If you're reading this, you're probably a PC gamer. You've probably invested a decent amount of money in a fast graphics card, a decent-sized monitor, and more cheap RAM than you probably needed. I'm willing to bet you've also played some of the latest shooters on that gaming rig of yours.
If my description fits you, then you must have realized that your PC can carry much bigger loads than the lightweight Modern Warfare engine and its ilk. The sad truth is that today's games are developed with six-year-old consoles in mind, and they look the part, too. High-end gaming PCs are roughly an order of magnitude more powerful than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Playing Modern Warfare 3 on the PC is a bit like taking a Ferrari to go grocery shopping; as flashy as it might look, the resources at hand are being woefully underused.
None of that should be news to you. The question is, what happens next?
Epic Games Technical Director Tim Sweeney said in September that Unreal Engine 4 won't be ready 'til "probably around 2014." Speaking to Develop the following month, Epic President Mike Capps noted, "I want Unreal Engine 4 to be ready far earlier than UE3 was; not a year after the consoles are released. I think a year from a console’s launch is perfectly fine for releasing a game, but not for releasing new tech. We need to be there day one or very early."
Unless there's some miscommunication inside Epic, those two statements tell us the successors to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 won't be out until late 2013 or early 2014. That's a long time to wait with PCs getting more powerful and game developers still forced to target the same old platforms. However, I don't think that means we have to suffer continuing stagnation in PC graphics for the next two years. There's plenty that can be done to improve visual fidelity without tessellating everything and soaking images in photorealistic shader effects.
Mainly, I'm talking about four little visual eccentricities we've been living with for far too long—eccentricities that fast PC hardware could eradicate while we wait for the next generation of games.
I think those are the big ones. Rage already got us part of the way there with a hard 60 Hz target and beautifully effective vsync. Now, other games need to follow suit and iron out the other kinks mentioned above. I certainly hope AMD and Nvidia will push developers in that direction, too. After all, extra graphics horsepower can be put to good use making games look smoother, cleaner, and more seamless—graphics horsepower that would otherwise go unused... or, more crucially, un-purchased. Yes, I know about PhysX, stereoscopic 3D, and PC-only DirectX 11 eye candy, but the GPUs that come out next year and the year after that will no doubt have the brawn to handle those things with cycles to spare.
Of course, if my wishes are fulfilled, then we'll be in an interesting position when the next-gen consoles do come out. If Epic's Samaritan demo is any indication, future titles will take another step toward photorealism. I expect hardware requirements will suddenly spike up, but does that mean we'll be forced to trade silky smooth, shimmer-free graphics just for a taste of all the eye candy future games can throw at us? I certainly hope not. I hope next-gen titles will manage to offer smooth, distraction-free imagery with an added dose of realism. Otherwise, what would be the point? Photorealism with screen tearing, shimmering textures, and microstuttering wouldn't be photorealism at all.
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