Will Video Games Ever Look Real?

With each new generation of consoles and new milestones achieved in game development, people tend to ask if games will ever look any better, or will video games ever look real? Whilst other people claim that what we currently have is already realistic and couldn’t get any better, or at least have diminishing returns. The truth is that it is much harder to go from what we currently have to photo-realism than some of the leaps in technology of the past.

This does not mean that we have reached the ceiling of what we can achieve. Technology is always improving, both in the tools that game developers have available and the hardware that we run the games on. Whilst the latest consoles may make it look like anything is possible, there is still a lot of limitations that game developers have to take into account currently, it’s just much more lenient than it was in the past. The game industry is also still very young, so developers are still learning and improving, with those people who trained specifically to work in games still in their youth, there is a lot of potential for improvements going forwards.

How Good Can Games Look?

God of War- Game Artists at their best
God of War – Santa Monica Studio

A good way of thinking about how good games can look is by comparing them to movies. CGI in movies uses much of the same technology as game artists, the main difference that separates them is that movies can be rendered in advance of someone watching it, whereas games need to be able to render what is on-screen on the fly depending on what the player does. For context, this scene from Pixar’s Inside Out took 33 hours to render a single frame, and these are high-end machines working on them, whereas games have to render 30-60 frames per second. As you can imagine, we’re a long way off having the kind of computer power to match movie quality in real-time.

Whilst it’s a useful comparison, it’s not entirely fair. There are fundamental differences between how games and movies work, and video games have to have a much larger focus on optimization, something that movies can be less conservative about. On the other hand, there’s a lot more to making a video game look real than pure graphics quality. The way objects interact and respond is a good example of something being realistic. If you have two characters in a sword fight, you want those swords to clash accurately and with impact, which can be difficult to track at high speeds. The last thing you want with photo-realistic art is for characters clipping through objects or animations breaking in strange ways.

Tech Improvements In Realism

Bounce lighting tech improvements in Unreal Engine.
Lighting in Unreal Engine.

Some of the biggest increases in realism come from the technology that powers it. Being able to correctly determine an object’s collision, for example, is usually done by using a ‘proxy mesh’ a much lower quality version of the object that is invisible to the player, this is because it is computationally easier to figure out how a box should move than a complicated object. We’re now reaching the point where we can judge collision for small objects using the object itself, making the interaction more realistic, but we’re a long way off being able to do so with more complicated assets, like having a character where the game can judge an impact on clothing accurately.

There’s a huge amount of tech improvements ahead of us, some that are obvious improvements of what we have now that will become possible as the hardware gets better, others will be technological improvements that we may not even be able to imagine. The future of games will be interesting, to say the least.

Game Development Tool Improvements

A character created using Substance Painter
A character created in Substance Painter.

The tools available to developers make a huge difference to what they can create. Most big development companies will have a large amount of custom-built in-house tools to help them develop, but those available to us all make a huge difference industry-wide. To use the Pixar example again, the original Toy Story was animated by typing in numerical values to denote rotations and timings, these days we’re able to click and drag to get the same results easier and much much quicker.

A good example of improved tools is pre-built engines such as Unreal Engine, which have a whole suite of tools that anyone can use. This means many developers, even AAA ones, are now using these engines as a base and tweaking them to work for them, rather than building one from scratch. Having Epic Game’s massive team of industry-leading professionals helping you out is incredibly useful. Programs like Substance Painter have also changed the way we produce textures, allowing much more realistic materials to be produced at a much fast pace. Who knows what tools will become available in the near future with the potential to change everything.

Games Development Is Still In Its Infancy

It can be easy to forget just how new games are. As the industry has grown to bring in more money than movies and music, you would be hard-pressed to find people who have never played a game these days. That being said, games have only been around for a relatively short amount of time and developers are still getting to grips with what is potentially possible.

There’s a generation of developers now who, for the first time in history, grew up playing video games and specifically targeted games development as a career. This is a big difference from before when the early games developers came from other industries, bringing along their knowledge from there. This new generation of game developers is still very young and has a lot of experience to gather, but eventually, they will be the ones with the most time and experience in the industry as well as actually playing the games. When they reach the point of being the main influencers in the industry, we can expect a sizeable change in game development as a whole.