Looking Forward to the Future of Gaming Graphics

Guns of the Patriots

I am not easily impressed by the technical aspects of graphics in computer games, but every few years a game comes along that really blows me away. In 1993 it was Doom, in 1995 it was Descent, in 1996 it was Quake, in 1999 it was Quake 3, in 2004 it was Doom 3 (and Far Cry, but mostly for the AI). In 2008 it was Metal Gear Solid 4.

It may sound harsh to say I’m not impressed by the technology used in games—because many do have great graphics—but since game developers are limited by the hardware currently available on the mass market, they usually can not use the latest rendering techniques right away. They have to wait until the players have the required hardware. Because of this, new visual effects are often seen in white papers and technical demos years before they appear in mainstream games.

Even if a few games do use the latest technology available when released, they will often be alone to do so for a long of time, and the number of players able to take advantage of the new features will be limited. For example, Age of Conan has been developed with DirectX 10 features, but they were not enabled when the game was released. And even when the game is updated, it will only benefit players who are running Windows Vista with the latest graphics hardware.

Maybe I have not been paying attention to the gaming scene the past few years, but Metal Gear Solid 4 caught me totally off guard. I did not expect to see so many advanced rendering techniques in one place at the same time. They were using all the neat tricks I had been waiting for since the introduction of pixel shader 2.0, and they were using them well. I knew the PlayStation 3 was powerful, but the previous games I had played apparently used very little of that power.

I think it’s very exciting that this kind of graphics power is now finally available to mainstream games, because it allows much greater creative flexibility than before. Techniques such as high dynamic range rendering, out of focus blurring, reduced depth of field and full screen filters—previously only possible in movies, photography and pre-rendered animations—can now be used extensively in computer games, taking us one step closer to the interactive movie.

Here’s some of the things I found especially fascinating in Metal Gear Solid 4:

  • The in-game engine is used for rendering all non-interactive scenes. This improves the feeling of the interactive movie concept by blurring the lines between interactive and non-interactive content. For example, if you decide to put on a mask right before a cutscene, the mask will stay on during the entire scene. Sometimes this rule is broken by the script (i.e. the character will switch to a certain weapon for a specific scene), but it still adds a nice touch to the game.

  • When you turn the camera around fast, the screen gets blurred, just like it would if you were using a real camera.

  • When a car drives past the camera in high speed while it’s raining, water drops will hit the camera. In the same way, if you are in the middle of a building falling apart, dust and sand will cover the camera lens. The effect is also used with blood and snow in various scenes around the game. Although some people don’t like this effect—because it breaks the illusion by revealing the presence of a camera—I think it’s rather cool. It gives a sort of documentary, “fly on the wall”, feeling to the scene.

  • When people talk in cutscenes, the camera shifts focus depending on who’s talking. In fact, this is so common in the movies, many people may not even notice it on a conscious level. However, it does make the scene appear more realistic.

  • Very good use of high dynamic range rendering and pixel shaders for lighting and other effects. For example, when you encounter a helicopter, a pixel shader is applied to distort the image in the same way heat would affect the air around a real engine.

  • Impressive texture and model detail. This is especially noticeable during cutscenes, when you can literally read the labels on people’s clothing and see their hair and clothes move as they walk around.

  • Extensive use of well-known Hollywood movie techniques, such as color tinting, camera shake, panning, zooming, slow motion, selective focus, reduced depth of field and ambient lighting. Some are more subtle than others, and some may even be considered clichés, but I think they add great value to the interactive movie concept.

  • Realistic physics and animation. It’s as if you’re watching a real-time rendering of a Pixar movie.

None of these things are unique in themselves. In fact, most, if not all, have been seen in games before. What makes Metal Gear Solid 4 stand out is how they use all the techniques in the same game, at the same time! It’s also showing that they spent a lot of time (and money) on directing the game as if it was a movie, with, in my opinion, great success.

I am looking forward to more of this kind of gamemaking in the upcoming titles Rage and Mirror’s Edge. Things can only get better after this.

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  1. teoleng
    Posted July 17, 2008 at 07:42 | Permalink

    Nice write up on the technical aspects of the game engine, Anders.

    I noticed quite a bit of the effects you mentioned, especially the physics of things moving around (Like when vehicles move off from rest, the front of the vehicle pitches upwards, or when they stop, the front pitches down), and the heat distortion. The way the wind blows paper around is also a nice touch.

    I also like how there is camera shake when it’s following people around (Blair Witch Effects, lol), or that thing about the lens getting wet/dusty etc.

    I’m not sure how far in you’ve played, but I’m really just starting to get my hands wet in this, and I’m very sure I’m going to like more of what there is to come. This game truly plays like a movie!

  2. Posted August 14, 2008 at 18:41 | Permalink

    Great observations of the different effects used MGS4. Hadn’t noticed a few of them.

    I agree that these ‘effects’ and ideas have been around for a while, but I think that it will be the PS3 that will allows the developers a good deal of freedom in terms of hardware specs.
    It is a solid and high end platform that has enough horsepower and flexibility to run the new `advanced` games for at least another 2-3 years.

    I know quite a few people who traded in their 360s for PS3s specifically for the release of MGS4.. and some of them were 360 fanboys.. so that’s saying something.

  3. Kade Storm
    Posted August 30, 2009 at 18:57 | Permalink

    Nice article, I regret not having read this last year. Unfortunately, now most of the media is lost in the hype between all the 2009 and 2010 titles. It’s all about Killzone 2, Halo ODST, Uncharted 2. You get the idea.

    Anyway, I had to agree fully on how well M.G.S. 4 utilised a variety of effects. I believe above everything else, it was the cinematography and animation that really delivered.

    Another thing that deservees repeated mention, is the very smooth transitions from cut-scene to real-time gaming. We already know that the cut-scenes, in most games, exhibit a higher render quality because they are mostly scripted and allow for more system resources to be used. I’ve often found that when games move from real-time cut-scenes back into gameplay, once can notice a drastic difference in visual quality and fidelity. However, with M.G.S. 4 this is virtually stamped out – smooth as butter.

    Anothing minor effect that really intrigued me was the use of procedural textures. People have been harping on about this with regards to Killzone 2 and other games with PS3 potential, but I still find the whole ‘snow field’ level from M.G.S. 4 to be really interesting. One can actually see the frost and snow gradually start to build-up on Snake’s suit, if left in one position, and this effect is executed in quite a realistic fashion. Now there’s very few games that employ such an effect, and even fewer that execute the effect at such a level.

    All in all, I think this game has done something that not even the almighty Crysis or Killzone 2 have managed. I think at the end, it really does come down to the overall package and the cinematography.

    Again, nice article.