Elder Scrolls On Next Gen
Skyrim released just over two years ago. Since then, the modding community has taken it by storm. Boris Vorontsov, creator of the ENB series and the perpetual holder of the Huge G Award, showed us that the engine is capable of far, far more than what was allowed on the PC release. The image above is just one example among many of what is possible right now. And if this is possible today, what does the future hold? What can be done? More importantly, what should be done?
Bethesda, Todd Howard, Pete Hines – I implore you. Please develop The Elder Scrolls VI on PC first as the lead SKU. I’m not a developer by any means, but I would like to think my rudimentary understanding of these platforms allows me to make such a request.
Unlike the last gen, the Xbox One, PS4, and PC all share the same architecture. No longer will you be required to code for three inherently different architectures. I imagine that this fact alone must make several developers happy. Because of this, I would think it makes sense to develop for the most powerful platform first and then “scale down” to fit on the consoles. I imagine it must be easier to “cut” things out for consoles than “glue” features on for the PC.
Since all three platforms share the same architecture, building for the most powerful platform first will allow you to take full advantage of that system, and then scale down to fit on the console version. This way, we won’t have to mod in DX11 capabilities through brute force. All of this will be built into the game from the ground up, allowing us to make even crazier mods. This can only spur creativity and will no doubt win you legions of more PC fans if you prioritize the PC.
As a huge fan, I’m not alone in begging you to develop the next game on the PC first. Please.
First, we must understand something fundamental about both new consoles and especially the PC. Each one of these platforms have multiple gigabytes (GB) of memory dedicated to graphics. On the PC, this is known as VRAM. The consoles, on the other hand, have what is known as “unified memory”, that is, one pool of memory shared for system and graphics operations. For video games, memory size is extremely important. It dictates texture resolution, computational resources, and scale, among other things.
Keeping this in mind, the opportunity to create a truly massive world is now entirely within the realm of possibility (it’s been possible on PC for years but shh). As large as Skyrim is, my mind can’t help but wonder, “what if it was bigger?” Having a larger pool of memory allows this scale to be realized. Bethesda could create a world that is twice as large as Skyrim. Games like The Witcher 3 are paving the way, showcasing a world that is 35% larger than Skyrim.
Some might say that this might break lore (Valenwood is smaller than Skyrim, for example). To you I say this. Why wouldn’t you want a larger world? Video games are defined by rules created by developers. Bethesda could easily create a truly massive province.
With this scale comes detail. Of course, things like clutter become hugely important, but so too do details like intricate carvings on furniture, individual blades of hay on roofs, insects flitting around the air, fish swimming in rivers, wildlife going about their daily routines, grass disappearing and regrowing due to animal grazing.
All of this is possible with the technology today. This is not out of the realm of possibility. Bethesda did so many things right with Skyrim, but just imagine what could be done – and what should be done – with new power.
Right now, engines like CryEngine and Frostbite use a technique called global illumination (GI). In fact, many of you may have heard me tout the affects of GI, and for good reason. In short, GI is a set of algorithms used to compute the realistic behavior of light. It takes into account light emitting directly from a source (direct lighting) as well as that same light reflecting off of different surfaces (indirect lighting).
ENB approximates this behavior via brute force ambient occlusion and image based lighting. While the results are extremely realistic and beautiful to behold, this method nevertheless taxes the system due to the brute force nature of its implementation.
Modern engines utilize both methods (and more) from the onset, providing gorgeous GI behavior. The next Elder Scrolls must include such GI implementation, and quite frankly, it can do so given the technology at hand.
Within the GI solution, Bethesda could include something called volumetric lighting, or known to you and me as god rays. However, unlike the god rays in ENB, which are a simple post process, true god rays take into account the volume of their environment. Meaning, rays would not pass cleanly through fog. Rather, they would be distorted and clouded as they physically (and accurately) react with the fog particles, obscured from visibility. For example, games like Battlefield 4 and Crysis 3 implement such a technique.
All of this leads to…
Given the the power and resources of both new consoles and the PC, the environment in The Elder Scrolls VI should look fantastic. A dynamic, interactive environment could lead to some incredible immersion. For example, let’s say I require wood to craft a bow. I could chop wood at a chopping block, but if I’m in the middle of a forest, chances are a chopping block isn’t nearby. However, I could pull out my axe and chop a nearby tree. The trunk would chip away as it would in reality and soon enough, fall down where I can gather the wood. Now, after some time, that tree can grow back.
This type of interaction with the environment would go a long way to convince you of the world’s authenticity. Full object tessellation and parallax occlusion mapping coupled with physically accurate shaders could be used on the rocks, roads, buildings, etc to further drive home that believability. Destruction could be added to buildings (akin to the tree cutting example above). This could create for some truly memorable and epic battles as you fight to save Tamriel.
Of course, tying back with the lighting above, full physically accurate volumetric particles could help aid the reality of a forest at dawn, for example, or a battleground. Imagine the immersion. All of this could be wrapped neatly in a fully dynamic weather system, featuring reactive vegetation. Meaning, as it rains and the wind blows, the vegetation will react to the weather in a physically accurate way. One such example is Assassin’s Creed IV.
Take a look at the image above. You might notice her more realistic character model (mod) and a different hairstyle (another mod). What you may not notice instantly, yet are subconsciously aware of, is just how realistic her skin looks. Yet again, this is done through ENB. The technique used here is called subsurface scattering (SSS). SSS is a physical mechanism of light when it enters a translucent material (skin), is “bounced” through interacting with that material, and then finally exits that material. A prime example of this is when you hold your hand up to the sun. You’ll notice the skin between your fingers is slightly pink compared to the rest of your hand. That’s all because of SSS.
Truth be told, this technology exists today and should be easily implemented in the next Elder Scrolls title. Couple SSS with character tessellation (smoothing the ears to make them curved instead of polygonal, for example) and deep facial skinning (adding muscles, physically accurate skin onto the face), and you’re well on your way to creating more believable looking character models.
On top of just prettier characters, the extra horsepower in the consoles and PCs can lead to some serious innovation for AI. Why not take Radiant AI from Oblivion and expand on it? Give each NPC its own brain, dynamically reacting to not only the player, but to the world, and other NPCs. If it’s raining outside, they should put on cloaks or head indoors. All of these little things combined could create some truly remarkable experiences when engaging with the various characters of Tamriel.
Finally, after all else is implemented, we arrive at the flair. This includes a suite of post processing, such as Bokeh depth of field (notice the in-focus Breton and out-of-focus mountain in the image above), full object and camera blur, and even some antialiasing solutions.
Now ideally, The Elder Scrolls VI would implement full supersampling antialiasing (SSAA). Effectively, the image is rendered to a ratio proportionate to your output resolution then downscaled to fit on your display providing full elimination of “jaggies”. Seeing as this is incredibly costly (today), I would hope that a deferred solution is used.
Basically, this is room for the developers to put the icing on the cake. Post processing allows for that final touch of makeup to be applied before the player sees it. Intelligent use of this can be accomplished with the new machines to great effect.
. . .
In conclusion, there are a lot of things that can be accomplished on a technical level…today. Yes, everything listed above can be achieved right now. Meaning, this should be the absolute minimum suite of features to be included in Elder Scrolls VI. We must remember, however, that this game isn’t even announced yet, nevermind have a release date.
My mind cannot help but wonder what amazing visual feats Bethesda has in store for our next adventure in Tamriel. These next few years will prove telling. Can this be accomplished? Absolutely. Should this be accomplished? Without question. But perhaps the most intriguing question is, what more can be done?
That is something I am genuinely looking forward to.