Epic's Tim Sweeney says graphical advancements still follow Moore's Law, but true photo-realism will pose new challenges for the industry.
For most of gaming's history, graphics have been the driving force behind technological progress. Sure, the visual gains may appear smaller each generation, but we're still moving forward, even if we're not photo-realistic just yet. That said, we may not have long to wait. Epic's Tim Sweeney, speaking at this year's Develop Conference in Brighton, shared his belief that perfectly realized graphics will arrive sometime within the next ten years. Unfortunately, he also notes that advanced visuals have drawbacks: Animations and believable AI pose unique challenges for a photo-realistic industry, and will require far more time and research to counter than high-quality graphics.
"Things are going to get really interesting," Sweeney told the audience. "We'll be able to render environments that are absolutely photo-realistic within the next 10 years, like indistinguishable from reality level of graphics ... That just moves the challenge of graphics to the problems we don't know how to solve, like simulating human intelligence, animation, speech and lip-syncing. There are still lots of areas in graphics that require ongoing research for probably the rest of our lives before we come close to approaching reality."
As a co-founder of Epic, Sweeney knows a fair deal about technological progress. Since 2000, the company's Unreal Engine has become a reliable industry benchmark used by a staggering number of professional developers. Even so, Sweeney is quick to add that there's no reason for all games to be photo-realistic. Even Epic has a few small-scale projects in the works that will forgo the Triple-A experience the company is known for.
"Last generation, most of the company was focused on building Gears of War 3, a massive project," Sweeney explained. "Gears of War 1 was a 60-person project at peak. Gears of War 3 was more than 100-people at peak. Now we're building several games at different scales. We're building Fortnite, a PC online game which is a fun, sort of Minecraft meets Left 4 Dead. It's a 35-person team. It's not aiming to beat Call of Duty in terms of graphics. It's more of a Pixar art style and a limited project in scope, just aimed at fun as opposed to massive breakthroughs in scale."
While I'm sure the visuals of tomorrow will be a wonder to behold, Epic's diversity is probably the safer approach. It sidesteps the limitations inherent in photo-realistic graphics, and could even allow for some unique gameplay innovations along the way. "It's really cool," Sweeney says. "We're testing our development at all scales and learning it as we go. We're trying to master development at every scale."