Are We Reaching “The Wall” With Video Game Visuals?

On May 7, the team at Xbox put on a showcase featuring select third-party releases coming to their next-generation console, the Xbox Series X. As I watched, there was a part of me that was a bit underwhelmed by their visual presentation. Certainly, several of the games shown (such as Bright Memory Infinite, Dirt 5, and The Medium) looked gorgeous. However, at no point did I find myself picking my jaw up off of the floor as I had with previous consoles at the beginning of a new generation. The games shown at Inside Xbox, while impressive, essentially looked like an advancement of current-generation visuals. I didn’t find there to be a huge generational leap. This got me thinking: are we finally reaching “the wall” when it comes to visuals in video games?

Dirt 5
Games like Dirt 5 look stunning running on new hardware, but it isn’t a night and day difference from the current generation.

I vividly remember the first time I laid eyes on NFL 2K running on the Sega Dreamcast back in 1999. I was properly floored. NFL 2K was so head and shoulders above all other football games visually, it was laughable. It made the version of Madden that I had been playing on my PS1 look quite

crusty by comparison. The same could be said when I first saw Gran Turismo 3 in motion running on a PS2. It made the pixelated visuals of Gran Turismo 2 look positively primitive. To my eyes, the next-generation games shown thus far lack this “wow factor.” But why?

For one, it seems as though technological advances from generation to generation simply aren’t as huge as they were in the past. Tech YouTuber Austin Evans recently produced a video covering this exact topic. Previously, new consoles would routinely be five to ten times more powerful than the previous generation. This is simply no longer the case. When you factor in the mid-generation console spec bumps that we have seen in the current generation (PS4 Pro and Xbox One X), realistically we’re seeing approximately a two times increase in power going into the next generation. The result is that we’re seeing games that look better, but not remarkably so when compared to the current generation.

Another reason has to do with the talent of developers. Games like God of War 2018, Resident Evil 7, and Horizon Zero Dawn are a few examples that represent the high watermark for visuals this generation. Each of these games possess demonstrably better visuals than what you would find on the previous generation of consoles. A key reason for this has to do with developers leveraging their talent and experience to wring every last bit of power from a console to produce the best visuals possible. When one takes a look at a game like The Last of Us Part II looking as stunning as it does on a base PS4, it’s hard to imagine how a video game could look better.

The Last of Us Part II
The quality of the visuals in The Last of Us Part II makes one wonder how a game could possibly look better.

Of course, we’ll see bigger jumps in visuals as the next generation continues on. Developers will become more familiar with the hardware for the Xbox Series X and PS5 and produce gorgeous games. However, I think it is a good thing that we’re getting closer to the proverbial “wall” when it comes to visuals in games. I would much rather see developers focus on improving framerates, creating truly seamless worlds, or improving AI.

What do you think, readers? Are we reaching “the wall” with game visuals, and if so, what are some ways developers could innovate beyond graphics? Sound off in the comments below.

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Michael P

Husband, radioactive human, and gamer with over 30 years experience!

6 thoughts on “Are We Reaching “The Wall” With Video Game Visuals?

  • May 18, 2020 at 4:22 am
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    With each new generation, you get closer to “the wall”. Are we near “the wall”? No, we aren’t. There are tons and tons of areas that visuals could be improved. Mostly involving truly reactive physics. No, lots of room before “the wall”.

    Reply
    • May 19, 2020 at 3:22 pm
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      I absolutely agree in this, there will be many (and often tiny) things in the future which will make those virtual worlds “feel” much more realistic than before.

      This can be huge, complicated physics & “social” systems where everything is working hand in hand and reacts to each other, similar to what Rockstar advances with every new GTA or RDR game – and always achieves to impress.

      In addition to that, more realistic physics like wind effects will be seen as kind of a standard, combined with particles and elements like trees and grass which will react to those wind effects accordingly. (Check out the recent Ghost of Tsushima gameplay als you’ll understand the direction I’m thinking about.)

      Then, frame rates will rise and bring a much more realistic “feel” to games, again. 30fps means fluid gameplay, 60fps means much more life-like (there were great examples of that in Gran Turismo 2 already (“Hi-Res Mode”) as well as a great Uncharted 3 (?) video which showed how the game would have look in 60fps in theory back then), but I believe this will (for now) end with 120fps on consoles and should provide even for another level of “felt” realism.

      “Haha, tell me anything new!”, PC players will say, but a high framerate alone doesn’t help if the game itself is lagging. I recently saw this in one some of those “Check this Red Dead Redemption 2 mod on a very powerful PC, its in full 4K/60fps” on YouTube. Yes, impressive vistas and finest details both near and far away, and yes, in theory, 60fps. But the game didn’t support those 60fps, it was lagging when the camera turned. The same applies to many of those “This is what GTA 5 would look on Next Gen” videos.

      In the future, that won’t happen again, on consoles as well as on high-end PCs. It will just be as fluid as in reality. And that’s why I’m really excited about that next gen stuff!

      (Oh and better sound of course, but that’s not the topic here.) 😉

      Reply
  • May 18, 2020 at 7:51 pm
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    Hit it near 10 years ago. Depth in gameplay has completely stagnated. Sony exclusives are a pretty good example of this. For every new graphical triumph they make? Another game with a half ass open world, half ass RPG system, collectibles everywhere, strong wammehnz as often as humanly possible and of course, bows. Bows everywhere.

    Games lost their depth. I stopped caring how pretty they are many years ago, they can’t be bothered to make better games. If developers want to be graphically focused, go make a God damn movie.

    Reply
  • May 25, 2020 at 8:06 am
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    Honestly.. The biggest issue with you not noticing a BIG JUMP in Visuals.. is simply missed by you and everyone else who has commented when I post this (without refreshing the page.. Currently I have had the article open a couple days before getting a chance to read it.. so that being said…) It is because the games they have shown so far are all Cross Generation games.. When we see actual exclusives to the Xbox Series X and PS5.. We will see the real leap.. right now, because they have to produce these games coming out for older generation consoles.. they are hindered at exactly what they can do.. They cannot make the games different between generations outside of frame rate… load speed.. and minor visual upgrades.. and Until they can design the games entirely (from the ground up) to the specs of the new systems.. we wont see that huge leap..

    This is why games that come out several years down the line, when in comparison to games that came out at the beginning of the system’s life.. are ALMOST ALWAYS WORLDS APART when in comparison to each other..

    And they will only get better.. Show me a game from 6 years in the future.. in comparison to a PS4 Pro / Xbox One X game and tell me that you think we still have hit that Wall.. and I might agree with you.. until then.. I think this is just a little step.. Plus.. We will never reach the jump we seen from Super NES to PS1 / N64.. or From PS1 to PS2… etc.. Those jumps were huge, because of how behind visuals were.. We are just slowly approaching Realism.. It’s only a matter of time when that finally happens.. It will be amazing. I am sure we will see it in the next few generations.

    Reply
  • June 22, 2020 at 8:21 pm
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    Reply

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