In his keynote at GDC Europe, Crytek co-founder Cevat Yerli discussed the "future of gaming graphics" from the perspective of the German developer and CryEngine maker, defending the company's high-spec PC games and revealing that Crysis 2 will be more console-specific in terms of tech.
His comments came as part of a wider discussion on Crytek's history and engine. The company started in 2001 when many titles were gritty, corridor-based titles. So the company decided to go in essentially the opposite direction and make an open world, bright, detailed game -- obviously difficult, given the technical specs of PC hardware at the time.
Yerli joked that naivete is good because "you don't know [things are] impossible", and this led to a number of positive innovations.
These included a WYSIWYG game editor, normal map extraction from high-res geometry, and the first per-pixel shading and HDR engines in PC games. The entire project took around 20 R&D personnel around three years, and still looks impressive today.
The Rise Of Crytek's Engines
The next stage for Crytek was the CryEngine 2, another higher-spec engine described by Yerli as "less naive... but still naive." The underlying concept was "photorealism meets interactivity", with high-polygon titles and impressively complex physics based around an abstracted, lower-detail version of the world.
He particularly focused on Crysis, which shipped in November 2007, and was deliberately intended to scale in rendering quality, even with new PCs created today. "We are very often criticized for this", said Yerli -- but it's the company's intent to make things highly scalable. Therefore, users can play the game now, and then, "when you buy a PC in two years time, the game will look better."
Although the company received particular criticism from users who feel this principle implies their current PC is underpowered, Yerli said the company has had more positive than negative feedback over the approach: "I guess we'll still do it in the future," he concluded.
CryEngine 3 was developed over 5 years by 25 people and is highly scalable, he continued. "Games of 2012 will not look very different to the games of today", because the same basic console hardware will be in place, said Yerli -- which means this scalability between PC and console becomes even more important.
The company's in-house flagship title using CryEngine 3 is Crysis 2. The game is using "heavily improved Crysis technology" that is moving towards better implementation on consoles, Yerli said. He showed a PC demo of CryEngine 3 featuring both boat combat and on-land gameplay using enhanced Crysis assets, with 3D volumetric clouds, HDR sky, voxel-based terrain, and a 7km view distance on the ocean.
One particularly impressive demonstration was a procedural frost shader, and Yerli suggested that using CryEngine 3's approach, developers can make a game that looks very high-end on PC and then still renders console-specific feature sets based around either current or next-gen console hardware.
The Future: Graphics Trends
Talking trends, Yerli observed that GPUs and CPUs are "on a collision course", as CPUs get more parallel and GPUs -- already highly parallel -- are moving towards more general-purpose computing. He recommended OpenCL as a good base for addressing the issue.
In general, Crytek is trying to make all of its engines very scalable, due to the uncertainty about when the next-gen consoles might arrive. Yerli suggested that Crytek is estimating 2012 to 2013 for the next generation of home console hardware. But thanks to the success of the relatively horsepower-light Wii, "there's a big debate about whether there will be a next generation at all", he admitted.
The Crytek co-founder also discussed the dangers of the Uncanny Valley in work that companies -- even Crytek -- are doing. So he suggested most games use artistic styles, physics and AI to differentiate themselves, at least up to 2012 when the next generations may arrive.
Early visual style development is key, even now, he said. Procedural content development is also a heavy research area for Crytek, with Yerli saying that his dream is to create a game made by just a few people that looks like it was created by many more.
He then focused on the actual technical innovations that he feels will make a difference in graphics. For example, tech like point-based rendering is potentially faster than triangle-based rendering at certain higher qualities, and works well with levels of detail.
On the other hand point-based rendering might define a certain super-high polygon look for game, Yerli said. However: "There's a lot of games today in the Top 10 which don't need that", he conceded, and content creation tools are almost exclusively based around triangles right now.
He also noted ray-tracing as a possible rendering method to move towards, and particularly recommended rasterization and sparse voxel octrees for rendering. Such principles will form "the core" of future technology for Crytek's next engine, Yerli said, and the goal is to "render the entire world" with the voxel data structure.
Concluding, Yerli suggested that, after 2013, there are opportunities with new APIs and hardware platforms to "mix and match" between multiple rendering models, with "a Renaissance of graphics programming", and visual fidelity on a par with movies such as Shrek and Ice Age rendered in real time.