Build Better Game Engines Not New Consoles

It’s been a great-but-interesting year for video games. We have seen new intellectual properties in the form of Bulletstorm and LA Noire along with a boat load of sequels and three-quels.  As the sun begins to set on 2011, it is obvious that new game engines were the real stars year. Some of the best titles this year featured some form of new software-based technology. As rumors of new consoles looms over 2012, I think we should just step back and realize that what we need is more new engines, not new consoles.


Can your engine do this?

The newer the better

Recently (like most people) I’ve been spending a lot of time traversing the Skyrim countryside. Skyrim is a beautiful, but cold, land populated by many different creatures, people and cultures. The world beams with amazing beauty (and dragons!) The most visually stimulating moment I have had so far is admiring the Aurora Borealis while a dragon patrols the skies. This is all done with the help of Bethesda’s new Creation Engine. The engine allows the environments to feel more alive – trees are given weight so they properly move in the windand snowfall actually lands on the ground without clipping. On top of that, the sheer amount of content in Skyrim along with the rumors that 75 hours is not enough time to scratch the surface represents not only an epic achievement by Bethesda, but a ground breaking advance video game design. The technology is a major upgrade from the Gamebryo Engine used in Oblivion and Fallout 3. Fallout and Oblivion felt stiff at times, despite the sense that the worlds were “alive.” The difference between Skryim and Oblivion is culture – the residents of Cyrodiil seemed to be roaming the world with little purpose and conversations with NPCs were as vanilla as could be. Overhearing conversations typically went like this:

  • “Hello there!”
  • “How do you do?”
  • “I’m through talking to you …”
  • “Goodbye ..”

While the Oblivion NPCs had the appearance that they had lives, friends and things to do, they still acted more like robotic simulacra than anything else, making the world itself come across as very stiff. In contrast, the rugged world of Skyrim has very specific culture identities attached to it. The native Nords feel like they are from Scandinavia and the Redguards come across as being strangers in the arctic land. This living culture has been absent from previous Elder Scrolls games as well as the new Fallout titles. With its new engine powering the Skyrim experience, Bethesda has reset the bar for not only RPGs, but what we should be expecting from this console generation.

Battlefield 3

Even the desert can be visually stunning.

Frostbite 2 from DICE and EA was another newbie in the engine world this year, created with flexibility in mind and focused on textures, lighting, and enhancing the realism within Battlefield 3‘s set pieces. Frostbite 2 was developed with the intention to allow the game designers more freedom as they design the game. With BF3 as the flagship game for the new engine,  large set pieces in the single player and multiplayer game modes are prominent. The visual abilities of Frostbite 2 allow a for very cinematic feel. Sure, there are a few short falls, but you simply cannot deny how incredible BF3 looks. EA has announced that they used Frostbite 2 for development of Need For Speed: The Run and expect to employ it for Mirror’s Edge 2. The technical qualities of EA’s Frostbite 2 games should increase as developers and designers spend more time with the engine. I am sure that the visuals of Mirror’s Edge 2 and physics will be outstanding thanks to Frostbite 2.

I Recommend Engine Augmentation

Max Payne 3

The engine and Max are both strung out.

Many developers would benefit from the use of a new engine and Rockstar is high on the list. We all know that Grand Theft Auto is undergoing its fifth iteration in the series and it may be safe to assume that this will be the sixth game from Rockstar using the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE), including the scheduled 2012 release of Max Payne 3. GTA could be taken to a new level with a new engine. There are many benefits and upgrades that a shiny new engine would bring to Rockstar; not only would a new engine make GTA look better, I think the structure of the game could be enhanced as well. The current GTA model is an open world game with a specific story line accompanied by side missions and mini games. The story formula can be very linear and somewhat shallow. A new engine that allowed for more opportunities to give the protagonist more depth would only help with the next game. Further, GTA would also benefit from a radiant storytelling system like that seen in Skyrim. I would love to see the next protagonist have a reputation that would increase, giving you access to more sophisticated ‘jobs.’ Introducing that kind of model could do a lot to help freshen up the franchise.

Depth should be the focus for developers going forward this generation. The new engines have shown that there is still life within this console generation, and should be exploited. Period. We would get better games visually and contextually and it could be great for everyone.

The Writing Is On The Wall

Wii U

Ready or not, here it comes.

Unfortunately, we face the stark reality that new consoles are coming. Rumor has it that the next generation will debut in 2012. Epic has also made very clear that Unreal Engine 4 will not make an appearance until the next console generation, but I’m not actually sure if Epic is working on anything concrete at the moment using Unreal 4, particularly when Square announced that they signed a contract to use Unreal Engine 3 for multiple games just last week. If we don’t see the next generation arrive in 2012, I expect them to rear their ugly heads no later than 2013. I don’t like this news at all. Sure, Frostbite 2 and Creation should look outstanding on the next console, but they already look great on this generation.

I am skeptical with the idea that we need new consoles. I’m sure that new consoles are never ‘needed’, but the hardware makers have to stay ahead of the competition and keep the bottom line black. The way that Microsoft, in particular, has supported and evolved the 360 makes a new console seem unnecessary. To be honest, I’m not ready to purchase a new console. Towards the end of a console life cycle, a new engine shows up to dazzle and impress all of us. Then, shortly thereafter, it seems that the brand new console arrives and steals the new engine’s thunder. A few years into the new generation, the engine looks tired and worn down.

Now, I know the PC crowd will respond by telling me just to build a PC. We have to remember that the majority of people playing video games are using consoles as their device of choice. We can debate the differences between consoles and the PC all day. Even engines created specifically for a PC ended up looking great on consoles and the Crytek Engine is no exception – Crysis 2 looked outstanding on consoles! My point is that the console development cycle seems to start right after the previous console iteration has finally hit its stride. We, the consumers, are always the losers here. I would love to see what Creation and Frostbite can do within this generation, but I doubt there is enough time left in the life cycle to see what these engines can really accomplish before developers have to start learning how to program for an entirely new generation of systems.

My hope is that the Sony and Microsoft are announcing Xbox 360.5 and Playstation 3.5 instead of the Xbox 720 or PS4 just to stretch out the current life-cycles. It will be very interesting to see what happens knowing that Wii U is also looming in the next year. We also know (for now) that Wii U is a step ahead of Wii, but only a baby step ahead of Xbox and Sony. There will be plenty of time in the slower months to speculate about the potential new consoles. For right now, let’s enjoy ourselves and focus on the upcoming holiday and game of the year celebrations. Let’s be thankful that 2011 has been a great year for games with some of the most impressive game technology yet.


Giant Bomb (images)

11 Comments Build Better Game Engines Not New Consoles

  1. kefkah

    Great read and right on target with how the industry is at this moment. Enjoyed the article very much. Thanks!

  2. Kevin C

    Agreed. The only console that needs to be upgraded is the wii. Nintendo is addressing that with the Wii U. Apparently it will be able lot run unreal 4. Ps3 and 360both display 1080p so there isn’t much room for graphic improvement. Optimizing code and new game engines should be done instead, except for wii u.

    No reason for ps4 or 720

  3. Mike Ockizard

    The funny thing is, you go on about the “Creation Engine”, but Bethesda themselves admitted that it is just a heavily modifed version of the Gamebryo engine they used for since Morrowind. They told everyone it was a new engine so so much had been rewritten and it sounds better to call it a whole new engine rather than an almost entirely rewritten engine.

    As much as I love Skyrim though, you can still see many ugly issues from the engine popping their head. Texture pop in, weird animations, ugly intermediate distance textures, bad snow effects in many places, lack of environmental interaction, bad framerates, etc, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I think Skyrim is AMAZING, I am just saying, imagine this game with next generation graphics. Now THAT would be mind blowing!

    I for one love new tech, and am getting sick of developers trying to squeeze every last ounce of power out of these consoles while having to cut corners. I can’t wait to see what the next generation brings!

  4. josh jones

    we need new consoles for better graphic core clocks and memory which processes the polygons on the screen. if we dont get new consoles developers are still limited to the polygon count. no matter how new the engine is the polygon count wont change much . you can keep your old console nobody is forcing a new one on you. but your polys and textures will stay limited. artist dont like being limited. at all

  5. Lagon

    With new technology and new interfaces – new consoles would be preferable.

    It also is not a rumour, the Wii U is essentially confirmed for 2012, and Microsoft will follow with the Xbox 360-2.

    If Sony and Microsoft do not release new consoles, then they have no advantage over Nintendo, and their market shares will dwindle. It would be best for them to jump on more advanced technology.

  6. Noob

    While I agree programers really ought to be making better use of the hardware available to them and designing better and more optimised engines is part of this – its only half the picture.

    We are now clearly being held back by the lack of processing power in the current generation of consoles. We are talking about systems that are more than 6 years old and that is a long time when you are talking about computer technology. PC’s are now so far ahead in terms of raw power that it is just not funny. If you don’t believe me visit youtube and look at Skyrim with some HD mods to see what is possible when you have more hardware performance to play with.

    Currently PC gamers get limited console ports that don’t take advantage of what current hardware is capable of. Another good example of this would be to compare the current DX9 tittles on console to what is possible using DirectX11 on the PC.

    I personally want to see what good programming skills AND new hardware are capable of and frankly, with the hardware market as stagnant as it is its about time we saw a new generation of all hardware to help move things along a bit.

    I own PS3 and XBOX360 and enjoy them for what they are but next not kid ourselves, without a new generation of hardware to drive innovation things will continue to stagnate.

    If this means forking out for a new console every 6 or 7 years – I’m not going to wine about it.

  7. SubSenix

    Wow you have absolutely no clue do you?

    Crysis 2 looks good?Crysis 1 on PC looks still better than Crysis 2 on consoles ever could.
    Crysis 2 was designed for consoles and they changed everything completely.
    They went from a big open world to a hallway shooter cause this is the best they could do if they want to run the CryEngine 3.
    Battlefield 3 on PC with Ultra Settings is FAR ahead of the Low Settings Version from the consoles.
    We are at the end of this Gen – Naughty Dog didn’t make a huge jump with Uncharted 3 and the 360 was a long time maxed out…Only Unreal Engine games do always a little better cause its designed for that crap. > This is what we can expect from Next Gen or HIGHEND PCs now – THIS ISN’T POSSIBLE on the PS360 – Crysis2 after the PC Patch showed how much difference there really is even in a hallway shooter.
    SquareEnix licensed the Unreal Engine but on the other hand they already build there new Engine for Next Gen called the Luminous Engine and it looks awesome…Looks like Real Life and that is surely not possible in this Gen if you want a game that is bigger than Call of Duty.

    We need new consoles and everyone who cant see that should see an eyedoctor

  8. Jon

    Certainly an interesting article, but I don’t agree really.

    There is always a time when new hardware is required to offset optimization time against the diminishing returns you get from optimization focused work.

    Consider the high level programming languages used today against the assembly coding of decades ago. Faster hardware allows the trade of optimized software for more complex software created in shorter periods. Without brute power behind modern software, we would be years behind trying squeeze a few drops out of older hardware.

    I code on the PC, and it really frees you in your creative tasks because you know you have RAM and CPU to play with. Of course you know you must still write quality software because you want to support a range of hardware. But even your low-end target is typicall sufficient for some breathing room.

    Today’s consoles still produce fantastic looking games, and that should be enough to delay hardware revision thoughts. But if developers want to chase after the photo-realism unicorn, then the writing is on the wall for current console hardware.

  9. DarthDiggler

    SkyRimJob’s combat system is Spam R1, so much for that AMAZING engine. Sure it looks great but the game has clunky combat. I don’t call that next gen. The reason the combat is clunky is to afford more resources to the graphics.

  10. D1Z

    baby steps down the stairs, baby steps up the street, baby steps onto the bus . . .

  11. Mr.X

    This is one of the most ridiculous article i ever read in all my life.

    Are you serious when you write all this things, Mr. JP LaFrance?

    Oh man, you live in ignorance.

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