Other Multi-Core Benefits

The benefits of multi-core architectures are not limited to the games themselves. In fact, for many companies the benefits to the in-house developers can be far more important than the improvements that are made to the gaming world. Where actual games have to worry about targeting many different levels of computer systems, the companies that create games often have a smaller selection of high-end systems available. We talked earlier about how content creation is typically a task that can more readily take advantage of multithreading, and the majority of workstation level applications are designed to leverage multiprocessor systems. At the high-end of the desktop computing segment, the line between desktop computers and workstations has begun to blur, especially with the proliferation of dual and now quad core chips. Where in the past one of the major benefits of a workstation was often having dual CPU sockets, you can now get up to four CPU cores without moving beyond a desktop motherboard. There are still reasons to move to a workstation, for example the additional memory capacity that is usually available, but if all you need is more CPU power there's a good chance you can get by with a dual or quad core desktop instead.

Not surprisingly, Valve tends to have computers that are closer to the top end desktop configurations currently available. We asked about what sort of hardware most of their developers were running, and they said a lot of them are using Core 2 Duo systems. However, they also said that they have been holding off upgrading a lot of systems while they waited for Core 2 Quad to become available. They were able to do some initial testing using quad core systems, and for their work the benefits were so tremendous that it made sense to hold off upgrading until Intel launched the new processors. (For those of you that are wondering, on the graphics side of the equation, Valve has tried to stay split about 50-50 between ATI and NVIDIA hardware.)

One of the major tools that Valve uses internally is a service called VMPI (Valve Message Passing Interface). This utility allows Valve to make optimal use of all of the hardware they have present within their offices, somewhat like a distributed computing project, by sending work units to other systems on the network running the VMPI service. Certain aspects of content creation can take a long time, for example the actual compilation (i.e. visibility and lighting calculations) of one of their maps. Anyone that has ever worked with creating levels for just about any first-person shooter can attest to the amount of time this process takes. It still takes a lot of effort to design a map in the first place, but in level design there's an iterative process of designing, compiling, testing, and then back to the drawing board that plays a large role in perfecting a map. The problem is, once you get down to the point where you're trying just clean up a few last issues, you may only need to spend a couple minutes tweaking a level, and then you need to recompile and test it inside the gaming engine. If you are running on a single processor system -- even one of the fastest single processor systems -- it can take quite a while to recompile a map.

The VMPI service was created to allow Valve to leverage all of the latent computational power that was present in their offices. If a computer is sitting idle, which is often the case for programmers who are staring at lines of code, why not do something useful with the CPU time? Valve joked about how VMPI has become something of a virus around the offices, getting replicated onto all of the systems. (Yes, it can be shut off, for those that are wondering.) Jokes aside, creating a distributed, multithreaded utility to speed up map compilation times has certainly helped the level creators. Valve's internal VRAD testing can be seen below, and we will have the ability to run this same task on individual systems as a benchmark.


Running as a single thread on a Core 2 processor, a 2.67 GHz QX6700 is already 36% faster than a Pentium 4 3.2GHz. Enabling multithreading makes the Kentsfield processor nearly 5 times as fast. Looking at distributing the work throughout the Valve offices, 32 old Pentium 4 systems are only ~3 times faster than a single Kentsfield system (!), but more importantly 32 Kentsfield systems are still going to be 5 times faster than the P4 systems. In terms of real productivity, the time it takes Valve's level designers to compile a map can now be reduced to about half a minute, where a couple years back it might have been closer to 30 minutes. Now the level designers no longer have to waste time waiting for the computers to prepare their level for testing; 30 seconds isn't even enough time to run to the bathroom and come back! Over the course of a project, Valve states that they should end up saving "thousands of hours" of time. When you consider how much most employees are being paid, the costs associated with upgrading to a quad core processor could easily be recouped in a year or less. Mod authors with higher end systems will certainly appreciate the performance boost as well. We will take a closer look at performance scaling of the VRAS map compilation benchmark on a variety of platforms in a moment.

Gaming's Future, Continued Test Setup
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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. 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

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