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Epic's Sweeney: Games Are 'Factor Of 1000' Off From Graphical Realism
Epic's Sweeney: Games Are 'Factor Of 1000' Off From Graphical Realism
May 26, 2009 | By Staff, Benj Edwards

May 26, 2009 | By Staff, Benj Edwards
More: Console/PC

Talking as part of a special Gamasutra interview spanning his career, Epic founder Tim Sweeney has suggested that "we're only about a factor of a thousand" away from perfect graphical realism in games, but it might only be 10-15 years time before it's accomplished.

Sweeney, who founded Epic Games as a PC shareware company in 1991 and is renowned as one of the game industry's all-time technical gurus, continues to play a pivotal technical role at the Unreal Engine and Gears Of War developer.

The comments were made as part of a major Gamasutra interview examining his career, which largely focuses on his company's fascinating early shareware days as Epic MegaGames.

However, the end of the interview also discusses Sweeney's thoughts on current technology, and Gamasutra is reprinting that section in full in this news story, as follows:

Does it scare you when you see Crysis... or, I don't know. What's the biggest competitor in the game engine market? Is it id's stuff, or is it another company?

Today, it's Crysis. Because Crysis is doing some things on high-end PCs that we're not doing ourselves. That's a tricky case though, because we could do vastly more than we're currently doing if we focused on supporting dual high-end video cards, which have about 10 times the graphics horsepower of a console today.

The thing is, that market is about 2% the size of the overall next-generation game market -- PS3, Xbox 360, and mainstream PC. So there's a real hard business decision: if you go the route that Crytek goes, you can beat us in certain areas in graphics, but you're really sacrificing the larger market.

Because you can't run that engine on the PS3 and that sort of thing.

Yeah. And some of the things they're doing are just conceptually incompatible with that level of performance. Wherever you have an order of magnitude performance difference, you can't really scale.

We can scale down in performance by a factor of three by going to a low resolution, dropping some textures, and things like that. But to scale by a factor of 10 -- you can't design a game with 10 times the detail and then scale it back to something that looks decent on the consoles.

You'd end up looking much worse than a console game that was just designed for the console specs. So they have real scalability difficulties there.

On another note, LittleBigPlanet reminds me of [Sweeney's early '90s shareware tool] ZZT, because you can build your own levels, and people do emergent techniques with a simple set of tools. Have you played LittleBigPlanet? Do you like it?

Yeah, it's brilliant. If I were creating a game with a really small team so that things like Unreal were ruled out, it's exactly the kind of game I'd want to create -- a side-scroller with really cool graphics using 3D and really cool physics -- and design it around the user community building stuff. It's a really brilliant project.

I think it's indicative of the direction in which that kind of game could go -- a sandbox game like The Sims or anything else. You can really go a long way with the simulation without creating complicated tools. It's not like there's some crazy Python scripting language in there; it's all done with really simple graphical stuff. It's a great idea.

Looking ahead, how long do you think it will be before real-time computer graphics are 100% realistic like a movie?

There are two parts to the graphical problem. Number one, there are all those problems that are just a matter of brute force computing power: so completely realistic lighting with real-time radiosity, perfectly anti-aliased graphics, and movie-quality static scenes and motion.

We're only about a factor of a thousand off from achieving all that in real-time without sacrifices. So we'll certainly see that happen in our lifetimes; it's just a result of Moore's Law. Probably 10-15 years for that stuff, which isn't far at all. Which is scary -- we'll be able to saturate our visual systems with realistic graphics at that point.

But there's another problem in graphics that's not as easily solvable. It's anything that requires simulating human intelligence or behavior: animation, character movement, interaction with characters, and conversations with characters. They're really cheesy in games now.

A state-of-the-art game like the latest Half-Life expansion from Valve, Gears of War, or Bungie's stuff is extraordinarily unrealistic compared to a human actor in a human movie, just because of the really fine nuances of human behavior.

We simulate character facial animation using tens of bones and facial controls, but in the body, you have thousands. It turns out we've evolved to recognize those things with extraordinary detail, so we're far short of being able to simulate that.

And unfortunately, all of that's not just a matter of computational power, because if we had infinitely fast computers now, we still wouldn't be able to solve that, because we just don't have the algorithms; we don't know how the brain works or how to simulate it.

So you'd have to create a perfectly realistic virtual human first to have perfectly realistic graphics.

Yeah, you'd have to simulate the brain and nervous system in the computer.

And circulation and everything. But that's probably going to be possible some day, don't you think?

Some day, yeah. But there's no Moore's Law for that stuff, and progress is very non-linear. Somebody must have a clear understanding of how a neuron works now and how it transmits to adjacent neurons, but they have no idea how a billion neurons combine together to create a brain and what parts of our brain are basically hard-coded by evolution, and which parts are based on learning, and so on.

And if you could simulate it all, how could you train it to be realistic like a human? Those problems are probably decades away from being solved. Those are things that may not occur in our lifetimes.

Just like perfect computer speech recognition: if you look at speech recognition, it's only gotten slightly better in the past decade, just by a factor of several hundred increases in computing power. That shows that those problems are not falling to brute force.

They're not following Moore's Law acceleration. Have you ever read any Ray Kurzweil's futurism stuff?

Some of it. Definitely anything like that is long-term future. It's just because we lack the algorithm and knowledge of how to model that, even given unlimited computing power.

Do you think that if the graphics were perfectly realistic that you would create a "final" version of the Unreal Engine? As in, you'd never have to make another one because you got it perfect?

I don't think we'd ever be done. If you look at special effects or anything like that, even if you have perfect rendering, you might have the inner loop of the renderer which processes sub-pixel triangle primitives and generates perfectly anti-aliased graphics -- that might be completely done, but still, the tools and the functionality that lets the artist create the environment is infinitely improvable.

Currently, our approaches are somewhat primitive if you look at it. If you want to build a city for a massively multiplayer game, the artists model a single column or wall, then they copy and paste it throughout the world. You'd run really large-scale procedural tools for defining road systems and defining buildings, and the structure and architecture of buildings.

You could really do a lot more to improve productivity than any current engine or modeling tool is doing. So I see decades and decades of work there, just to make ever-better tools. And special effects as well. Particle systems are only partly limited by computing power.

The other limitation is the tools that the artists have to control what's really going to happen, and to do that productively. If you can make tools more productive so an artist can do more in an hour, then that's an improvement too.

[The full Gamasutra interview with Tim Sweeney, including a mass of fascinating information on his shareware beginnings, is now available to read.]

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Lead Game Designer


Kale Menges
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My only question is "Why?". If video games were to ever look flawlessly realistic, there's no longer any artistic value. Why would I want to create a work of imagination that looks exactly like every boring aspect of reality that I can see out my office window? That's the very world I play games to escape from. I'm sure it's all fascinating from the technical viewpoint, but artistically "perfect graphical realism" is a dead end and will be the death of games in general. Games are supposed to break reality, just like movies. They're an engineered, artificial experience from the get-go. The idea of "realistic" video games is an oxymoron and I think the industry would be better served by companies devoting more time to pushing the "artistic expression and genuine creativity" of video games instead of copy/pasting the outside world onto a disc.

Simon Carless
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True, Kale! Just want to point out to anyone else commenting that this was a question that we asked Sweeney, so it's not necessarily reflective of his wish for this to be so - just an interesting technical challenge. (Also, come to think of it, a totally realistic graphical world that you could then morph to be non-realistic on the fly might be seriously mindblowing.)

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Just because you can create a perfectly realistic game doesn't mean you have to. With the perfectly realistic innovations comes equally artistic innovations. You can't say that because games can be made perfectly realistic that it is a bad thing in any way. If anything it just expands what can be done.

Matt Cascio
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I have to agree with Kale on this topic. While I respect, like he said, that from a technological standpoint, it would be amazing to reach "realistic graphical perfection", it ultimately leads to a dead end in gaming. The creativity is what birthed this industry, and it's what will keep it going. But maybe we can look at that "graphical nirvana" so to speak, and think of it as more of a driving force, than a final goal. If programmers and others on the technological side of gaming continue to strive for that perfection, it will simply push them to create better and better engines for the artists and creative minds to take advantage of. It can be a great inspiration for you to have, but make sure to leave it as such, don't let it become a goal because sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

Mauricio Carvalho
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I don´t understand why that is a problem (more realistic graphics). If you create more realistic graphics it doesn´t mean you will have to live YOUR life there. You will be able to experience any reality the artists make possible for you to. You will be able to go places you can´t go in real life, you will be able to go to realistic places that don´t exist anymore or never will, they just exist on the artists´ minds....

Giles ODell
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I personally prefer stylized art direction. But I love that there are people continuing to push for realism. That drive for realism advances the toolsets for all aesthetic pursuits.

Chris Remo
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By no means do I say the industry should be expending its effort to reach graphical "perfection," but in response to some of the people in this thread, I have to ask whether film and photography are somehow sterile or dead forms of expression because they portray life, by definition, photorealistically.

Someone equipped with fully-realistic rendering would not have to depict in the game the boring stuff you could see outside your office window--unless doing so makes sense within the context of what the game is trying to portray. Just like a film or a photograph, and just like existing games. You could already render a boring alleyway with an enormous amount of fidelity in a game. Just because you can do that doesn't mean that's what your game has to be about.

Having perfectly realistic rendering would not preclude interesting composition, interesting lighting, interesting movement, or any of the million other factors that make art capable of doing more than simply reproducing the real world with no artistic filter. To say that designers and artists would lose their capacity for creativity if they could depict reality in an extraordinarily convincing way seems to demonstrate an extremely low confidence in the creative talent in this industry. It could be argued that is justified to some extent, but I'd like to think people could still think of interesting things to show and offer for play.

Andrew Dobbs
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The main problem with realistic rendering is putting all your computing power and development time into it at the expense of working on things that may provide a bigger win. Ask yourself what technology do we red to make a game more fun rather than how to make it look better.

Stanley de Bruyn
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I don't agree with Kale. This sound like gaming is all about escaping reality. It's not. It's more some do and some don't. There is also a aspect of simulation. Realism is not a black and white thing, but shades of gray's.

From pure abstract to pure simulation. For my definition, pure simulation and realism is wenn we reach startrek holodeck simulation technology. So to me all games are first of games. Because a simulation is a simulation and not a game. But some games have more focus on realism and simulation, the grey position. So all games fall somewhere between pure abstract and Pure realism.

Because some realism things, don't make games fun or make them unbalanced.

Ofcourse there are a lot of people who are more gaming for escaping realism in games. But a lot others want to do things in games they wouldn't do in reallife. Like exciting cool job's who are dangerous, or doing only the fun part for a day. Job's Like a fighter pilot, police man, Soldier, criminal. Or job's who are out of reach.

Example is also sport games.

So I Play Little big planet, nice and fun. If only to play with friends and family. To kiddy for me to play on my own. Not my thing. But splitscreen Coöp.

But sometimes I want to play like a Deltaforce or SF recon, simulation, chalange.

Sometime i just want to shoot. Onrail shooters on the Wii.

sometime I just want to wreck things in a shooter, Nice that Physics get more attention.

That's why there almost always comes a realism mod, also for Unreal games. I think most of the gamer are more somewhere in the middle. COD4MW is such middle ground game.

Lookin out for ARMA 2 and OFP2 and AA3.

Michiel Hendriks
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Surrealism works best when you have realistic rendering.

Jason Pineo
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Keep in mind that often the use of the words 'realism' or 'realistic' is meant to indicate the level of reproduction, not the subject matter being displayed. Scott McCloud's 'Big Triangle' covers this:

Let's say you have a dragon in your game. Would you rather it be displayed with 10 triangles or 20? With 50 triangles or 100? With a million or with a billion? The more detailed fidelity you can produce, the more exactly you can match your vision of what you want your dragon to look like. Want modeled scales instead of textured ones? It's possible at a high enough level of realism. Want finely-detailed stretch and squash like a cartoon or stop-motion animated character? Ultra-high realism will help.

Given that, I think that reaching visual perfection (if possible) is a great goal, and the sooner the better. I would love to be able to design my game and pass to the visual artists all of my fantastic concepts with confidence, knowing that anything I can describe, they can make. Sounds better than fussing over how much texture detail to put on the dragon's wings. And then, once the ultra-graphics are here and everyone has gotten used to them, we can get off the visual treadmill to some extent. We can stop debating whether games are more about flashy graphics or immersive gameplay because *everything* will have all the graphics you could want.

10-15 years? Can't wait.

[User Banned]
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Amir Sharar
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Kale Menges said: "If video games were to ever look flawlessly realistic, there's no longer any artistic value."

I realize the overall point you're attempting to make, but I do think you have to reconsider this statement, when you factor in things like the fashion industry, or the movie industry. It's all "realistic" as we use real people for models and actors, but there is a whole lot of artistic design slapped onto them.

Oh jeez, Chris Remo already covered this...ah well I'll just leave it in.

To claim that reaching realistic visuals is a dead end is an incorrect statement because it ignores what games ultimately are, a set of rules and goals. You can have the simplest 2D visuals to represent the rules and goals, or the fanciest holographic visuals, or even a deck of cards. With a deck of cards, we're still seeing new card games. Imagination isn't restricted by the medium.

I did want to remind that simulation games such as sports games and racing games are a part of this industry and that they rely on realistic visuals (and sound and so forth). Games based on movie and TV IPs are also big business.

Phil RA
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Glad to her Tom Sweeney on the subject of advanced AI.

Here's a simple example I like to use to illustrate the coming complications of advanced graphics:

You walk through a city which is under attack, and you find a mount (a creature that can be used as a transportation method, like a horse). The whole city is under attack by boulder-throwing catapults and the mount is just sitting there as buildings around it are falling apart. Since you have a high graphical quality, life-like rendering and so on, you would expect the mounts to act like it's alive. So the programmers need to code AI for something that used to require none, so that the mounts can react even when the player is not riding them.

Now if a giant boulder lands next to it, it should react. Well that implies contextual animations. Already it's getting a bit complex, and the part of the city you're in is quite narrow, so animations must take the tight environment into consideration. What happens if you shoot a flaming arrow next to the mount's head? Does it attack you? Does it know what the arrow implies? What if a player is riding the mount, and someone shoots an arrow in its tail? Does the player lose control as the mount charges you or as it runs away, or does it just play a "hurt" animation and sound effect and keep standing there?

This issue is actually something we will have to face head-on very soon, but I believe that the studios who will have the most success will be those that understand that not all problems need to be tackled at the same time, and that games must still be released according to their respective schedules and make money. Epic used a very common-sense approach when they made Gears of War, and it paid off. I'm sure they'll still have the wit to take such a well-thought-out approach when the next generation comes to deliver a great game and actually make money on top:)

Mickey Mullasan
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Although there will be a pursuit of graphic fidelity, its fashion has worn off. Although there will be a pursuit of an interesting linear story arc, its fashion has also worn off. An intelligent realm will be the new fashion. Developers will be wearing virtual world khakis around in the pursuit of an interesting intelligent realm, and things like good graphics and great stories will just be inherent.

zed zeek
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The obvious question begs,

How can can we be 10-15 years away from perfect graphical realism in games if today we cant even achieve perfect graphical realism in films. This is with supercomputers chugging away for minutes to produce just one frame.

theres an pdf from nvidia 2003, elegance of brute force

now they come to the result performance needs to improve 36,000x to get close to human vision (perhaps thats close to 1,000-3,000 in todays numbers)

but they dont even mention the 600pound gorilla, more accurate lighting models eg GI, reflection etc

Dave Endresak
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I'd say that Kale pretty much hit the nail on the head but I'd add that we shouldn't restrict the issue to the question on visuals/graphics. For example, people want to point at modern games like Gears or Half-Life 2 or Mass Effect or Call of Duty, but those games do not feature genuine realism, per se. The same is true for film. We see this fact whenever we watch any "behind the scenes" or "making of" special that shows how stunts and various special effects were truly filmed (that is, in reality).

In addition, I'll offer the view that many people do not want so-called "realism" in their artistic entertainment regardless of the medium being used. Chris mentions photography and film as "photorealistic by definition" but actually, they are not, or at least not necessarily. There are lots of tricks that are done to film - both single frame and multiple frame - in order to convey a specific visual to the final audience. These tricks might be done during the original filming by using certain types of lighting or specific types of film, changing film speeds, etc, or they might be done during processing/developing of the film by using different techniques in order to generate certain traits in the final product.

Likewise, artstyles in Japan and Korea, or various artstyles throughout history, choose specific aesthetics rather than attempting any sort of "realism" for the final product. Some audiences might want photorealism, but many do not. We even have cel-shading used to make CG appear to be handrawn cels rather than photorealistic CG.

After all, there are good reasons why older games continue to be popular through re-releases in collections or on handhelds, or through the used game market. Frankly, the modern focus on "realism" is a big reason why modern games are frequently not as fun as older games despite anything else they may offer. Spend more time on story writing, character development, and design balance/pacing and less on visual hype and the property's profitability will last much longer.

Rich Travis
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I want to thank you for posting this interview; it was truly interesting and insightful.

Lee Wymer
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No one will ever want to play a photo realistic game of 'wash the dishes', however i believe the goal of such visuals will create a more immersive gameplay which is both paramount and vital for all plot driven games. Non-plot driven games however can of course also benefit, the more realistic the graphics the more detail and options the back end has which can increase the playability and strength of said product.

Kale - "If video games were to ever look flawlessly realistic, there's no longer any artistic value."

I would have to strongly disagree with you there, and here's why. The value of art is one of the highest within the games industry, it can lend itself to being one of the best affordances we can offer. I can't see the creative minds of today and tomorrow creating realistic games without any sort of gameplay behind them, this is where the synergy comes in. The difference between life and virtual life are and always will be (for the time being) the small intricacies that define us.

We copy people and animals. We study, refine and engineer ways of doing things so why should creating a 'realistic' 'game' be any different, it is a vital part of human nature.

Do you admire Rembrandt for his realistic work or prefer a more abstract Kandinsky so your mind can wonder in it's own 'virtual world', which is after all what our minds are - cages that confine our creativity and ideas.

Colm McAndrews
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I'm with all those who are against this mad technical development.

15+ years spent on getting more sophisticated graphics tech, because suddenly the industry leaders were engineers maintained by graphic cards selling mafia.

We could rival theatre and books by now regarding story-telling depth and complexity of interaction, but no, they had to pimp the graphics up, those "engineers"

Thank you, ID and EPIC for being money whores.

Please avoid cinema comparison, it's completely out of place.

Joshua Sterns
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It never ceases to amaze me how extreme people can be in their arguments and thinking.

Why bash an improvement? Either utilize the advanced technology or go a different route?

This seems no different then fanboys complaining on forums about how X game is cooler then Y because they "SAY SO."

Colm McAndrews
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We can all agree that substance is more important than appearance, unless we live in a really evil world that tends to refuse such simple truths to defend chaotic "points of view".

To make improvements in the superficial aspects, many forgot to improve non-visual(non-profitable?) ones, not only, but the first suffocated the last, we've seen a sheer regression in the gameplay, many games have life-like visuals but their gameplays are more primitive than frogger.

you dislike extremism, i dislike moderation when it's another word for lying. Even if things were more complicated than how i put 'em, why is it wrong to make 'em simpler? The message is simply to cure substance and only AFTER try to make the thing look nice. It's simple and extreme, but how can you say it's wrong?

Bob Stevens
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"If video games were to ever look flawlessly realistic, there's no longer any artistic value. "

Because realistic CG has robbed movies of all artistic value? Come to think of it, those have always looked pretty realistic.

Frightening that so many people agree with something so wrong.

Colm McAndrews
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The artistic vs. realistic argument is probably a waste of time. The progresses of visuals is something obviously cold and soulless, but artists can make 'em look "dirtier" and artistic no matter how bland graphics may get, you can always artistically "ruin" them... naturally it's not something engineers care about, as long as their engines require people to give away their money.

(what hasn't happened with Oblvion, infact, which is the perfect example of technical sophistication with zero soul, an expensive benchmark, a safe source of money from Card makers)

So forget this argument, it leads nowhere, it's more important to remember that great graphics always stifle gameplay depth, with their malleability issues, with their costs, with their bugs, with the time needed to make 'em work and lastly with the fact that "good graphics per se always compensate lack of interactivity"

I know it's something too "righteous" to say, i know in the internet evil is glamorous, morality is sort of awkward, isn't it?

Nikolaj Leischner
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He is disregarding the fact that Moore's Law is not a law at all. Unless some transformative technology comes up that replaces silicon-based transistors we're approaching the limits of what is possible within the next maybe 10 years. I.e. the times of ever-increasing performance are coming to an end in the near future.

Apart from that - what kind of a budget would you need to create photorealistic content? I think that is unrealistic, too.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Brandel Zachernuk
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I think Michiel Hendriks put it very succinctly up there when he said "Surrealism works best when you have realistic rendering. ", though I think it bears expanding upon. It simply wasn't possible to achieve the nuance of facial expressions that appear in Half Life 2 - if all the other characters were as wooden as the G-man, he wouldn't have stood out so eerily.

I also take issue with a premise that Con Quests made - that substance is always more important than appearance. In particular, I reject that the two can be separated from one another so out-of-hand. In a physical simulation, the detailed graphics are often the minimum feedback required to portray the state of that simulation. In addition, it's important to remember that just because we can come up with more accurate rules to govern the behaviour and appearance of objects, _that doesn't mean we always have to follow them._ Imagine a child's shovel-and-pail, covered in sand at a beach. Now make the pail invisible and see the shape of the sand scattered on its surface. In reality, doing this is impossible. In a digital simulation, it could be a minigame.