same system as the barebones Gta3, with numerous calculation additions and enhanced graphical effects and The Last of Us on the same system that Legendary was on. There is also the learning process involved in fully utilising a system and its programming tools. One technique that was previously used to add RFI was the practice of disproportionate modelling e.g: a character having limbs too big for its body, floor textures with bricks drawn too big or sidewalk curbs wider than wheels, I expect to see this tactic's use minimised to keep up with the next gen's high standards.
In the next gen, graphical RFI will be capped after about 3 years. As with today's sports titles, new releases will no longer feature vastly improved graphics, instead sequels will ship with refined and expanded game mechanics whilst new IP's hook consumers with intriguing stories and gimmicks, all AAA games will look wonderful. With PC hardware today, the rendering of photorealistic images is certainly possible therefore, the PS4 and 720 should be equally capable of convincing realism.
In the last cycle, we saw improvements to physics, AI, facial animation, story linearity, graphics and design.
The next-gen should better these areas, utilise all of the improvements seen in Dx11 PC gaming plus give players more realistic, immersive game experiences that do not cut corners. Sooo excited for the next generation ;) ...