To some degree, game engine developers like id Software and Epic Games are the best hardware advertisers. They'll create a new engine that creeps even closer to reality-generating graphics, release a demo showing off all the new, beautiful visuals and then say "you'll need this kind of hardware to produce this level of visual quality." Naturally we want to rush out and buy new components to build a new rig even if the funds aren't readily available. Thus, hardware and software seemingly propel each other forward in an infinite marriage of progression, and consumers simply reap in the benefits while drying up the bank in the process.
Last week Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told DICE 2012 attendees that the tech demo of Unreal Engine 3 released last year, called "Samaritan," required 2.5 terraFLOPS to run at a 1920 x 1080 resolution, 30 frames per second and with 48 operations per pixel (that rig was a monster in size too). By comparison, Microsoft's Xbox 360 console is only capable of .25 terraFLOPS, meaning Microsoft will need to generate a new console at least ten times more powerful in order to run the UE3 demo smoothly.
So what does that mean for Unreal Engine 4? What kind of hardware requirements will the engine need in order to run at 1920 x 1080 and 30 frames per second? Sweeney didn't specify, but there's now a question as to whether the next-generation consoles will even be able to handle it. Naturally they will, as the console business is Epic's bread and butter, and even Epic VP Mark Rein said the new engine is already up and running on a variety of hardware "including systems we can't name yet." Don't let anyone tell you different: UE4 will run on the next-generation systems.
"People are going to be shocked later this year when they see Unreal Engine 4 and how much more profound an effect it will have," Rein said last week. Unreal Engine 4 is expected to make an official unveiling sometime this year, but isn't slated to make a full commercial debut until 2014. The next Xbox console is unofficially scheduled for a late 2013 release which is reportedly six times the 360's processing power... not quite what the Samaritan demo requires. Like the Xbox 360, Epic may push Microsoft into beefing up the specs before the hardware hits the market.
In addition to the Xbox 360's limitations, Sweeney estimated during DICE 2012 that a complete approximation of "perfect" visual quality requires computing power of around 2,000 times greater than today's hardware. A "good enough" approximation of visual reality is 5,000 teraFLOPS, or 5,000 trillion floating point operations per second. Looks like consoles have a long way to go before they reach the "good enough" state, if that even happens.