As has been discussed ad nauseum, in a few scant months the next generations of consoles will be coming out. The debates have already began over which console, if any, will be bought when the systems are launched. There have been discussions about features, services, handicaps, prices and of course, graphics. A common trend I've noticed is a lot of people remarking that the graphics of both the PS4 and the Xbox One really aren't that impressive. That better graphics can be obtained from current generation graphics cards run on high-end gaming PCs. And for the most part, these PC gamers are correct, the improvement in movement, detail and resolution is largely negligible.
Art from Mass Effect 3, current gen
Production art from Call of Duty: Ghosts
Because of this only slight improvement in graphics, I believe we have hit the Graphics Plateau, a pattern where previously huge leaps in technology and art give way to smaller and less drastic improvements over time. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact, this could mean the beginning of some of the greatest and most sophisticated games in history, if given the chance.
For years the priority in the production of games was graphics. How well a game looked often meant how well a game sold and how well it was reviewed. How often have we gamers played a game and thought to ourselves, 'I really want to love this game, but it's just so ugly compared to other games I've played'? One of the main reasons people want a Final Fantasy VII remake is because the blocky, low-polygon original counters the sophisticated storyline and gameplay that many learned to love. Every generation we have gone 'oooh' from seeing the latest, state of the art graphics only to look back years later and wonder why we were so impressed.
This parallel can also been seen in classical art. Major civilizations would see leaps and bounds in their artistic skill, followed by plateaus either enforced by religious/political criteria (such as ancient Egypt) or by lack of education on the technical aspects of art, or even lack of technology, then to be followed once again by leaps in skill and sophistication. From about 500 CE to the late 14th century Western European art was largely stagnant and largely retained the traits of Gothic and Byzantine Art:
Religious icons with specific poses and expressions, size determined by prominence rather than location with relatively minor advancements in technique and subject matter.
Then from the early to the high Renaissance art went through enormous growth. Invention of oil paint meant richer colors and more sophisticated shading. Rediscovery of linear and atmospheric perspective meant realistic looking backgrounds and scenery and study of anatomy lead to life-like looking humans. Art went from being largely symbolic depictions of humans to a technology that allowed exact records of how people really looked like.
From then on, from the Baroque period through Rococo to the beginning of the 19th century, the mark of mastery for an artist was how realistic he could make his art look like. The more life-like an artist could make their work, the more highly regarded they were. Things shifted once again, however, with the invention of photography. Many believed painting was no longer a necessary skill as photos were the end-all to be-all of lifelike representations of people and objects. Art had reached its own Graphics Plateau. But as a result this meant that art no longer had to be photorealistic, and more and more artists and art movements came about to use art not just as a life-like depiction of what is real such as still-lifes, portraiture or landscapes, or religious/political allegories, but to represent emotions, sensations, violence and the abstract. Art was no longer just about the patron with some subtle digs the artist managed to sneak in, or meaning divined through traditional symbols, but artists could now try to make what they wanted, how they wanted, and hope they could appeal to a buyer.
Just like Classical Art, the game industry had its plateau (the 80s gaming bubble) followed by huge jumps as companies battled for the latest in greatest in graphics. But rather than 1500 years of growth, most of us have witnessed these changes during our lifetime. While previous generations of games have attempted experimental game play and artistic meaning, such as Okami, Braid and other Indie games, with graphics no longer being the only factor determining quality, we have the potential to see more and more experimental games with new game play and art styles. While it may take a while for developers to be willing to risk being so new and different, this lull in technology may in fact begin the reign for some of the greatest games in history.