Video game graphics achieved using the DirectX 11 standard provide a solid indication of the visual power of the next Xbox and PlayStation, Eurogamer has been told.
Eurogamer has also been told that visuals on a par with Hollywood blockbuster movie Avatar are a genuine possibility on the next generation of consoles - a claim first made by graphics technology company AMD and now backed up by video game developers.
As part of an investigation into the next generation of home consoles, Eurogamer has learnt from developers what gamers can expect from the next Xbox and the PlayStation 4.
"It's going to depend a lot on when Sony and Microsoft decide is the right moment to announce and launch things," Crytek UK principal programmer Pete Hall tells Eurogamer, "but it does feel at the moment that the hardware we get in next generation consoles will be about the sort of level that DX11 is at - that's where it currently looks like it's going."
Crytek, creator of game engine CryEngine 3, recently added DirectX 11 support to the PC version of first-person shooter Crysis 2, prompting some suggestions that it makes the sci-fi first-person shooter look so good that it provides a glimpse into the next generation.
But Crytek, rumoured to be making TimeSplitters 4 for Microsoft and Sony's next consoles, reckons better visuals are possible.
"The DX11 support for Crysis 2 was planned quite early on, but while it was being implemented, we were discovering things about the production methods we'd use," Mark Tully, Crytek lead programmer, adds, "If we'd done it slightly differently, we could have achieved even higher results. Those learnings will be going into future Crytek projects. The authoring processes will be able to still target the consoles, but be able to produce even higher results on DX11 than what we were able to achieve with Crysis 2.
"That in itself is exciting."
Earlier this year Epic released the Samaritan tech demo - a real-time video designed to provide a glimpse into what the next generation of consoles will be capable of. But is Samaritan a realistic expectation for the next-generation? Will we really see graphics on that level? Mark Rein, co-founder of Gears of War and Unreal Engine maker Epic Games, says the answer is a definite yes.
"It is already possible on PCs today albeit very high end ones," he tells Eurogamer. "Broadly-speaking tomorrow's console is today's high end PC, whose level of technology eventually trickles down to affordable PCs, set-top boxes and mobile devices as well. So it makes sense that this is the kind of thing the next generation of consoles could power. It is just a question of timing."
And, according to Rein, Direct X 11 is a good guideline as to what gamers will see from the next generation.
"Yes I think there is a feature set there that provides the ability to make clearly-discernible visual improvements over what can be done on today's consoles. Samaritan was an early attempt to demonstrate that," he says.
"As a content developer we'll get better at exploiting these features over time and, as a technology provider, we'll continue to deliver tools and technology that helps our licensees to do the same. In the mean time we've already shipped Samaritan's DX11 feature set in the latest Unreal Engine 3."
"Where the PCs are now compared to what [Sony and Microsoft] are going to do, I assume will be close," Hall says. This week AMD, which is rumoured to be providing the graphics technology powering the next Xbox, said Microsoft's next home console will be so powerful it will be capable of reproducing graphics on a par with James Cameron's computer generated movie blockbuster Avatar.
Many baulked at the suggestion, but Crytek believes it may be possible on future consoles. "One of our rendering guys was looking at that article and was saying he reckons that's doable now with DX11 on PC," Hall enthuses, "I get the feeling it could happen. It could be next-gen consoles. It does feel like if we're able to keep pushing DirectX 11 into the next generation of consoles we should be able to produce some fantastic stuff with CryEngine."
While gamer tongues are wagging on the potential power of the next generation, for developers, visuals are just one facet of the next-gen battle."It's one thing to have the graphics that look like Avatar, but you want to move everything else on a step as well," Hall says.
Tully agrees. "We always use graphics as the benchmark for what's going to be so great about the next game on this platform - but obviously you've got other aspects. In single-player you've got AI, and in multiplayer you've got, well, how do we better integrate the community into the game so it's more of a social experience? There are all these different areas you can move forward in. It's not always just about the graphics, although that is a big part of it."
Director of ISV relationships at AMD, Neal Robison, said Microsoft's unannounced console will allow developers to make every pedestrian in an open world game such as Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row have a totally individual mentality so they react to the player in different ways. Crowds will then act as a group of individuals rather than predictable mobs.
While this sounds great on paper, the sheer power offered by the next-gen presents its own set of problems. "There's one thing getting the raw power to do these things," Tully says. "Another thing is taking advantage of that in a coherent way, to produce a game. That's the challenge we'll be looking to when we start working on those consoles. It's going to be really interesting to work with."
To overcome these challenges, Crytrek will use its own, in-house game engine CryEngine 3, which it claims is ready for next generation game development now.
This, coupled with the benefit of having experience using advanced PCs today, means the studio should be able to manage the inevitable transition - rather than be stung by it.
"Because [CryEngine] is aimed at both the consoles and the high-end PCs, it means we can add in new features on the high end PCs as we go along," Hall says, "and then when the console becomes available, we'll be able to actually pick a level and set it up there and things should work - although it's never 100 per cent that simple."
Microsoft is rumoured to be preparing a reveal of its next Xbox at E3 2012. Eurogamer has recently had this claim backed up by a number of game industry sources.
Eurogamer has also heard a 2014 release of the next Xbox was planned by Microsoft, but this has now been brought forward to 2013 as a result of Nintendo's confirmed 2012 launch of the Wii U.
Additionally, sources have indicated to us that larger publishers and developers already have target specs of both the next Xbox and PlayStation to help them with their development.
Both Microsoft and Sony have refused to directly comment on their next generation plans, instead pointing to the continued success of the Xbox 360 and PS3. Last year Microsoft said motion-sensing add-on Kinect would add five years onto the life of the 360, whereas Sony has described the PS3's life cycle as "ten years plus".
But is now the right time for the next-generation? Do developers want the next Xbox or PlayStation?
"I'd like to see it at a time when consumers are going to be ready to adopt it and jump in whole-heartedly," Rein said. "I'm not in a huge hurry for it. I'd rather wait until they can bring out hardware that can do Samaritan affordably than bring out something super high-priced and the market adopts it slowly as they wait for a price drop. Either way I'm confident we'll have great a great game engine for it thanks to the efforts we've already got underway like Samaritan."
It's tantalising to imagine games with visuals on a par with the Samaritan demo, or indeed Avatar, but for Rein the PS3 and Xbox 360 still have much to offer.
"In terms of something aimed at running Samaritan, I don't think it would be practical to come out with a new console at that spec right now," Rein continues, "I think we're a few years away from that kind of hardware being available at a price consumers would embrace.
"Plus I think we're still getting great value out of the consoles we have today and we can continue to hone our skills with those for a few more years. If you look at Gears of War 3 you'll see that we're continuously getting better and better at making games for the consoles we have now and you simply have to look at the monthly Unreal Development Kit releases to see we're constantly delivering better and better tools and technology for this generation as well."
For Marvin Donald, game director at Darksiders II developer Vigil, however, developers do want to move onto next-generation development. "[That desire] just happened," he says. "Now we've got comfortable. We run into situations where we'd love to use bigger textures. We'd love to have more memory, and we'd love stuff to run faster. We're ready to grow. We're definitely ready to move on.
"But that's just starting to happen for us as a studio, where we want more horsepower to play with. So yeah, next generation, bring it on. We're very excited about that."
US retailer giant GameStop last week said it does not expect new consoles from Sony or Microsoft until 2014.
"2013? I think that's about right, actually," Donald offers. "That sounds about right, because another year-and-a-half and from the consumer point of view it's going to start to feel stale.
"It's like, OK guys, I'm no longer impressed by the graphics. My friend's PC, games like Rage, some of the stuff they're doing, oh my God. Seriously, clearly my Xbox can't do that."