Over the years the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco has morphed from a developer focused gathering to a kind of mini-E3, where games are announced and the internet gets flooded with developer interviews and game previews. However the real core of GDC is still development, and it often delivers a fantastic insight into where games are headed.
What has been clear from this year’s GDC is that consoles are beginning to show their age. We are currently experiencing the longest lifespan in console history, and with the hardcore gamers truly sated both Microsoft and Sony have focused efforts on increasing their user base with more casually focused interaction through Kinect and Move.
This isn’t to say that the first person shooter conveyor belt will grind to a halt. After all Activision still hasn’t managed to run Call of Duty into the ground like it did with the once unassailable Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Guitar Hero franchises. We also haven’t seen the last of the big console shooters like Halo, THQ are going large with Homefront and EA is determined to turn Medal of Honor back into a winning brand.
But no matter how fancy these titles look, they will be running on graphics hardware that was deemed cutting edge six years ago. In PC terms this is four Moore’s Law cycles, and in that time PC graphics hardware has not only gotten cheaper but has also increased exponentially in power and complexity.
PC owners haven’t really been able to take advantage of this because the majority of AAA gaming titles have been developed with consoles as the target platform. Usually PC owners will get options for higher resolution or better image processing, but a lot of the time games are barely taxing the capabilities of PC hardware because they were developed with consoles as the focus.
Enter GDC, where the companies that make graphics engines come to show off the next level of eye candy. By now they have squeezed all they can out of the current generation of consoles, and naturally are working on the next generation of their engines. In the past this would have meant ones designed for the next iteration of console hardware, but with nothing beyond a possible Nintendo update on the horizon, they have turned their eyes to the PC.
Epic showed off a version of its Unreal engine that it jokingly dubbed version 3.97. This was designed to give an idea what would be expected from the next generation of consoles, and was running on three GeForce GTX 580 cards. In lieu of an official video we have embedded a shakycam version we have found on Youtube, but even with the less than optimal viewing conditions it is an amazing piece of realtime rendering.
Next cab of the rank was Crytek, who has famously moved from its bar-setting PC exclusive Crysis to the impending multiplatform Crysis 2. We still use Crysis as our go-to 3D graphics benchmark, and it is still capable of taxing modern systems. Interviews in the leadup to Crysis 2’s launch were laden with references to how low the minimum system requirements would be thanks to the consoles, but also indicated that the game would scale as PC hardware advanced.
Crysis 2 is still to launch so apart from a multiplayer demo we haven’t really seen just how the engine will scale with hardware, but this video from GDC shows off just what Cryengine 3 is capable of on the PC. This video is largely focused at developers, showing how they can preview their work in realtime using the engine, but they manage to nail the best looking trees that this writer has encountered in over a decade of looking at 3D engines and the associated hardware.
The third entrant in this triumvirate of eye candy is the DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine. First shown off as part of EA’s Battlefield 3 reveal, and using ingame footage rather than the demos seen above, it is another title where the PC is being used as the demo platform. DICE has already announced that the PC version is the target platform, and the game will be scaled down for consoles. The following footage is from a pre-alpha version of the game, is taken from the actual campaign and is being played on a PC. Even in its early state it shows a level of visual fidelity that consoles are incapable of.
There are many other indicators that the PC is coming back as a gaming platform. But considering that these leaps in eye candy are only possible with the current state of PC graphics we wonder how long consoles will be the target platform for development of blockbuster games.
The PC simply has more of a visual wow-factor than the long in the tooth consoles, and is only going to get better while we wait for the next generation. And if the latest Microsoft jobs ads are any indication, this is still a while off. The company has only just started the hiring process for the engineering leads needed to drive the evaluation and eventual implementation of the next generation of Xbox – a process that takes many years to complete.