Next-Gen Talk: More Power =/= More Polygons

Well, to rebound from my darker, previous entry, I figured it would be a good time to finish up on of my older unfinished blogs on some of the reasons why I’m looking forward to the next generational leap in console gaming. However, despite all the excitement surrounding Sony’s and Microsoft’s new systems, there are still many gamers out there who are not excited for, and in some cases angrily against, the arrival of these new systems.

The biggest argument I continue to see used against the arrival of newer console hardware is that the graphical leap will not be that great between this generation and the next and games look good enough already. Many point to games that already look amazing (Heavy Rain, Battlefield 3, Gears of War 3) while others point to games that don’t require top-of-the-line graphics to be fun (Minecraft, Journey, Fez). I’ll be the first to admit that we have seen some amazingly displays of graphical prowess and gameplay over the past several years. Even on seven-year-old consoles, Halo 4 has managed to look downright mind-blowing and the upcoming Last of Us is looking to show us what the power of the PS3 is capable of.

The problem is that in order for these games to look as good as they do, developers have to make sacrifices in other areas. Heavy Rain did not have a very large world, and Halo 4 never has very many enemies on the screen at one time. Even the most expansive areas in Halo 4 are not anywhere near a game like Skyrim. Speaking of Skyrim, in order for the game to build such a large and immersive world they had to resort to so many smoke-and-mirrors coding practices that both console versions of the games are bugged to hell (and almost unplayable on the PS3); bugs that aren’t nearly as apparent on the PC version of the game. Speaking of PC versions being incomparably better, it wouldn’t be right for me to not bring up Battlefield 3. Not only was the destruction of the game toned down so that consoles could run the game, the console versions themselves suffered great hits to draw distance (how far the game renders objects) as well as a very limited player count. In a game that is advertised to be an epic combat experience, the console versions of BF3 were stuck to a third of the number of players compared to what the PC offered; 24 players compared to 64. The difference became even more apparent when DICE decreased the player count to 16 on consoles just to be able to run the Close-Quarters DLC expansion. The Armored Kill DLC that followed is simply unplayable as there aren’t enough players to neither balance out nor take advantage of the vehicle-heavy maps. The Xbox version of Minecraft is nowhere near being called a graphically intensive game, yet it is still hampered severely from being on such an old system. The world is a limited-size grid instead of infinitely expanding, and getting more than four players together in a single world causes severe performance drops in areas loading as your travel. I could go on, but if you haven’t gotten my point by now then you should probably just stop reading now.

Games that come out on our current generation consoles are compromised versions of what they could be. They are shells of what we want. They are broken.

New consoles won’t fix this problem entirely, but the influx of more powerful technology will bring much relief to the pressure surrounding the industry. Here are a few things that next-gen systems will allow developers to do more of without them simply adding more polygons.

It’s Not a Small World After All

Skyrim is a pretty big place. Have you been there? Definitely worth a visit as it is an impressive sight to behold. However despite its size the game can feel amazingly small. Maybe it’s because the largest cities only have a dozen or so residents living there. Maybe it’s because the largest battles almost never involve more than ten characters at once. Maybe it’s because so much of the world is empty aside from the occasional wildlife. Maybe it’s because you can’t bring a friend in with you. Maybe it’s because every room, house, and dungeon is hidden behind a loading screen. For me, it’s actually a combination of all of them. The compromises Bethesda needed to make in order to display such a large world with such an interesting AI routine end up making a game both amazingly huge and yet so annoyingly small.

Next-gen systems will allow developers to not only make larger worlds for us to explore, they will be able to fill the worlds we already traverse with so much more life and believability. It is not so much about having a bigger world so much as it is about having a better one.

NPCs with College Degrees

While many gamers will consider NPCs in a video game already look pretty enough, I don’t think there are many that will disagree when I say that most NPCs (allied and enemy alike) in a video game are about as smart as a ham sandwich on rye. While there are exceptions to the rule, there are far more examples of the Artificial Intelligence running most gaming NPCs being done horribly wrong. Yes, much of it comes down to the talent of programmers behind it and the resources used behind them, but the hardware we currently have greatly limits where AI can grow. Far Cry 3 is a great example of the limits of hardware. The original Far Cry was an amazing looking game, but most people would not consider it to be an open world; you could see far, but your actual path was pretty small and linear. However the enemies you faced were pretty smart. If you were discovered they would fan out and hunt you in the jungle and were capable of being fairly sneaky doing so. Contrast that to Far Cry 3, which was a true open-world game. However the enemies were not nearly as smart. They have almost all the intelligence of a bag of bricks, or a bad guy in Call of Duty. The list of similar compromises includes most of the games that have come out in the past couple years; a list filled with games sacrificing smarts for some other feature.

Next-gen consoles will allow developers to have many more features than they currently have and still not make the NPC interactions suffer because of it. Again, it doesn’t need to be a bigger, prettier world. It just needs to be a better one.

Making Sir Isaac Newton the Deadliest Sonuvabitch In Space

If you don’t get the reference, don’t Google it. Get over yourself and play Mass Effect. Simply put, physics is another place where developers can expand themselves. There is still too much inconsistency between games and from within a game itself to completely let this go. Too many games live in worlds that the player cannot influence. Sure, not every game needs to give you Battlefield powers to level walls, but why can’t I push a chair aside if I get stuck? Is rag-doll physics the only way a character can die? How much cooler of a physics puzzle can we build to unlock this temple? There is still much room for improvement and it is something that can get better simply by giving developers more room to work in and more power to do the lifting.

Next-gen systems with more power can very easily allow developers room to ensure greater uses of their physics engines to provide more believable worlds as well as new experiences and gameplay mechanics. Not bigger, better.

A Blue Pill

Our consoles are old. At their age it’s not uncommon for them to experience trouble performing like they used to. These past two years have shown us that our consoles just don’t have the same…virility they used to. They need something to help give them back their old pep and…uh…confidence. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to be done. The hardware is old and limited, and there’s no amount of console-enhancement pills that can fix that problem. Instead we need to wave farewell to the old consoles sitting in their lone tubs near the beach and call up some new stud systems.

Look, games don’t perform like they used to on these systems. Despite looking better than ever, they’re unable to maintain 30 frames-per-second through the whole game. There is screen tearing aplenty, they have lesser draw distances, and they are riddled with bugs caused by coding trying to do too much with the old hardware. I’m frankly tired of playing games that drop below 20fps at multiple points throughout. I’m tired of the horrendously long load times followed by delayed texture loading that makes everything look like a blob of color. I’m just tired of games trying to ask more than what the consoles can give.

If nothing else, new consoles will allow us to play many of the same games we do now but perform so much better and more consistently. I don’t need bigger experiences, I just want better experiences.

What’s Wrong with More Polygons?

Now that’s four pretty big examples of what developers can do with next-gen video games that have nothing to do with making games LOOK better. Each example is only asking for games to PLAY better. But really, what’s wrong with wanting better looking games?

Ask anyone who works in computer graphics (or any other form of art) and they will tell you that the difference between a good digital creation and a great one is the amount of detail in it. And really, the amount of detail to go from one end to the other is not as great as you think. By adding little bits of detail here and there they will eventually add up to quite a lot more substance. Take the amazing Watch Dogs demo shown off at this past E3. The reason it looked so good wasn’t because of some huge leap in graphical capabilities. It was the way he walked, the fact his whole coat moved fluidly as one piece and not a conglomeration of shifting textures, it was the fantastic lighting engine, and the number of particle effects thrown on the screen. It was several little pieces of detail that all added up to make something look amazing. I think many of you will be surprised at how amazing those few extra polygons are.

Thank You!

Well, there are a few reasons on why a more powerful console should get you excited. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay on track and offer up more reasons to look forward to these new systems. In the mean time, what are the things you’re most excited about with a more powerful console?


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