Underwhelming “next-gen” graphics (and why they may be a good thing)

I’ve been underwhelmed by “next-generation” gameplay videos for the XBOX One and PlayStation 4.

Though I haven’t been an active gamer for nearly a decade, I pay attention when new consoles get released. I’m eager to see just how photo-realistic the new games can get. But this time around, I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference between the first crop of next-gen games and the previous generation’s latest and greatest.[1] Maybe I’ve been out of the gaming scene too long?

Or… maybe we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to game graphics—the point where even substantial increases in processing power return less and less dramatic improvements.

This wouldn’t necessarily be bad news! I’d love to see gamemakers focus less on whiz-bang visuals and more on “under the hood” features. The games already look real. Now, make them feel real; dedicate that extra horsepower to better artificial intelligence, more responsive surroundings, more open-ended gameplay, and dynamically-generated storylines.

Some examples:

  • What if the bad guys learned your battle strategies? They “notice” that you tend to hide in A/C ducts, so they start tossing grenades into every vent.
  • Or what if you could destroy any in-game building, wall by wall, and watch the rubble crumble?
  • Or what if you could infiltrate the enemy’s headquarters any way you wished: parachute onto the roof, skulk in through the sewers, zip-line in from an adjacent skyscraper, or don a disguise and saunter through the front door?
  • Finally, what if the storyline was truly unscripted, and the game could spontaneously generate new character dialogue, responding to your decisions?

Up ’til now, games have felt static and rote; they pull the user along preset (if pretty) paths by invisible strings. But imagine if developers focused on features like these (instead of pixel-painting). Gamers would become creative agents instead of puppets. And that, more than piled-on polygons, would make games feel “next-gen”.

  1. I’ve heard that it takes a few years for developers to really unlock a console’s potential. Thus, you might not see the best graphics the PS4 or XBOX One can produce for a while. But previous console releases (e.g. going from the PS2 to the PS3) boasted dramatic visual improvements over their predecessors; I just don’t see it this time.  ↩