The "Next Gen Look": Unattainable

So, I was looking at the two screenshots for Tony Hawk’s Project 8 on PS3, when I realized the truth of the next gen look: Many studios just plain won’t be able to achieve it.

More and more over these recent years, the look of the game has actually been completely separate from the level of tech. The look nowadays requires that your artists know exactly what to do and how to do it; one weak artist along the chain of content creation, and your game will no longer have that next gen look. This is why Tony Hawk and Untold Legends don’t “look next gen”. Because the art is weak.

It’s pretty easy to end up with a game that has the capability of looking next gen, except when you get right down to it, it’s a rare developer that can actually manage it. Everything needs to be perfect from an art direction side before the game even has a chance of looking next gen.

So with this in mind, as I’ve [hrose]predicted for years[/hrose], games are going to have to stop trying to look next gen, and start focusing their efforts elsewhere. Scale being one of the main focuses that are easy to aim for when art takes a back seat. If you can’t make your stuff look hyperrealistic or next gen, well, put three hundred things on screen and have them all interact with each other.

The future of games for a lot of developers is going to have to be stylized art direction rather than realism, and a focus on gameplay rather than look. Of course, everyone knows this, and it’s the line that most game industry figures are starting to lean on.

However, there’s a more direct effect of this situation: Next gen games are, for the most part, going to underwhelm, with respect to graphics. PS3 will probably look iffy at best – because most developers have hit their visual plateau. Most xbox 360 games will continue to look sort of like slightly higher res xbox games. And we’re going to have to live with it.

It has really reached the point that expectations for the visuals of a game have vastly outpaced the ability of developers to meet them.

So I think what I’m getting at is that despite the amount of whining and complaining about how the focus of console games has become graphics, realistically, that focus can’t continue. Developers are far better trying to do more with less, rather than less with more. And this will become more obvious when round after round of next gen games get slammed for not looking next gen.

On the upside, it represents an interesting turning point for the industry, because really, where do we go from here?

I think that second shot is concept art.

Yeah, seems like.

But I don’t disagree with the thrust of your argument. Towards the right end of the artistic scale, the number if people capable of crafting unsettlingly realistic environments drops off dramatically.

As it turns out, though, certain dev houses are going to be doing some fascinating things with procedural animation, tesselation and physics complexity that largely bypass common art department obstacles. You’ll be hearing more about this shortly.

I think they both are.

Most developers have hit their visual plateau? What does that mean exactly? The state of the art is always a moving target when you have brilliant guys like carmack, tim sweeney, and the crew at crytek at the leading edge. You still see blurry textures right up against walls, antialiasing still isn’t free, soft shadows are expensive as hell, nobody can afford real collision detection yet, physics are either floaty or ridiculously off-course… gaming graphics have a long way to go, both in beauty and immersion.

<nintendofanboi>Nintendo is trying to provide an answer to that question.</nintendofanboi>

I agree with everything you wrote.

Tools. My guess at what will make the next gen are better tools and/or engines. Art can only get so far within the limitations of maya/3dmax, etc… Hell, check out Carmacks newest little invention. The ability to apply one HUGE ass texture to terrain instead of 256x256 ( or whatever) sized repeating textures. That’s a huge step towards next gen, and it was based more on a programmer using whatever newer horsepower he has available and then using it intelligently.
I agree that next gen will be kinda boring if all the dev’s do is take their engines, use the raw horsepower, and ‘turn it to 11’. Just like the old days graphics will take a huge steps forward based more on the abilities of dev’s rather than just using what’s available to them hardware wise (first-gen games being most guilty).

Scale, style and gameplay. If the next gen devs can give me that then they can have my money. If this is the way things are set to go, well, I think that some of the best news I’ve heard in quite a while.

I think you missed part of my post – carmack, sweeney, etc, are not responsible for the look of games anymore. They really aren’t. That used to be true when leading the edge of tech made you different, but it doesn’t anymore. It just puts you square in the middle of the pack. People like Carmack and Sweeney don’t differentiate themselves via tech anymore. They can’t – the tech is accessible to anyone with the money.

Blurry textures – a limit of your level designers and world modelers. Antialiasing is pretty much free on modern platforms. Collision detection has nothing to do with visuals most of the time, and physics are far more solid nowadays than you give them credit for.

And I didn’t say graphics didn’t have a long way to go – I’m saying that that long way is unattainable for most developers.

Yep, absolutely. That is the next big barrier, but I don’t know what’s going to break that barrier. The mouse and keyboard are the ultimate limitation. And if you can’t even visualize what will break the barrier, then chances are there’s a way to go before it actually happens.

Art direction has always been more important than technology. It’s why World of WarCraft is a better looking game than, well, pretty much everything else.

People are only starting to get it now because technology is less able to dazzle because, well, everyone has pretty great tech. And it’s all the same tech.

Err, the tech is available to anyone with the money because they license it from carmack and sweeney.

Obviously art direction and creativity is more important than technology… that didn’t need to be said. Technology is essential though, it enables art. But it doesn’t create it out of whole cloth.

Okay, so how does the fact that anyone can license the technology do anything other than support my point? People can make the same tech as well. It doesn’t take much effort to be cutting edge nowadays, as long as you are willing to throw the money at it. In either case it costs millions of dollars, and it doesn’t guarantee you a good looking game.

You started off talking about “next-gen”, which implies technical wizardry, soft shadows, high rez, power of collective human energy HD-era emotion engine cell CPU goroud-shaded pineapple splined kumquat-infused howitzits, etc, and now you’re talking about art and creativity. Not sure what they have in common, really. Did you lose your way?

I thought the OP (which is one of the most interesting here for a while IMO) rather than tech-oriented, was more along the lines of “a bit of inconsistency on the quality of art in a game can make it look bunk regardless of tech” and “stakes is high but expectations is higher yo.” At least, that’s how my non-tech-guy ass read it

Charles, do you think the true limiting factor right now is a lack of talented artists? Or did I totally miss the point?

I agree with Old Man Gravy’s take - the original post made the case that unless your artists were up to it, you couldn’t achieve the “next gen” look, great tech or no.

I can’t say that this bothers me much. The XBox look was OK.

I disagree. That needs to be said over and over again.

Art direction in this industry–particularly on the PC side–is generally terrible. A lot of games with “great graphics” have extremely bad art direction. Take Oblivion, for example, which is a mishmash of amazing environments and horrible characters. Better art direction may have better unified those two elements; it’s like you’re looking at two different games.

Poor art direction infects every aspect of every game, including the marketing. Why do we have horrible ads? Horrible art direction.

While technology enables art, it’s no substitute. For years, we’ve accepted that id games look awesome because Carmack’s tech was better than everyone else’s. Oh man, the lighting! The texturing! But when that playing field was evened, those id games no longer looked as awesome because their art direction is weak.

I think a lot of this comes from potentially two reasons:
a) Artists who have access to so many gizmos they throw them all in there, and the kitchen sink, too. Look at the latest UT2k7 shots. The artwork is way too busy most of the time, it’s got that uberdetailed look. But that doesn’t make it better, even though from a technical perspective, I can’t see really any “poor” art. In other words, all the art is solid–I just think there’s too much usage of next-gen, or rather, not using next-gen the way it should or could be used. That’s a personal thing, maybe.

b) Team sizes. If you’re making one of these big next-gen games, you’ve probably got a huge art department. Keeping all of those artists on the same page and making sure every asset is at a certain level is difficult/impossible in most development climates. It would take a very task oriented/well managed development cycle that was set up to do this from the start. This is something that we may see happen as this gen moves forward, and teams realize that they need to change the way they do development as they transition from last gen’s teams of 20-40 to this gens teams of 70-100.

I think they still are IMHO.