Alongside Apple’s product range and the Sugababes line-up, computer graphics are one of the quickest-changing elements in modern culture. Games from even a few years ago can appear instantly dated after a new shader or lighting model is introduced, making it crucial for devs to be at the forefront of today’s visual technology.
Yet, as with all of development, taking full advantage of console, PC and mobile hardware comes at a cost – a price that continues to rise with the growing fidelity of in-game environments and latest methods being used to achieve them.
“Triple-A games with fantastic graphics are becoming more and more complex to develop and require increasingly larger and larger teams and longer development time,” observes Niklas Smedberg, technical director for platform partnerships at Unreal Engine firm Epic Games. “This means that it is more and more important to work efficiently and smartly in order to avoid having your team size or budget explode.
“Technologies that have stood out from the rest include new various anti-aliasing techniques like temporal AA, which has made a huge impact on visual quality.”
Unity’s Veselin Efremov, who directed the engine firm’s Adam tech demo, believes “the latest push is around adding layers of depth and evocative power to environments and virtual worlds”.
“There are things such as screen space reflections, and real-time global illumination,” he says. “It can all be done with a relatively low memory footprint.
“Meanwhile, physically-based rendering is at its core a new approach to the lighting pipeline, simulating the natural way light and real-world materials interact. PBR shines when you’re pursuing realism.”
It is important to work efficiently to avoid having team size or budget explode.
Supporting the latest methods of mastering specific optical elements are new underlying APIs that are propelling the entire sector forward.
“The expanding performance budget of each platform means that every generation developers can build larger worlds with more geometry, richer textures and more advanced effects,” says Chris Porthouse, GM of lighting specialist Geomerics. “The advent of thin APIs such as Metal and Vulkan are giving developers access to finer control of the performance potential of these devices.”
Although the inflating scale and ambitions of titles has led to a need for greater investment in graphical technology, Dario Sancho-Pradel, lead programmer at CryEngine outlet Crytek, highlights the advancements in making tools more accessible and easy to deploy.
“Recent technologies are helping character and environment artists to produce more complex and interesting assets in a shorter amount of time,” he says. “Some examples that come to mind are procedural material generation, multi-channel texturing and photogrammetry.”
Peter Busch, VP of business development at Faceware, concurs that “content creation tools are getting easier to use, less expensive, and now support multiple languages”.
“That means that more people will have access to the hardware and software needed to create good facial performances,” he says. “That, in turn, means facial animation, whether pre-rendered or rendered in real time, will appear in more indie games.”
SMALL BUT MIGHTY
For decades, it was a widespread belief that indie studios couldn’t hold a candle to the graphical might of triple-A powerhouses. The last few years have destroyed this myth, as the increasing power and falling price of development software have closed the gap, allowing devs including The Chinese Room and Frictional Games to produce outstandingly good-looking titles such as Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture and Soma.
“Development tools have advanced tremendously in the past several years,” says Efremov. “There’s really very little stopping a creator from bringing their vision to market; it takes less time and fewer resources than ever before.
“What really distinguishes big triple-A productions is content and an emphasis on realistic graphics. There are ways smaller studios can replicate triple-A quality, such as PBR-scanned texture set libraries, terrain creation tools, automated texturing tools and markerless motion capture solutions.”
Smedberg offers a reminder that a strong style can be as effective as pure graphical horsepower.
“Use something you feel comfortable with and lets you be most productive,” he advises. “Choose an art style that fits you best and where you can excel. All developers should take the time to use graphics debuggers and profilers. The more you can learn about the tools and your rendering, the better your game will look.”
Porthouse agrees that “workflow efficiency is everything to smaller studios”.
“Any tool that can decrease the time it takes to perform a particular process saves money and leaves developers free to improve other areas of the game,” he explains.
Sancho-Pradel says: “Small studios need to be particularly pragmatic. If they use a third-party engine, they should be aware of the strengths and pitfalls and design their game around them. Using techniques such as photogrammetry, procedural material generation and multi-channel texturing is affordable even in low-budget productions and can significantly increase the quality of the assets if the art direction of the game is aligned with such techniques.”
Each year the challenge of delivering visibly better graphics increases and workflow efficiency is the key to success.
As thread upon thread of ‘PC Master Race’ discussions attest, the trusty desktop has long been considered the flagbearer for bleeding-edge graphics, with the static hardware of consoles acting as a line in the sand beyond which visuals can only toe so far. This could all be set to change, as Xbox’s newly announced Project Scorpio and the PS4 Neo look primed to blur the lines between console generations, in line with the continually evolving nature of PC.
“As hardware manufacturers produce new platforms, development teams will happily eat up the extra performance budget to generate higher fidelity visuals,” Porthouse predicts. “Yet step changes in hardware do not come annually and for every release a franchise’s studio needs to demonstrate graphical improvements even when new hardware is not available.”
John Elliot (pictured), technical director of Unity’s Spotlight team, suggests: “For large studios, there is a great opportunity to stand out by pushing the new hardware to the maximum. For smaller studios, more power provides opportunities in different areas. Many will find creative ways to drive interesting and new visuals.”
Among the headline features of the Xbox Scorpio are high-dynamic range and the ability to put at 4K resolutions. With many titles yet to achieve 60 frames per second performance at 1080p on console, will these new display options even be of interest to devs?
“This was the only option they had to move forward,” Smedberg proposes. “HDR requires new display hardware and 4K requires more performance. While more performance is always better, I am concerned about fragmentation – that consoles will end up like PCs, with tons of different performance and feature levels that developers have to figure out how to make our games play nice with.”
Elliot backs the introduction of HDR and 4K as “interesting features that absolutely should matter to devs”.
“While the jump to 4K is much less than that from SD to HD TV, it is still something that gamers will soon come to expect,” he forecasts. “You just have to look at how quickly 1080p became the standard for TV to know that there will be huge demand for 4K content.
“HDR really does provide an amazing boost in visual quality, but it is much harder to visualise what this means until you have actually seen it. I’m sure it will quickly become a standard requirement and, as with any new hardware, there is a great opportunity for the first games to support it to get noticed in the marketplace.”
THE REALITY OF VR
As well as HDR and 4K, a major turning point with Scorpio and Neo is improved performance for VR hardware. With good reason: the nascent medium is reliant on flawless performance. It’s a challenge that remains so even with the almost limitless potential of PC, as devs work to balance realistic visuals with hitch-free delivery.
“Photorealism is not essential for VR, but if one of your goals is to immerse the player in a highly realistic world, then the game will have to use a highly optimised rendering pipeline in order to hit the framerate required by the VR platform while rendering in stereo high-detailed models, thousands of draw calls and complex shaders,” observes Sancho-Pradel. “DirectX12 and Vulkan are designed to give engineers much more control in terms of memory, command submission and multi-GPU support, which can translate into more optimal rendering pipelines.”
Busch echoes that absorbing players into a VR experience is vital for devs – and visuals play a major role in doing so.
“Without believable, immersive experiences, games will face an uphill battle in VR,” he cautions. “In a fully immersive environment people are ‘in’ the content – which only means that the details, framerate and level of engagement are a daunting task. Mix that with a quagmire of VR hardware, and it is a difficult landscape to develop in – to say the least.”
Smedberg drives home the point that performance is virtual reality’s unavoidable challenge, and offers technical advice to devs looking to perfect their game’s smoothness.
“The performance requirement for VR is critically important,” he confirms. “If you miss your target framerate here and there in a regular game, you might have a few unhappy customers. If you miss your target framerate in a VR game, your customers may not just stop playing your game – they may stop playing VR altogether.
“With VR you have to design your game graphics with a lower visual fidelity in mind, because you have twice as many pixels to fill and need to have it all rendered in less than 10ms – instead of 16 or 33ms. Many tried and proven rendering techniques won’t work, like sprite particles, because in VR you can see that they’re just flat squares.
“Better technology can help; faster and more efficient rendering APIs could help your game run much faster on the CPU – you can make more drawcalls and spend more time on AI or physics. GPUs could take advantage of similarities in the shader between the two eye views and run faster on the GPU.”
There is a great opportunity for the first games to support HDR to get noticed in the marketplace.
With a new semi-generation of consoles around the corner, virtual reality continuing to redefine long-established development philosophy and technology always set to take the next major graphical step, what can developers expect to rock the visual world?
“Lighting continues to be one of the most effective, emotive and evocative tools in an artist’s bench,” suggests Efremov. “Real-time global illumination, physically-based materials, lights, and cameras/lenses will all carry us much closer to worlds and environments that truly replicate our own.
“Machine learning is such an exciting new area of research, already put to practical use in so many other industries. The possibilities in the future are countless; simulations for populating and simulating game worlds based on photographic reference, expanding animation performances, creating 3D assets, altering the visual style of a game, new levels of AI and so on.”
Porthouse echoes Efremov’s sentiment that lighting enhancements will be one of the key drivers helping to refine visual fidelity.
“As teams perfect the graphics of their increasingly large world games, lighting and weather effects will play an important part,” he says. “In two to three years’ time all exterior environments will be lit with a real-time day/night cycle with believable and consistent bounced lighting, and gamers will be able to seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor scenes. Each year the challenge of delivering visibly better graphics increases and workflow efficiency is the key to success.”
Smedberg (pictured) highlights hardware evolution as a strong foundation for devs to expand their graphical ambitions.
“We may see PC graphics hardware that can run at double speed, using 16-bit floating point instead of 32-bit floating point,” he forecasts. “This doubling of performance comes in addition to any other performance increases, like more cores and higher clock frequencies.
“On the rendering technology side, I’m looking forward to using some forms of ray-tracing – not traditional full-scene ray-tracing, but as a partial tool for some specific rendering features.”
Smedberg concludes by reiterating that while pure power is sure to drive visual punch onwards, its benefits are voided without strong design to match.
“Graphics technology is so capable and powerful today that developers have an incredible freedom to choose whatever art style they like,” he enthuses. “Creators can and should choose a style that they feel passionate about and that fits their gameplay and budget goals.”