Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Asset Fidelity Arms Race

So there has been a lot of discussion about the cost of game development recently. Unfortunately a lot of that has been used to defend questionable business practices (there is another gaming industry and I have absolutely no interest in ever being part of it) or extremely short-term views of economic expansion (eg increasing new-release unit prices for a medium that's already one of the most expensive ways of purchasing a single piece of mass produced entertainment and has been shrinking unit costs and value [loss of resale/lending etc] with the successful transition to digital).

Of course, while there are billions in revenue to be made from a single project, massive corporations will continue to greenlight projects whose scopes grow to a decent percentage of the potential rewards. So really the biggest budgets will always grow to fill the potential maximum returns, which means a growing hit-driven industry trends towards growth. This gives me a rather fatalist view of that original discussion (and concern about the "solutions" proposed which point at gambling mechanics and increasing unit prices as if they could not lead to a market crash or reverse decades of market growth).

But let's step back a second. Asset costs are going up and games are getting bigger (if not longer - not a bad trend as we balance the endless replayability of something like chess with the expectation that you can tell most stories in much less than 100 hours - be that in a book, movie, or TV series). We've been talking about this for as long as I've been involved in video games (~1999 onwards, first as press then adding indie).

We're about to watch another GDC where there should be a great selection of technical talks, often that propose paths out of an increasingly expensive asset fidelity arms race. But are we going to listen and then go back and just use these techniques to build even more detailed worlds? Even on an indie project (where the project decisions are usually made by an in-the-trenches dev), we tend to scope for the most that we think we can do. Doesn't that say something about how this arms race only exists because we aren't threatened by it? That we're already engaged in a careful process of ensuring the incline is just right for stable growth.

Forza Motorsport 4 - Xbox 360 (2011)

Seven years ago, this was the detail level for Forza, except this used an offline renderer (photo mode) to really make the most of those assets. To my eye, this asset stands up a generation and a half of consoles later. When I look back at some titles no longer considered cutting edge on game photography sites like DeadEndThrills, there is a lot to like about the actual assets even when just tweaking the real-time renderer to try and push the limits of what it can offer. And the cost of making assets at that fidelity level (as our tools advance) is only going down with time. Not to mention, the potential for reuse grows (especially with more component-based design from workflows promoted by stuff like PBR).

When I'm working on level-of-detail systems, it's really only an incremental improvement in the potential density of the very local area that chasing asset fidelity is bringing us today - the rest of the scene is managing way more assets/detail than we have the ability to render in 16ms. Is the asset fidelity arms race over if we want it to be? Long term, are we looking towards one off costs (R&D: new rendering technology and hardware advances) and larger budgets building bigger worlds (for the projects that need it) rather than major increases in the fidelity of assets? Not to say there is no point in increasing fidelity but how quickly will this look like diminishing returns? So much of the very recent increases in visual fidelity seems to come from rendering advances that provide things like rich environmental lighting or better utilisation of existing assets (combining high pixel counts with good actually super-sampled anti-aliasing).

Sometimes I feel like we're being sold a false choice: between sustainable development costs or expensive looking games. As we slowly ride the silicon advances (the rendering potential of a $150 to $500 device, quite a narrow window that is constantly throwing extra FLOPS at us) and develop new real-time rendering algorithms, it is far from as clear-cut as it can sometimes sound. When we look at the photo modes that have come to games, often that produce extremely clean and detailed versions of what the game actually looks like in action, we should remember that this is already the potential visual detail of current game assets. We’re just a bit of hardware performance and a few real-time techniques away from realising it. These are long-term advances that lift all projects up, sometimes with major increases in asset-creation productivity (eg integrating various procedural assists and more recently the potential from moving to PBR). In addition, expecting users to buy new hardware for a few hundred dollars every four to seven years is a lot more reasonable (and sustainable, as we chase the affordable silicon cutting edge) than pushing unit prices to $100 or even beyond.

GT Sport - PlayStation 4 Pro (2017)

So, as I look to GDC, I'm looking forward to hearing about a load of exciting advances. I always look forward to SIGGRAPH for the same reason. Even if the budget to expand asset fidelity dries up tomorrow, we should be able to continue to make amazing things. Video games are built on innovation. Let's not allow our concerns about the asset fidelity arms race to lead us down a path of thinking the people who buy games are a resource to be strip-mined as rapidly as possible. Sustainability is just as much about ensuring we can offer something at a price everyone can afford and which enriches their lives, providing delight rather than cynically tapping into gambling-like addictions or experiences that feel hollowed out.

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