There’s no denying that the game industry moves quickly. The expectations of the graphics for a professional game are very different from what would have been expected a couple of years ago, and will likely have changed again in a few years’ time. It is important to acknowledge this increasing push for realism and that as consoles become more and more capable of producing complicated graphics, the high standards will not just become expected, but mandatory for any game that wants to exceed.
However, that doesn’t make technical skills learnt now obsolete. Future developments in game graphics are only going to build on current technology, and while some techniques may be dropped because they are inefficient or unnecessary, they could still give a valuable insight into why certain things are done in a certain way. Knowing how to optimise a lowpoly model will help someone use resources more efficiently even when the tri count is in the tens of thousands.
Many skills are transferable, for instance between different modelling software or between game engines; learning one makes it quicker and easier to learn how to use other programs. Even models for next-gen games use the game basic programs; it is only the techniques that are different. Next-get character models are still created using software such as z-brush and blender. The difference is that there is more freedom, because the graphics are less restricted by the technology.
Besides, just because top-end graphics set a standard for console games doesn’t mean there isn’t still a place for low-resolution graphics, such as on tablets and phones. There is a high demand for portable, casual gaming, from an audience that has become accustomed to almost photorealistic quality graphics. At the same time, hardware in tablets is still at a much lower level than consoles an PCs, and so if game produces want to compete in the same market they much make the best use of the available resources.
At the same time, basic art skills are also important. The principles of colour, composition and anatomy don’t change just because they’re in the medium of 3D game graphics. In some ways, these skills are more important, because they are more fundamental. Furthermore, it is artistic ability and creativity and that will set someone apart in the industry. The ability to plan ideas, to concept them and convey them efficiently will always be a part of the visual side of games. As much as realistic graphics are important, stylisation and compelling design are what really draw players into a game.
However, without knowledge of how to implement them, these skills have a very limited use. The ability to use the available technology to best effect allows underlying artistic skills to be fully realised. It is much more constructive to think of them as two different tools that have to work together for the same goal. With technology improving, technical constraints move aside to allow characters and environments to be fully realised, and to be used effectively requires people who know how to make the best of the available resources.