What I Want From Next-Gen

by Jeff Cork on May 30, 2012 at 12:00 PM

If the Unreal Engine 4 demo is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to when next-gen gaming hits. Things like millions of particles, better-looking lens flares, improved smoke and fire effects, and dynamic lighting could be around the corner. It’s all very impressive stuff, particularly when you see it in motion. In a few short years we’ll likely be exploring worlds that are a step beyond anything out there today, at least on a superficial level. My biggest hope, however, is that similar advancements for how characters interact with those worlds are in store, too.

Don’t get me wrong – my 8-year-old self would spontaneously combust if he saw how good current-generation games look. Still, there are a number of subtle visual elements (or missteps) that consistently dump buckets of cold water on my gaming experiences. While I doubt that these issues can be completely eliminated even in the next next-generation, that won’t stop me from dreaming. Here are five examples of what I’d like to see improved in the future.

1. Beards
Developers are still trying to crack the code behind rendering realistic hair, but it’s gotten better over the past few years. Facial hair, however, is one area that remains consistently awful. Sometimes it’s just a blotchy texture. Other times that smear is augmented by a sparse array of fringe layered in rows. When a game does feature a truly magnificent, fully rendered beard, it almost always disappears in the character’s upper chest. That actually leads to…

2. Clipping
Admittedly, not every game sets out with the lofty goal of displaying fantastic beards. In those cases, it’s clear that the results aren’t that great because that wasn’t the focus in the first place. Fair enough. Still, I can’t remember the last game I played that didn’t feature a distracting amount of clipping. Staffs routinely phase through capes. Corpses partially collapse into solid walls. Characters touch their faces and fingers pass through flesh as though it was holographic. It doesn’t matter if it’s a budget-priced release or a triple-A game – object clipping is a constant battle in game development. Perhaps upcoming technological advances will help.

3. Drinking
Has anyone ever managed to show a character drink from a glass without it looking like a ridiculous mess? If so, I haven’t seen it. I get it: It’s a tough animation, and actual people do look genuinely goofy when they’re drinking. That doesn’t make it look any less bizarre when someone like Commander Shepard pulls an obviously empty vessel up to his head, hold it vaguely near his mouth for a few seconds, and then slams it on the table.

4. Hands
I should be happy that Shepard is able to at least (somewhat) convincingly slam a glass. We’ve moved beyond paddle hands (for the most part), but game characters still look as though they’ve got skin-colored claws protruding from their sleeves. They’re good at pointing at things, but subtle gestures like brushing a hand on someone’s cheek or two characters holding hands don’t translate at all. (In the latter example, it’s hardly ever even attempted.) With any luck, the next generation of behind-the-scenes dev videos will show actors with dots on their hands as well as their faces during mocap sessions.

5. Clothing
L.A. Noire features some of the best-looking wardrobes in games, but still falters in one department. Everyone looks like the wind plopped their hats on their heads. Clothing has a long ways to go, whether it’s rendering battle armor that doesn’t stretch and bend with a character’s body, making sleeves look more like sleeves and less like stovepipes, and dressing characters with cloth that doesn’t look starched into an inflexible mass.

I understand that these are all little nitpicky details. If we’re going to be asked to open our wallets for new hardware, however, I don’t think it’s asking too much. After all, what good is a completely amazing game environment if characters look like they’re ice-skating on top of it?