The Evolution of Video Game Graphics

Let's take a look at the evolution of video game graphics over the past 20 years

Evolution of Video Game Graphics

Even I am no hardcore gamer I still like to play a video game once in a while. This hobby is what brought me into CGI/VFX in the first place. When I bought an Asus motherboard lately, I got Doom 4 for free. I know the Quake series from Quake 1, played the original Doom and Doom 3 (though not excessive) so I decided to give this game a try. Not that I bought the board for the game, in fact, when I wouldn't have got the game for 'free' I even wouldn't think about buying it. Not because I expect a bad game or something, the plain fact that I didn't play a competitive shooter for years is the reason and that I lost my interest in that kind of games over the time.

Nonetheless when the game arrived I was excited and I started the steam download immediately. As this isn't a game review, I'll get straight to the point this article is about: The first thing that catched my attention was the graphics! Not that it is something that I haven't seen before, in fact there are many games with visuals that can compete, but looking back at games like the mentioned Quake 1 this really is a lot of progress. And this is just 20 years of time. Quake 1 was released in 1996 and the difference is just astonishing. With this in mind and looking back on quite a 'gaming career' I decided to search the basement for CD's and DVD's and write an article about the evolution of video game graphics.

I found some real treasures, although I hoped to find some of my other classics, but they seem to be really well hidden... However, I found enough to write about and to have a good comparison. Important to mention is, that I only took first-person-shooters as this will guarantee the best comparison of development. Looking at, for example, an open world game and compare it to a first-person-shooter is not going to work well. There is much more to render at the same time and an open world needs more resources than a closed level. On the other hand you can place much more details into small levels, that's why a first-person-shooter from the same generation will usually look much better than an open world game. To get a good overview over the evolution of video game graphics we will be looking at the following games:

Quake - released in 1996
Unreal Tournament - released in 1999
Battlefield 1942 - released in 2002
Medal of Honor Pacific Assault - released in 2004
Crysis 1 - released in 2007
Bioshock - released in 2007
Battlefield 3 - released in 2011
Bioshock Infinite - released in 2013
Doom 4 - released in 2016
Unreal Tournament 4 - pre-alpha in 2016

I think this is a pretty decent list to get a good overview of what happened in the past 20 years and how the visuals of video games developed over time. Although you maybe can't really compare Unreal Tournament with, say, Battlefield 1942 as Battlefield needs much more CPU power due to the wider levels, you will see the difference between Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield 3 for sure. So we kinda have two categories here: first-person-shooters with mostly closed levels, and more open world like first-person- shooters. Let's start with our first game:

Quake by id Software (published by GT Interactive)

Quake was released in 1996 by id Software (published by GT Interactive). Quake is the successor to Doom, id soft's first first-person-shooter. While Doom's engine is based on 2D sprites, Quake was one of the first games which rendered fully in realtime 3D, using polygon models instead of sprites now. Although the game looked impressive back then, it's not even comparable with today's standards. However, Quake 1 is a classic and was real fun back then. id Software had a big influence on the development of e-sports with this release, it pushed LAN-Parties way forward. More and more gamers started to meet each other in big halls, brought their computers with them and played together and against each other. So it kinda was really revolutionary back then and deserves some honor. I've taken five ingame screenshots, just click on them to get to the full resolution image.

Unreal Tournament by Epic Games (published by GT Interactive)

Unreal Tournament was released in 1999 and like you can see from the screenshots it is a huge step forward when it comes to graphics compared to the original Quake. Technology was developing rather fast back then and in just three years of time it seems like the game would be from another generation. The animations are good, textures improved by far, much more realistic effects and overall visuals. Unreal Tournament competed with Quake 3 which graphics are comparable if not even better. I just want a wider variety of games to cover, so I am going with different series. However, the multiplayer aspect of Unreal Tournament is very good, it was played competitive for many years and it still has a player base. This is a real classic.

Battlefield 1942 by DICE (published by Electronic Arts)

So this is the first game we will be looking at which has huge and open levels. Battlefield 1942 was released in 2002 and should be well known for it's multiplayer. It offers a massive player count on huge maps. Not only can you play as a footsoldier, but you can take control of various vehicles like different types of cars, tanks, and even air planes as well. Even the technical aspect is impressive, although it might not be visible on the first look. The sheer amount of players playing each others requires a lot of renderpower and was something new for that time. Battlefield 1942 was the first online multiplayer game which supported up to 64 players on one server and map. The graphics quality itself was nothing special to be honest, but you will see later why I choose that game for this comparison. It looked good for the times nonetheless.

Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault by Electronic Arts

Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault is a world war 2 first-person-shooter which had pretty nice graphics for 2004. Especially the vegetation looks great, but also the character models and faces are really a big improvement over, let's say, Battlefield 2. I really regret I didn't have much time to play the game and only can show you screenshots from the beginning, but I think you will see in which direction the visuals go. With this game I'll kinda close an era because the next game on the list is...

Crysis by Crytek (published by Electronic Arts)

And this is where it really gets exciting. Speaking of the evolution of video game graphics one just can't forget about Crysis. Comparing this game with everything that came before (and in many cases also after) seems senseless when you look at the screenshots. This is a really huge step from everything that was released until then. In only three years of time from MoH:PA the graphical improvement seems unreal. In fact, it is comparable to the step from 96 Quake to Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament, you just have the feeling we are one generation ahead. This game was THE benchmark for a long time and is still used in that way to test you rig. A huge map with realistic vegetation and awesome physics are what let your rig sweat. It is even possible to shoot down nearly every tree, throw stuff around, demolish houses and so on. The shaders and texture quality was amazing for that time and something that was never seen before in any video game. The water looks also fantastic. If you haven't play that game, I recommend you doing so. Even for today's standards it looks beautiful, more so for back then. Did I mention the lightning is gorgeous?

Bioshock by 2K Games

To be fair this is a little bit unfair, to show a game from the same year Crysis came out. Although Bioshock looks great this is a good example why Crysis was ahead of it's time. Nonetheless, using the Unreal Engine 2.5 and probably to it's whole extent, Bioshock has some nice effects and is very atmospheric. That's where it really shines. Throwing fireballs at your enemies, lightning up the water with electricity or freezing your enemies really looks great. Speaking about the water: It's maybe the most beautiful thing in this game. It also offers some great physics which are made possible by the Havok Engine. With it's overall style and concept, Bioshock really stand out and offered a fresh idea and atmospheric experience, making it a very enjoyable video game.

Battlefield 3 by DICE (published by Electronic Arts)

This is the reason I felt the need to take Battlefield 1942 into the comparison, even it's is a more open game. Battlefield 3 just looks brilliant. I realized it mostly when looking on the screenshots for a while, it nearly looks photorealistic. Especially the character details and vehicles are very detailed and smooth, although the facial expressions might not be that great. But everything else? Just look at the aircraft carrier and the F/A 18 Hornet. I remember seeing this for the first time, it literally blew my mind. The lightning is gorgeous but might look overdone for some people. I like that look a lot. It is very atmospheric. The textures are sharp enough and the details are outstanding. The modelers have done a really good job and you can already see how potent the Frostbite Engine 2 really is. I think the graphics are absolutely brilliant even though you can slowly feel the age.

Bioshock Infinite by Irrational Games/2K Australia (published by 2K Games)

Bioshock Infinite was developed by Irrational Games and 2K Australia and is the forth Bioshock video game, it was released in 2013. This game is exciting due to artistic style of the visuals. It isn't trimmed for a realistic look, but has it's very own and unique style. By comparing the screenshots with Bioshock 1, you can see the development which the series was undergoing. The engine used for this game is the Unreal 3 Engine, which already was a bit old at the time, but the graphics speak for themselves. This game just looks great in it's own unique way. It's not really cartoonish, but maybe something like a mix of a realistic touch with cartoon elements. However, in the first hours of the game you will be exploring a beautiful looking town in the sky, that setting changes drastically when you proceed further in the story. It gets much darker and I think this is very well done and I like the style and steampunk theme.

Doom (4) by id Software

Now the game which provided me the idea to write this article. This game was developed by the studio which already made the original Doom, Quake 1, Quake 3 and so on. This is somehow the essence of this article, because you can compare the evolution of video game graphics over the past 20 years with this perfect example. This game indeed does look great. Very detailed levels, awesome reflections, high polygon character models which really look astonishing. The animations are really smooth, the post processing effects like movie grain are awesome and can change the look completely. The explosion and particle effects look very very good. This is one of the games were you actually can compare the detail level of the map to the character models. This is a thing that bothered me with older games: developers often payed more attention to character models than the environment. Doom 4 is one of the games were nearly everything fits perfectly and feels in place. But since the PS4 and XBox One release we saw a big improvement on this matter anyway, but that is a thing I'll discuss in the conclusion. Doom 4 however is a strong candidate for the shooter of the year in 2016. Lately a patched was released that provides full Vulkan API support, especially AMD graphics cards benefit from this.

Unreal Tournament 4 by Epic Games

Last but not least one of the newest first-person-shooters. In fact this is not really true, this game is still in development and in pre-alpha status but it's already playable online. It is somehow a co-development between Epic Games and the community. There are only a hand full of maps available which are in a more developed and detailed state. There is not much to write about yet, but visually this game could become really strong. When you see the screenshots, know what the Unreal 4 Engine is able to do and consider that the game is in pre-alpha you can guess what is to come. Technically we could get a damn beautiful shooter here. The movement and the overall game mechanics are much like the original Unreal Tournament was - with some additions which I don't know if I really like them. But like mentioned before, it's pre-alpha and there is definitely more to come from this game.


Overall I must say I am very impressed by the evolution of video game graphics over the past 20 years. When you compare the first game on our list, Quake 1, to Doom 4, which is the last released game on our list, the differences become cristal clear. Current generation games are not far away to look photorealistic. The progress in realtime rendered visuals is astonishing and you can see improvement from year to year. What bothers me the most: The influence of consoles on development. In our listing you can see this very clear. This kinda started with the Playstation 2. This console was released in 2000 and the next years up to 2007 there wasn't any big jump in progress whatsoever. Video game graphics started to improve with the Playstation 3 and Xbox which were released in 2005 and 2006. In visual quality you cannot compare Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault with, say, Bioshock 1. Only three years between this games and the improvement is huge. Crysis 1 is kinda an exception here as it was developed for the PC in the first place and you can see the difference in visual quality through this whole generation. Although PC Ports nearly always look a bit better then their console counterparts, but most times the difference is not much. Battlefield 3 is one of the few exceptions which looked much better on PC.

The next jump in the evolution of video game graphics was in ~2013 when the new generation of consoles came out. This is our current generation but you already see that modern computer hardware renders this graphics with ease and where the current generation consoles have a hard time with games running with 30 FPS, modern PC's make 60 and more FPS with far better visuals. So yes, in my eyes consoles are clearly slowing down the development and much more would be possible today. But nonetheless: I am happy playing games in 60 FPS which are visually great like these days. And when you compare on the greater scale, the development is awesome nonetheless. I am sure that in some years we will have graphics that are nearly photorealistic and will look like real on the first sight.

20.07.2016 by vfx-world


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