In this opinion piece, Red Jade Studios CG art manager Jeremy Price looks at current trends in photo-realistic game art and asks if, at the end of the day, for all the time, money, and hard work, are photo-real results worth the cost? Is 'realer' really 'better'?
"Making game content look as real as possible has always been a popular pursuit in the video game industry. With the dawn of a new hardware cycle upon us, we are able advance another step towards this goal. At the end of the day though, after all the time, money, and hard work, are the results worth the cost? Is 'realer' really 'better'?
A New 'Box'
Game developers have long struggled to achieve the most representational art as they can within the confines of very restrictive technical parameters. These limitations create what I would refer to as a 'box' of constraints. Artists have historically worked within this box, pushing their resourcefulness and their creativity to achieve the best results possible without breaching its borders.
Over the years, technology has improved in leaps and bounds, and with each change of hardware this constraint box grew larger, giving artists more room to explore ways to improve the quality of their work. Because of this, each new hardware cycle has brought with it increasingly lifelike and photo-real content. Higher res models, photo-referenced textures, physically accurate lighting, convincing physics behaviors, and mo-cap animation were all leveraged by artists to achieve this.
With the latest generation of hardware, the box is now bigger than it has ever been before. Yet it is at this point in history that a fundamental change has taken place. For the first time ever, 'technical feasibility' is no longer the major limiting factor in what can be achieved visually. Production timelines and development costs have become the new confines. Limitations of time and money now form the box's walls.
This change is now forcing development teams to ask themselves questions they never before had to consider: Just because you 'can' do something, does it mean you should? When does cost outstrip benefit in the time it takes to create realistic looking content; is it worth the $1500 price tag for the average 3 day object? It is no longer realistic for anyone to believe they'll be able to push the graphics of a game to the limits that the hardware allows.
Chasing The Wind?
Making photo-realistic CG art is time consuming, expensive, and complicated. Hollywood has known this for a long time, and the current generation of hardware is teaching game developers the same lesson. Despite all of the graphical advances, increasingly life-like CG in games has also brought with it some surprising realizations.
The most troubling of these is 'The Uncanny Valley', or the sharp drop in emotional response from an audience as character subtleties and likenesses improve. As is the case with characters in many current Xbox 360 games, our attraction has turned to revulsion. We get creeped out. Is this the result of all our time, money, and hard work? All the per-pixel lighting, dynamic shadows, normal maps, and motion capture of Madden '07 has actually degraded the emotional connection players had with previous versions of the game -- 1 step forward, 2 steps back.
Ways To Do Something New
Although technically impressive, photo-real CG content has become increasingly commonplace. It's everywhere we look these days. Sought after by countless game development teams, it's been pushed to levels where even matching some of their achievements would require an almost superhuman effort. Despite this challenge, the one-upmanship continues, and every new release tries to out-do those before it, but to what gain? To have even more convincing barrels and crates? Or physically correct 'film-like' lighting?
In the quest for this immersive photo-real environment, creativity has died on the operating table. Given all these fantastic tools, the best we can do is attempt to duplicate our own environment on the same regurgitated topics and themes. In an interview with Tomek Bagiñski on his recent CG film 'Fallen Art,' Tomek states that he doesn't see any reason to do photo-real 3d graphics unless you are working for the SFX film industry. His reasoning is that stylized art is far more interesting to look at than just another attempt at reality. The photo-real painting movement ended after a brief period in the late 1960's for exactly the same reason - it was boring to look at. Guess what? So are the majority of today's video games.
Conclusion: A Fresh Start
With any luck, this will soon change. Once the attentions of a bored and numb target audience start to wane, we will experience a long overdue paradigm shift in the game industry. The current emphasis on accurate reproduction will be replaced with a new focus on creativity and imagination. These ideals will come to the forefront of graphics (and design), and rise like a phoenix from the pixel shaded, normal mapped, dynamically-lit ashes of what is now the 'cutting edge' of real-time entertainment."
[Jeremy Price is a 6 year veteran of the games industry, where he's worked as an animator, CG artist, and production manager on a number of titles in the Battlefield series. He is currently employed at the newly-founded Red Jade Studios (formerly DICE Canada) as a CG art manager.]