Since the beginning of time Humanity has been craving to portray visual information as realistic as possible. Every next generation of even the most ancient human social groups created visual content better than the previous one.
As a result, the renaissance era artists could create paintings that surpassed expectations of quality and realism. And there are studies out there that proclaim: the main push to this was not about the skill of artists, but more about the tools they used. In particular, it was using the camera obscura in the art. One of the first documents that mention Camera Obscura was from one of DaVinci’s ancient scrolls. In short, it’s a dark room with a small hole on one wall used to project the world outside.
Reality is complicated. But from our earliest days, we are observing reality and learning how to spot visual flaws and can see the difference between a real photograph and a painting. The absence of any smallest physical clue that is essential in the image can immediately tell that what we see isn’t real. It works the same with video games, one game looks more realistic than the others. Mainly due to a correct portrayal of physical-based material and light.
Back in the past, the old masters faced the question: what’s a value of an artist, when anyone can create a realistic image with some practice and the right equipment?
But here comes the technical progress again and the next important invention — the photo camera. You don’t have to draw a realistic image for weeks — a guy with a box and a veil delivers a result in a matter of minutes.
Masters tried to stand out via compositions, lights, messaging, emotional ways of showing the objects, etc — it wasn’t about realism anymore.
In this article, we’ll try to predict how things are changing and think about what should we do to avoid the same result for game artists.
What does Unreal Engine 5 mean for game artists?
Now, with Unreal Engine 5 at our gates, we’re at the turning point of the current state of the industry. The goal of the artists is to predict the future with UE5 and be ready for the upcoming time when the camera will try to replace a creator.
To do so, let’s take a brief look at what UE5 technologies are going to be crucial for the visual part of games in the nearest future:
Nanite is a next-generation approach to geometry visualization. It is very resource-friendly, even though it’s capable of placing a highly detailed object with millions of points on the scene. Nanite will enable the usage of high poly models and scenes that was previously impossible. Behind the scenes, it will allow us to avoid low-poly optimization, scene merges, or HLods. This kind of technology gives a lot more creative freedom.
Megaskans is a free library of premium quality photorealistic assets. Its developers do all the heavy lifting of going to canyons, seashores, mountains, etc, scanning them, and putting them in the asset store. All the Megaskans assets are nanite-ready and can be easily included in your project via drag-and-drop.
Megaskans may be dangerous for an artist because of the risk to relax and leave the project unpolished. Depending upon the pre-made assets may cause non-original games that no one would want to play.
Lumen is a global illumination tool with real-time rendering, included raytracing. This means it will be no need to bake the lights. What was hard to do on a high-quality environment object is being done automatically now.
Metahuman is a crazy customizer for human-like characters. It’s free, it’s photorealistic, with hair and clothes included, and to use in UE5 from the scratch. You just literally can’t make a bad-looking character with a tool like this.
All the characters have rigs and are ready for being animated.
In case you need any kind of assistance with Unreal Engine — take a look at our Unreal Engine development services and let's see how we can help you.
Why should we stand out?
So, with the tools like these, what’s the point of standing out in the race to the realistic visuals? Can’t we just make all games look realistically the same and focus on game mechanics?
Take a look at these pictures to see our point.
How many games can you spot on each picture?
Answer: 3 games.
Far Cry5 (two on the top), COD MW 2 and Arma 3 on the bottom.
Answer: 1 game — Battlefield
Answer : 4 games.
Wolfenstein, Doom, Dishonored, Prey.
Answer: 4 games.
Atomic Heart, Witness, Firewatch, Space Bastards.
The last screenshot is what we’d personally like to see more: every game with its unique style, even in the FPS genre.
Focusing on weapons and adding UI can also take a big part in making new games look unique, even in such a classic genre as FPS.
What do we call stylization?
Stylization is what we should keep in mind at first when we want to develop a unique visual style for our game. Let’s define it as a wholesome methodology and subject matter of a work of art delivery.
Stylization may vary, depending on the author’s view, time period, art type, and many other variables — of course, you need a different style for an FPS game and city builder.
Graphics, thematics, a set of methods, techniques, and solutions we accept for a game is a style of the game.
A good style highlights the idea of a game, empowers player’s emotions, helps to deliver the narrative part better. Just remember the eyes of Elizabeth Comstock from Bioshock Infinite.
Stylization can be born from the intentional use and mix of some elements. It can also be achieved unintentionally, but, in this case, it often requires a huge number of iterations to get a desired results.
Here are some examples of games that stand out due to their unique visual style.
Unfinished Swan - Sayonara Wildhearts
Remember me - Pathologic 2
What makes style so important?
Style affects the job of everyone, involved in game creation: artists, programmers, producers and investors.
Style is good for:
- standing out from the competition
- building the brand awareness
- creating the unique user experience: it empowers the narrative and player’s emotions
Realistic style evolves fast. Technologies and graphics creation methods getting old faster than most of us can master them. An average player can hardly be impressed even by the top-notch realistic graphics from 10 years ago. But it’s not the same for the style. Some mechanics, technical side, gameplay, hardware may not work the same. But good style never gets old.
Borderlands - Darksiders
Hades - Limbo
Always remember one of the core game design principles: show, don’t tell. A good picture worth a thousand words.
How to develop a style?
So, what makes a style, and how to compile it?
A stylized graphic is often can be easier to make, compared to the realistic one.
In most cases, style is simplifying some elements of your creation. Any game element can be simplified: lights, shadows, colors, forms, shapes materials, particles. Remember the four-fingered palms of Simpsons characters.
There are great examples when style was born by the lack of some resources for the game: for example, the great fog in the first Silent Hill games.
The technology of that time couldn’t work without popping: the nearest street appeared in our eyes, as soon as we get close. The developers decided to add a fog, which saved a ton of resources, and, most importantly, made a huge contribution to the game’s atmosphere and created a signature element of the whole franchise.
The style can also help to hide the project’s weak spots. If a modeler can’t do legs or faces — just don’t do it. Instead, you can create a world where inhabitants have no legs and wear masks. That would be much more resource-friendly than hiring a professional to model legs and faces. And also that gives you a chance to impress players with something unique.
But please, don’t forget the GAMEPLAY FIRST rule. People play games, don’t watch them. The game should feel good. The player should have an idea of where to look and what to interact with. Good examples, in this case, are objects highlighting in Uncharted and Mirror’s Edge.
Separate the character, divide the backgrounds, make it readable, don’t put too much on a small area, mind the big-mid-small formula, because the image made of elements of the same size looks boring. Here are some more great examples:
Everybody can recognize the models and animations for Fortnite.
Mirror’s Edge provides an amazing experience of a very spacious city + its active object highlighting system was revolutionary (and it can be removed on the hard mode, which makes the game feel completely different).
Ghost of Tsushima is a great example of stylizing realistic graphics. Methods like palette limitation and correct accents make it look like every screen and camera angle is handcrafted.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — simple textures and bright light, highlighted by the accents, makes this game look unique. Just take a look at how other games fail this formula while trying to copy Zelda’s look.
Here’s a short checklist of things to consider when you try to develop a unique style for your game:
- colour and light
- materials and textures
- shapes and proportion
- setting and atmosphere
Don't pick a copy-paste route.
As we said before, we’re now at the turning point of video games' visual development. Whether it’s going to leave us unemployed or it’s going to empower us — it depends on how we behave now.
Feel free to experiment. Provide players with something they never felt, no matter if your game is realistic or stylized. Use the Michael Bay approach — drop a skyscraper on their heads!
But don’t forget to have some meaning to it. Make sure your falling skyscrapers make some sense. Having a message is cool. Art shouldn’t be empty.
Create a good and comfortable experience. Don’t make your players consume robust or poor-quality products just because you decided to go with a style you don’t know yet.
Have fun matching the style. Make sure you enjoy what you’re doing. That’s how we all will see many more unique games.
In case you need some visual or technical support for your game — Contact us and we’ll make your game unique!