The Evolution of Video Game Graphics

Wednesday, 08 August 2018

Since their inception in the early 1970s, video games have evolved from interactions with simple geometric shapes to full blown cinematic experiences that wow the senses.

The Evolution of Video Game Graphics

In the ‘70s development would only take a matter of months - requiring just one or two people to write the code. Classics including Pong, Asteroids, and Indy 500 had players controlling blocks on screen to navigate through mazes or collide with other shapes. Polygons started to get more detailed around the mid 1980s with the likes of Super Mario Bros, OutRun, and Gauntlet giving us a lot in terms of variety and visuals.

Levelling up

Graphics started to truly evolve during this period of time, becoming ever more detailed. Players were able to control spaceships, explore dungeons, and race in sports cars against their friends. The early ‘90s started to explore the realms of 3D by creating the illusion of 3D space. Popular titles including Wing Commander, DOOM, and Duke Nukem 3D would use 2D textures and sprites to give the player a faux 3D effect, which was later labeled 2.5D. True 3D couldn’t be made due to the limitations of technology. But we only needed to wait until the mid ‘90s for proper 3D graphics. 

With the release of Quake in 1996 millions of people around the world would spend hours sat in front of their PCs in dimly lit rooms or with their friends and a LAN. Quake was the first title to feature full 3D worlds and enemies. Thanks to Id Software’s Quake Engine real-time 3D rendering had support through OpenGL. This was a huge step for the industry and 3D graphics quickly evolved as shaders, skeletal-based character models, and ragdoll physics were thrown into the mix. By the mid 2000s developers were taking full advantage of all three dimensions either on PC or on consoles.

Visual experiments

At this stage game creators had started to experiment more with visuals. Cel-shading had started to become more prevalent as games like Borderlands, Crackdown, and No More Heroes came into the mainstream. Instead of the shade gradient that’s commonly used in photorealistic graphics, the cel-shading technique uses less colour, tints, and shades to give more of an animated look and feel. This resulted in cel-shading becoming particularly popular with the anime and comic book markets as the visual style gives that extra layer of authenticity. 

Cartoonish graphics have become even more popular in recent years. Instead of using cel-shading titles including Fortnite, Overwatch, and Street Fighter V exaggerate aspects of their characters and environments, and use a brighter colour palette. This animated style appeals to a wide audience and gives further escapism from the real world, giving birth to a new generation of video games with the likes of Overwatch and Fortnite selling in their millions and played by people of all ages.

With 3D graphics coming into fruition developers started to seek out new tools to help them with modeling, texturing, and animating. Maya and 3ds Max have been providing those tools to game creators for years. Both Max and Maya work seamlessly with engines like Unity, Unreal, and Id Tech, which are essential for game development. Here are just some of the titles that you may have played which have used Maya and 3ds Max to create their outstanding visuals.

Looking to the future

Graphics continue to evolve as the technology behind them grows. Developers are now able to create cutscenes in-engine without pre-rendering or filming full motion videos. Recent blockbusters including God Of War, Detroit: Become Human, and 2016’s DOOM are able to tell their story seamlessly without the use of live-action video. Technology has evolved so much that loading screens will soon become a thing of the past - Mass Effect and Fallout have already taken steps to make loading transitions shorter and more fluid.

But there’s still room to improve. Games have a way to go before they can match the photorealism that post production offers in film. They’ve come a long way since the ‘70s and, who knows, maybe in the next forty years we’ll see another seismic shift in realism.