A launch title for any console looks significantly worse than a game that launches towards the end of the console’s life cycle. An example can be Assassin’s Creed Unity from 2014 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla from 2020. While Unity was a launch title for the Sony PlayStation 4 and the Microsoft Xbox One, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was a launch title for the Sony PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was also made available on the last generation Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One. Just a quick look at both the games reveals a big jump in terms of visual fidelity and graphics, even when you run them on the same PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. How is this possible?
What is Hardware?
Hardware is the underlying system that powers your game. It is the CPU, the graphics card, the motherboard, the Printed Circuit Boards that together carry out all the rendering workloads for you to play your favorite games right after school.
Hardware is constant. A company cannot add more power to a console after they have sold them. Modern-day consoles like the Sony PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S use proprietary hardware. That makes changing hardware even more difficult.
How do developers keep improving the graphics?
Even with all the limitations, we see that the visual fidelity of games keeps improving. How do developers make a better-looking game even on the same hardware?
There are a few workarounds followed by software and game developers that contribute to this. Let’s have a look at them.
1. Software Updates
Modern-day consoles use an always-on internet connection. That is why your PlayStation can update games even when it is in Sleep Mode. Also, the underlying OS and the firmware of your console get updated now and then.
Firmware is the BIOS of your system. It is a basic input and output system which scans all the hardware and asks your console’s OS to wake up and start working.
Oftentimes, these software updates unlock extra memory and resources for game developers to utilize.
A February 2010 update for the Sony PlayStation 3 unlocked 70 more megabytes of RAM to be used by games. This might not seem like a big deal in the present day. But, for a console that had only 512 MB of RAM, this was a huge leap for developers.
A recent update for the PlayStation 5 brought SSD support along with new 3D audio for TVs.
These newly unlocked resources enable developers to add bigger textures in any corner of a room or add a little more glitter to the sword of your character-things that you mostly won’t notice. Developers add these improvements into an already existing game by patching them.
But new games benefit a lot from these updates. Developers can add better ambient occlusion and dynamic lighting to make an overall better-looking game.
2. Improved Game Development Libraries
Game Development is a drooping and long process. Also, games of the same genre, for example, racing games, share a lot in common. A Mercedes SLS AMG will look the same in every game you drive it in.
This is where game development libraries come in. A library is a piece of code that instructs the hardware to render any scene. Companies buy licenses to certain libraries made on fairly popular engines like Unreal Engine 4 or Unity 5. They use these libraries in their projects and improve the code to suit their performance goals.
These improvements contribute to a code that looks best and consumes the least resources. There are multiple ways to achieve the same concept. For example, developers had started a literal arms race while finding the best way to apply Ambient Occlusion. Finally, we have a winner today.
Thus, libraries play a significant role in improving the visuals of a game using the same hardware.
3. Graphic Styles
Visual fidelity improves due to updated software. The internet brought the feature of updates. But, what about consoles of the 1980s and the 1990s that did not have access to the internet? How did graphics of games on the NES or the SEGA Genesis improve down its lifecycle?
The answer is graphic styles. Games during the early days of the SEGA Genesis followed a pixelated approach, like Altered Beast. But, games from the last days of Genesis took a more complex 3D approach, significantly improving gameplay and visuals. An example can be College Football USA ‘97.
Games published during the lifetime of the PlayStation 3 also benefitted from improved graphic styles. In the 2007-2009 period, games had a sort of dreamy and yellowish accent to them. This made them look like a fantasy tale.
However, almost all games published in the 2010s took a photorealistic approach. Games like Crysis 3 and Call of Duty: Ghosts looked a lot better than their predecessors while not improving anything significantly.
I am looking forward to how games look in the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S towards the end of their lifecycle. These are extremely capable systems. Also, future changes in graphic styles may push photorealism even further.
I am pumped for the future!