The Future of Gaming?

The first thing that Valve had to do was look at the threading models available: how can they distribute work to the cores? Having decided on hybrid threading, the next step was to decide what sort of software tools were needed, and to create those tools as necessary. Most of that work should now be done or nearing completion, so the big question is with the threading in place, how are they going to apply the power available? Up to this point we have primarily been concerned with what multithreading is and how Valve has attempted to implement the technology. All this talk about multi-core support sounds good, but without a compelling need for the technology it really isn't going to mean much to most people.

We've already seen quite a few games that are almost entirely GPU bound, so some might argue that the GPU needs to get faster before we even worry about the CPU. 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. Games like Oblivion look great, but it's still very easy to tell that you're not in a real world. This does not mean that better graphics are not important, but Valve is now interested in taking a look at the rest of the story and what can be done beyond graphics. Valve also feels that their Source engine has traditionally been more CPU limited anyway, so they were very interested in techniques that would allow them to improve CPU performance.

Before we get to the stuff beyond graphics, though, let's take a quick look at what's being done to improve graphics. The hybrid threading approach to the rendering process can be thought of as follows:




At present, everything up to drawing in the rendering pipeline is essentially CPU bound, and even the drawing process can be at least partially CPU bound with tasks such as generating dynamic vertex buffers. The second image above shows the revised pipeline and how you might approach it. For example, spending CPU time building the vertex buffer makes the GPU more efficient, so even in cases where you are mostly GPU limited you can still improve performance by using additional CPU power. Another item related to graphics is the animations and bone transformations that need to be done prior to rendering a scene. Bone transforms can be very time consuming, and as you add more creatures the CPU limitations become more and more prevalent. One of the solutions is to simply cheat, either by reducing the complexity of the animations, cloning one model repeatedly, or by other methods; but with more processor power it becomes possible to actually do full calculations on more units.



A specific Half-Life example that was given is that you might have a scene with 200 Combine soldiers standing in rank, and the animations for that many units requires a huge chunk of time. All of the bone transformations can be done in parallel, so more CPU power available can directly equate to having more entities on screen at the same time.

With more computational power available to do animations, the immersiveness of the game world can also be improved. Right now, the amount of interaction that most creatures have with the environment is relatively limited. If you think about the way people move through the real world, they are constantly bumping into other objects or touching other objects and people. While this would be largely a visual effect, the animations could be improved to show people actually interacting with the environment, so to an onlooker someone running around the side of a house might actually reach out their hand and grab the wall as they turn the corner. Similarly, a sniper lying prone on the top of a hill could actually show their body adjusting to the curvature of the ground rather than simply being a standard "flat" prone position. Two characters running past each other could even bump and react realistically, with arms and bodies being nudged to the side instead of mysteriously gliding past each other.







Click to enlarge

One final visual aspect that CPU power can influence is the rendering of particle systems. Valve has given us a benchmark that runs through several particle system environments, and we will provide results for the benchmark later. How real world the benchmark is remains to be seen, as it is more of a technology demonstration at present, but the performance increases are dramatic. Not being expert programmers, we also can't say for sure how much of the work that they are doing on the CPU could actually be done elsewhere more efficiently.

Besides the benchmark, though, particle systems can be used to more realistically simulate things like flames and water. Imagine a scene where a campfire gets extinguished by real dynamically generated rain rather than as a canned animation: you could actually see small puffs of smoke and water as individual drops hit the fire, and you might even be able to kick the smoldering embers and watch individual sparks scatter around on the ground. The goal is to create a more immersive world, and the more realistic things look and behave, the more believable the environment. Is all of this necessary? Perhaps not with conventional games that we're used to, but certainly it should open up new gameplay mechanics and that's rarely a bad thing.

Building a Threaded Game Engine Gaming's Future, Continued
POST A COMMENT

55 Comments

View All Comments

  • edfcmc - Thursday, November 23, 2006 - link

    I always thought the dude with the valve in his eye was Gabe Newell. Now I know better. Reply
  • msva124 - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    quote:

    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.


    Um.....you're kidding, right?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 09, 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. Reply
  • msva124 - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    quote:

    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.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 09, 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.
    Reply
  • msva124 - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    Fine. You win. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 09, 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.

    Cheers!
    Jarred
    Reply
  • cryptonomicon - Wednesday, November 08, 2006 - link

    http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/tradeshows/200...">http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/tra...2006/val...

    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
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, November 08, 2006 - link

    quote:

    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 ;)
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, November 08, 2006 - link

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

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now