Valve Hardware Day 2006

Last week Valve Software invited us up to their headquarters in Bellevue Washington for their Hardware Day event. Valve usually has some pretty interesting stuff to show off, and they are one of several companies that consistently push the boundaries of what your computer hardware can do. As creator of the Half-Life series, Valve is one of the most respected gaming software companies around. Their Steam distribution network has also garnered quite a bit of attention over the years. Last year, the big news was the new HDR rendering that Valve added to their Source engine. So what has Valve been up to for the past year, and how will it affect the future of gaming?

The man himself, Gabe Newell

Some of you may recall some of the statements Valve Software founder Gabe Newell made in regards to the next generation platforms and the move towards multi-processor systems. The short summary is that creating efficient and powerful multithreaded code is extremely difficult, and there's a very real possibility that developers will need to throw away a lot of their existing code base. Both of these things are drawbacks for creating multithreaded games, but there are also important benefits. Perhaps the most important advantage is that if you need additional processing power in the near future, you are much more likely to get it by tapping into the power of multiple processors rather than waiting for clock speeds to increase.

While it is listed as a challenge, one of the points made by Valve is that computer games are typically designed to make maximum use of your system. "You're doing a disservice to the customer if you're not using all of the CPU power." Some might disagree with that sentiment, but at some point the choice has to be made between a game that looks better and/or performs faster and one that uses less computational resources. Then there's a secondary consideration: do you want to make a computer game that merely takes advantage of additional processing cores to enhance the gaming experience, or should a multi-core CPU be required? There are still a large number of single core processors in use today, and many of those people might be unhappy if they were forced to upgrade.

Tom Leonard, Multithreading Project Lead

The costs and challenges associated with creating multithreaded games help to explain why the previous gaming support for multiple processors has been limited at best, but with all of the major processor vendors moving towards multi-core chips, the installed user base has finally become large enough that it makes sense to invest the time and effort into creating a powerful multithreaded gaming engine. Valve Software set out to do exactly that over the past year. The efforts have been spearheaded by Valve programmer Tom Leonard, whose past experience includes work on C++ compilers, system utilities, and artificial intelligence among other things. Other Valve employees that have helped include Jay Stelly, Aaron Seeler, Brian Jacobson, Erik Johnson, and Gabe Newell.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is how much has been accomplished in such a relatively short time, and Valve Software provided the attendees with a couple benchmark applications to demonstrate the power of multi-core systems. Before we get to the actual performance of these utilities, however, let's take a look at what multithreading actually means, the various approaches that can be taken, and the areas that stand to benefit the most. There are of course many ways to accomplish any given task, but for this article we are primarily concerned with Valve's approach to multithreading and what it means to the gaming community.

What Is Multithreading?
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  • edfcmc - Thursday, November 23, 2006 - link

    I always thought the dude with the valve in his eye was Gabe Newell. Now I know better.
  • msva124 - Thursday, November 9, 2006 - link


    As Valve sees things, however, the era of pretty visuals is coming to an end. We have now reached the point where in terms of graphics most people are more than satisfied with what they see.'re kidding, right?
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 9, 2006 - link

    Nope. That's what Valve said. Graphics and animations can be improved, but there are lots of other gameplay issues that have been pushed to the side in pursuit of better graphics. With cards like the GeForce 8800, they should be able to do just about anything they want on the graphics side of things, so now they just need to do more in other areas.
  • msva124 - Thursday, November 9, 2006 - link


    With cards like the GeForce 8800, they should be able to do just about anything they want on the graphics side of things

    And 640K of RAM should be enough for anybody? Yeah right. There are certainly other things besides graphics that need to be tended to, but when even rendered cutscenes don't look convincing, it's extremely premature to say.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 9, 2006 - link

    So you would take further increases in graphics over anything else? Personally, I'm quite happy with what I see in many titles of the past 3 years. Doom 3, Far Cry, Quake 4, Battlefield 2, Half-Life 2... I can list many more. All of those look more than good enough to me. Could they be better? SURE! Do they need to be? Not really. I'd much rather have some additional improvements besides just prettier graphics, and that's what Valve was getting at.

    What happens if you manage to create a photo-realistic game, but the AI sucks, the physics sucks, and the way things actually move and interact with each other isn't at all convincing? Is photo-realism (which is basically the next step -- just look at Crysis screenshots and tell me that 8800 GTX isn't powerful enough) so important that we should ignore everything else? Heck, some games are even better because they *don't* try for realism. Psychonauts anyone? Or even Darwinia? Team Fortress 2 is going for a more cartoony and stylistic presentation, and it looks pretty damn entertaining.

    The point is, ignoring most other areas and focusing on graphics is becoming a dead end for a lot of people. What games is the biggest money maker right now? World of WarCraft! A game that will play exceptionally well on anything the level of X800 Pro/GeForce 6800 GT or faster. There are 7 million people paying $15 per month that have basically said that compelling multiplayer environments are more important to them than graphics.
  • msva124 - Thursday, November 9, 2006 - link

    Fine. You win.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 9, 2006 - link

    Sorry if I was a bit too argumentative. Basically, the initial statement is still *Valve's* analysis. You can choose to agree or disagree, but I think it's pretty easy to agree that in general there are certainly other things that can be done besides just improving graphics. I don't think Valve intends to *not* improve graphics, though; just that it's not the only thing they need to worry about. Until we get next-gen games that make use of quad cores, though, the jury is out on whether or not "new gameplay" is going to be as compelling as better visuals.

  • cryptonomicon - Wednesday, November 8, 2006 - link">

    So, what are those steel or aluminum models at the end? Are they the real world references for the Team fortress source weapon models? :D
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, November 8, 2006 - link


    We will take a look at how CPU cache and memory bandwidth affects performance in the future, but at present it pretty clear that Core 2 once again holds a commanding performance lead over AMD's Athlon 64/X2 processors.

    I'm pretty sure 'it' in this sentence should be "it's", or "it is" (sorry, but it was bad enough to stop me when reading, thinking I mis-read the sentance somehow).

    Good article, and it will be interresting to see who follows suite, and when. Hopefully this will become the latest fad in programming, and has me wanting to code my own services here at home for encoding video, or anything that takes more than a few minutes ;)
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, November 8, 2006 - link

    meh, sorry, that 'typo' is on the second to the last page, I guess about half way down :/

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