Speaking to us at the Develop conference last month, Square Enix Group worldwide technology director Julien Merceron told us that principal among the improvements we can expect to see from games made for the current generation of consoles are developments in global illumination, a form of realtime lighting.
But we’ll only continue seeing improvements until companies like his start moving their smartest staff to develop for the next generation of technology, he warned. “If you keep your best talent on a platform with hardware that's not changing you can see at some point it's going to stall a little bit, but you'll still have improvements. Generally when improvements stop is when you move these talented people onto something else. So we'll still see improvements in the next two or three years, but in the next year and a half or so we'll see a drop in innovation because the talent is moving on to something else."
Where we’ll see the biggest developments are in rendering technologies – more specifically in getting to an approximation of global illumination, which models light as it behaves in the real world. “If I take a picture and after this I create the same objects in a game with the right materials, I can achieve a rendering that is very close to the picture because I'm using the physical parameters of the real world.”
Merceron, who is currently overseeing the technology behind Hitman: Absolution and Tomb Raider, was worldwide technical director at Ubisoft for nine years until in 2006 he joined SCi
True global illumination is currently impossible in realtime on the current generation of consoles, and it’s expected to be a principal feature of games made for the next generation. But, Merceron told us, technology is moving towards physically based lighting. “We have this running on PS3 and 360 right now,” he said.
“Whether it’s going to be approximation or not, this is what we're trying to research today, to see how far we can go, how accurate we can be, how general purpose we can be,” he added.
The challenge, however, is whether the technology can combine with in-vogue environmental destruction. “It's one of the problems Geomerics [which is providing the global illumination system that is being used in DICE’s Battlefield 3] is having. The environment needs to be pretty much static, you have to define indoor and outdoor, when you open the door the light doesn’t bleed the right way.”
As such, he maintained, the appropriate technology depends on the game. “It's very important to make sure you have a solution that's adapted to what the creative guys will want to do in their games. If they are moving towards more destruction in realtime then we'll have to make sure the technique is compatible with these highly dynamic environments they want to create.”