I've been doing game environments for the past 13 years. In that time I have worked for 4 major game studios in the US. I don't see the 3D artists perspective voiced much during next gen discussion and I want to give mine. I also want to explain why I am supporting the XB1.
On current gen consoles (512mb ram) we would be lucky to have 200mb available for art at any one time. That means 200mb per load. Some engines like GTA or Red Dead constantly stream data, (no load screens) but there is still only about 200mb loaded for art at any one given time. When I say art I mean all the environment meshes and textures, vfx, characters, vehicles, 1st and 3rd person weapons, light maps, custom skins etc...Audio would get around 75mb, UI around 10mb and the rest of the memory would be spread out through dozens of other systems. Each engine is different but from my experience 200mb has been pretty standard for art.
Now over half my job is figuring out what compromises I need to make between what I really want to put on screen and what is technically possible to put on screen in 200mb. We take a piece of concept art and mentally chop that up into repeatable modules that become our set dressing and props. We want to make everything you see unique and high resolution but this is not possible because we have a tight schedule and we are limited by that 200mb gate. (More on the schedule later) To make things more complicated, we need to pre plan for worse case scenarios when designing environments. We need to account for times when every player is on screen, all shooting and throwing grenades, spawning blood splatter vfx smoke grenades, rocket trails... We can't just make a scene run at 30 fps in isolation and call it a day. We need to leave room for a cluster of intense gameplay to happen on top of the scene. This further eats into our vision.
This 200mb limit has been the gate for realtime 3D graphics for the last 8 years. PC exclusives are free from that gate but if it was cross platform that gate effected that art team even if they had high detail mode on the PC version.
The point of me explaining this to you is to illustrate how much more room we now have on next gen systems and how that gate will be pushed up to around 3gb. It could be a bit more or a bit less but that's my estimate. You may be asking why I am not saying 4,5,6,7Gb. This is where the schedule comes into play. It is simply not possible for a team of 15 artists to fill that much RAM full of art data on our tight schedules even if it is available to us. Instead of hiring more artists, studios start outsourcing to churn out more content. Some studios crunch for months filling up 200mb worth of detail. Imagine trying to fill 4,5,6 GB worth of data. Now factor in the state of the industry. Game staff is constantly getting laid off. Publishers have a hard time making profits on all but the biggest franchises. If we don't find ways to create a constant revenue stream (dlc, microtrans, mmo subscription), or limit used games and stop piracy, studios simply cant pay a staff to utilize all this extra RAM. You need staff to stay, to become senior and to know the tools inside out. Artists jumping from studio to studio from layoffs creates a brain drain and ultimately hurts the quality of games. It can take a new artist 6-12 months to fully ramp up on all the tools and custom tech and become proficient. This is a huge inefficiency in the games industry and hurts the final product. This is one reason I support What Microsoft is doing. They understand this vicious cycle and are trying to improve not only games, but the industry as a whole. I'll get off that soap box now. I hope you get it.
Back to the fun stuff. If a game like Gears of War can look good using 200mb, imagine what we can do with 3gb. That is just an unbelievable amount of resources for us to play with. I don't have to sacrifice the concept artists vision any more. I don't have to burn the time and effort making compromises any more. It is much harder to constantly optimize assets than it is to build high resolution from the get go. 3gb is almost enough resources to skip the compromise phase entirely. This makes my job so much more enjoyable and also gives players more immersive worlds to explore.
But...we are not there until developers stop supporting current gen consoles. This is why console games keep looking better and better each year. As we drop the current gen SKU's we can now focus entirely on the next gen without the 200mb gate of current gen. If you think those launch titles look good, just wait to see what is coming in the next 5 years.
Edit: For clarity on why I'm supporting Microsoft.
What Microsoft is doing (limiting used sales, stopping piracy, allowing additional revenue streams) is as big a factor for next gen graphics as the new tech is. if you can't pay artists to fill the gigs of data with art, all that extra ram is just wasted. The industry is having a hard time paying 15 artists to fill up 200mb of data. How do you expect them to pay 35 artists to fill 8gb. The industry has to change to allow greater revenue, which allows more artists which allows more detail. Microsoft is trying to do that.