Beyond higher resolutions and better frame rates, what does more graphical horsepower actually mean for next-gen games?
As hardware gets more powerful, it mainly enables two things: better graphics and better performance. The performance side is easy to understand – games will load faster, have higher frame rates, and slow down less during demanding spurts of gameplay. “Better graphics,” though, is sometimes a bit harder to grok. Sure, you can just say things will “look better,” but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than just rendering a more photorealistic image.
A critical part of making games more realistic is better and more powerful simulations. Common real-world things like water, cloth, and hair are notoriously difficult to realistically simulate, but a more powerful GPU means more capability to render those systems without bogging things down.
“Smoke, water, wind – things like that are great for GPU processing,” says Bruce Straley, former creative director at Naughty Dog. A great example of this is hair and fur; even as character faces have become more and more photorealistic in recent years, hair often still looks like clumped, plasticky strings. “It’s always been really difficult to make really good hair. And then hair responding to different environments – hair and water, hair and wind, hair and hair gel, are all reactions that can be processed,” Straley says.
Older hardware is certainly capable of rendering these systems we’re talking about, but if they were too complex – or you had too many of them running in parallel, such as strands of hair blowing in the wind or responding to getting wet – then your framerate would chug down to unplayable levels. Having more teraflops (which is short for trillions of floating point operations per second) means more capability to perform the operations needed to smoothly render these systems in real time.
“Essentially, more teraflops means more GPU to put to work across the game,” says Elijah Freeman, VP of games at Virtuos, a studio that specializes in porting and remastering games for new systems. “This means a game can do more impressive things at the same time, with fewer compromises. You’ll see much higher framerates, for example. While the current generation of consoles offers you 30 or 60 fps, the next generation will be offering you 4K visuals at 60 fps combined with 1080p at 120 fps. Games are going to look slick and buttery smooth at high resolutions.”
Power levels like the Series X’s 12 teraflops enable graphical techniques beyond just trying to achieve photorealism that escapes the uncanny valley. Several developers I spoke to pointed to the kind of stylized rendering that Pixar does as being more possible thanks to the hardware-accelerated ray tracing on the Series X.
“Ray tracing is probably the biggest gap between what game graphics can do and what high-end VFX and Pixar and movie graphics can do,” says Bryant Cannon, lead developer at Night School Studio, the developer of Oxenfree and Afterparty. “[With ray tracing], they're actually stimulating the lights bouncing from light to different surfaces.”
Ray tracing is used to accurately simulate light, reflections, and shadows, among other things – not just approximate or ‘fake’ them as most games currently do. This technology has been possible in PC games since late 2018, when Nvidia launched its RTX series of graphics cards, but is incredibly demanding on graphics hardware and has yet to be adopted by the gaming industry at large. The Xbox Series X (and potentially the PlayStation 5, which has not yet had all its features announced) will be the first time the technology is available to console developers and players.
“Something like a Pixar rendering system will rely heavily on subsurface scattering for flesh tones and skin,” Straley says. “If you wanted to make something rendered like The Incredibles, where you have light coming through the earlobes of your character – we faked it at Naughty Dog. We had all sorts of ways to simulate it, but it wasn’t real. If now I can write a shader that has subsurface scattering on it and hook into the ray tracing system, then more people are going to be able to do that.”
And that’s what’s really important: while the best developers in the business have always been able to make games look great, these graphical advancements mean you don’t have to be a wizard to pull off those illusions anymore. Small developer teams who currently have to prioritize processing resources for the rendering and simulation systems that are necessary for their game to work now have more resources to spend.
“All these things are going to be more accessible to smaller teams,” says a veteran developer with both a technical and creative background (who asked to remain anonymous). “Basically because the machine's handling so much of the workload. A lot of the stuff that we have to do on our side, for similar effect, is now just given to us.”
That includes things like collisions – on the scale of millions of collisions per frame – or voxel-based systems like Minecraft, but at a significantly higher resolution, that simply wouldn’t have been possible on older hardware. "So you can have vessels that are made out of voxels that have liquid voxels within,” the developer says, “and when exposed to air when they're busted open, can turn into fire voxels – all these sorts of things that we couldn't even dream of before."
“The reality is we never could get to the point where we could actually do that, and see what that really looks like,” the developer says, “and the results are pretty stunning. So I think what's going to be easier, for smaller teams in particular, is to experiment with things that we never thought we could experiment with because we just didn't have an engine for it. We didn't have the ability to do it. And now just the brute force of this hardware is going to give us that.”
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