Barry Jenkins Forbes Councils Member
Co-founder and CTO of Concurrents
Game developers have traditionally used pre-rendered video sequences (i.e., passive cutscenes) to help tell the story and enhance the visual presentation of games. However, technology is now making it possible to share interactive game moments as a more immersive and engaging alternative to cutscenes.
Real-time cutscenes naturally enable more fluid and seamless transitions between cinematic sequences and gameplay, which enables players to become more deeply invested in the story being told.
Another advantage of real-time cinematics is that for the current generation of games, sequences rendered in real time during gameplay can often have better image quality than pre-rendered video. How could sequences rendered in real time by a game engine have better image quality than pre-rendered video? The answer lies in the remarkable rendering performance of modern graphics hardware and game engine software.
Today’s game engines running on modern hardware are capable of high-quality depth-of-field, motion blur, subsurface scattering, filmic tone mapping and many other sophisticated cinematic rendering effects that were not practical just a few years ago. Moreover, this real-time imagery can now be generated at high resolutions (e.g., 4K) and high frame rates (e.g., 60 fps and beyond). In contrast, game developers typically encode pre-rendered video at resolutions and frame rates that are significantly lower than those at which the game itself is being rendered. Reductions in the quality of pre-rendered video are typically used to minimize the storage requirements and download times of games, since higher-quality video files can be quite large.
While pre-rendered cinematics can occasionally be useful to show certain complex visual effects that may still be beyond the capabilities of a game engine, most in-game cinematics currently look far better when rendered in real time than shown as over-compressed and low-frame rate video. The fact that game engines are being used to produce impressive visual effects in real time during the virtual production of high-quality linear programming (e.g., The Mandalorian ) also suggests that real-time cinematics can, and should, be used in games. For an increasing number of AAA games, real-time cutscenes have image quality that rivals or exceeds that of pre-rendered video.
But this is just one reason that pre-rendered cutscenes, traditionally relied on to tell a game’s story, are being replaced by real-time cinematics, which allow interactive storytelling techniques to more effectively combine story and gameplay.
Most AAA games allow players to customize the physical features of their character and to augment their character’s appearance with apparel, weapons and other accessories. Collecting these items and crafting a character appearance that reflects the player’s progression along their own hero’s journey is an important element of many games. But pre-rendered cutscenes necessarily exclude the player’s character or use an incorrect generic version of the character. Such scenes fail to recognize and reward the player’s progress in the game and tend to strain believability and fracture immersion.
These factors are driving the evolution of certain AAA game genres toward a type of interactive movie that unites the best elements of cinematic methods with innovative interactive techniques. This approach is allowing the boundary between cinematic “cutscene” and interactive gameplay to disappear, allowing the player to become more deeply immersed and engaged in the hero’s journey. Some examples of games in which real-time cutscenes have largely displaced pre-rendered video include Gears of War 5, Devil May Cry 5, Assassins Creed Valhalla and Death Stranding.
These changes are motivated by ever-increasing demand for high-fidelity gameplay and should cause game developers to rethink how games are promoted. Game trailers have been criticized for often failing to accurately represent (and sometimes flagrantly misrepresenting) the game they are promoting. Video trailers can mislead potential customers about the look of the game by using “in-engine” footage that is pre-rendered using cinematic engine settings that could not possibly be used during gameplay. Footage labeled “in-game” is somewhat more reassuring but can still misrepresent by including pre-rendered video or using engine settings that no reasonable computer could run. High-quality interactive capture in-game will address these issues for publisher-created content. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
When promoting games, Twitch and YouTube Gaming user-generated videos often fail in the other direction: The rather severe video compression imposed by these platforms creates compression artifacts and frame rate limitations that can make the game look much worse than it is. Watching Twitch and other streamer videos largely fails to give gamers a convincing sense of what it is actually like to play the game, as viewing is simply not the same as playing. To make matters worse, Twitch videos are usually replete with a specific type of landmine that the publishers and players of story-driven games want desperately to avoid: spoilers. Publishers have decried the fact that Twitch videos allow anyone to passively experience the entire cinematic story arc of their game without purchasing the game. Not only do today’s streamer platforms often fail to convey an accurate sense of the game’s look and gameplay feel, but they also frequently spoil the story. The answer here is immersion: A game built using the best interactive storytelling methods including story discovery and real-time interactive cutscene techniques will always be more compelling if it is played instead of watched.
What is needed is an approach that allows users to quickly access and sample the game itself — rendered and played on the user’s own device and exposed within a short, compelling slice of the larger story. A type of “interactive trailer” conveying an enticing short-form experience is designed to be more effective in promoting games than game trailers or Twitch videos.
Such a capability may be realized using emerging technologies designed to change the way gaming experiences are discovered, delivered and shared — technologies that transcend the many limitations of video and video-based cloud gaming systems.
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