ART OF VIDEO GAMES
The Future of Video Game Art
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Gaming graphics and art have come a long way in the 40-odd years since that giant white blip of a pong-ball was careening back and forth across the screen. In just 40 years gaming has gone from displaying massive screen-filling pixels that collectively could do very little to paint a picture in the user's mind or inspire them with visual flair. Fast forward to today, and gaming has achieved near photo-realistic graphics, while a new cadre of more artsy games that place the emphasis on having a unique visual flair have filled their own valuable niche.

But with graphics technology having advanced so rapidly, there is some question as to just how far it can now go. If gaming graphics reach an endpoint where they effectively cannot get any better, as they are likely to do at some point, would the lack of advancement prove to be the ultimate downfall of gaming? Or would gamers be content to continue playing visually similar games for years to come?

Graphics technology has not yet reached that end point however, and several exciting techniques are on the horizon that could change the way we view and play games. Let's explore these techniques, as well as the artistic future of gaming.

Artistic Future

As gaming achieves near photo-realism in major future releases, there is likely to be a greater dichotomy between those games, and games which still rely on an animated style, particularly on less-powerful hardware like mobile devices. Small mobile and indie developers are likely to increasingly look for ways to make their game stand out from the crowded pack by utilizing creative artistic styles that make their games visually unique in a way that goes far beyond sheer graphics quality. Already we are seeing examples of this in games like Limbo, an homage to film-noir, Okami, a game that is inspired by the art of calligraphy, and Journey, with its uniquely stylized world and sense of scale.

In the realm of artistic realism, developers will increasingly be forced to contend with The Uncanny Valley effect, a well-documented phenomenon that occurs in people when things border on the overly life-like. The theory is that as things become so realistic, the human eye and mind instinctively begins to look for errors in the realism, detracting from the overall experience of enjoying what is unfolding before their eyes. Many gamers will remember the first Final Fantasy animated movie, The Spirits Within, as igniting mainstream debate over The Uncanny Valley effect. While many people praised the movie's astounding computer generated graphics, others fell victim to the effect and bemoaned that the life-like realism came across as awkward. Many even questioned the logic of doing an animated movie that effectively tried to mimic reality; why not just use real actors they wondered? While gaming won't face such questions over its attempts to duplicate realistic visuals, it will increasingly be subject to The Uncanny Valley effect as it gets closer and closer to achieving ultimate realism in graphics.

Technological Future

On the hardware front, the release of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, perhaps the last major console releases before gaming fully ascends to the cloud, are providing a boost to what developers can do, and how much action they can cram into each scene. Previously limited to the restraints of nearly decade old machines, the new consoles are breathing new life into gaming. However it's also apparent that the jump in technology and leap in graphics capabilities gets smaller and smaller with each gaming generation, and more powerful hardware alone isn't enough to drastically improve graphics quality. This is where new rendering methods will be required to provide the final link to realism that console hardware alone cannot.

One such technique is present in the upcoming Farm51, which will be the first game rendered almost entirely from scans of real-world locations and objects/people to achieve literal photo-realism. A video demo of an abandoned warehouse environment within the game is virtually indistinguishable from reality, which can't truly be said for the environments in any other game. However, rendering environments is only one-half of the equation, and developers at the Farm51 Company will have to show they can also add characters and visual effects, and animate objects within those environments while maintaining the same level of realism. That goal seems far less likely to be achieved in the immediate future. Of course the other limitation with this technology is that not everything can be scanned from real-world objects and transplanted into a game. Any game that deals with any sort of fantastical element would be unable to utilize such technology; we don't think developers are going to have much luck finding a dragon to scan for their next epic fantasy game.

Another promising technique comes courtesy Euclidean, and their "unlimited detail" rendering technology. The Euclidean engine will attempt to replace the standard polygons, which have been used since the dawn of 3D gaming to render objects, with atoms; the very material used to "render" everything in the universe. The technology promises to be able to render an infinite amount of detail in any scene, though like with polygon counts, it would somewhat be restricted by hardware limitations. The technology can convert blocky polygon objects which were previously restricted by limits on how many could be displayed on screen at once, into fully formed objects comprised of millions of atoms. The technology is nearing completion and should soon be in the hands of artists and developers, meaning we could be in for a graphical revolution in mere years if the technology lives up to its hyped claims.

On a much smaller scale are new technologies that allow for rendering of very specific things that often prove troublesome for artists and animators. One of the foremost of these is hair, which techniques like Hair Today aim to overcome by providing new ways to model hair from images. Another is facial expressions, which the Face Replacer technology from Industrial Light and Magic aims to overcome by allowing for easy transplanting of real-time facial expressions onto digital bodies.

While the pace is slowing, it's still a very exciting time to be a gamer, with games being more visually and artistically appealing than they've ever been before. And as new technologies emerge that could make creating realistic images cheaper and easier than ever, it should allow for artists to focus more on the very artistry behind their images, rather than mulling how best to showcase an image with the limited resources available to them.

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