The demo was a glimpse of a future where what we call 3D games aren’t projections onto a flat 2D screen but true solid-looking game worlds you can peer about and almost touch. Develop asked Andrew Oliver, CTO of Blitz Games Studios, for his perspective.
How did your presentation go down with the folks in Hollywood?
It was great, thanks. I was invited to give a short presentation at the 3D Entertainment Summit about the potential of real 3D in console games. I finished by showing a game demo running on an Xbox 360 through a 3D cinema projector – it looks pretty impressive. I think the Hollywood execs were pretty surprised at the quality. I let the audience play the demo for themselves – this is definitely one of those ‘see it to believe it’ experiences.
Just to rewind for readers who aren’t aware of the technology, how do 3D TVs work?
There are various 3D technologies available for the home. There’s the DLP ‘3D Ready’ standard that alternates the left and right images very fast, synchronised with LCD shutter glasses, coordinating the flickering with the shutters on the glasses. Sounds a little odd, but the newer models give very good results.
Other manufacturers using LCD panels are opting for using polarised light on alternating pixels. So the left eye can only see half the pixels and the right eye seeing the others half, when viewing with glasses that have the polarised filters. The effect gives you the same 3D effect as the Imax 3D and new Digital 3D cinema films.
How long have you been working on a game application?
We’ve been working on the Stereo 3D drivers with various screens for over a year now. But actually, the largest challenge is to do with the architecture of our graphics engine. It’s a significant layer added on top of an already very powerful games engine. We have a team 26 in our BlitzTech team, which has grown steadily over the last 10 years.
In what sense was the L.A. presentation a world first?
People have been driving 3D screens from PCs for some years now, with special nVidia graphics cards. It takes a powerful PC, and I heard a prominent games spokesperson speaking at a 3D session at the CG film conference Siggraph say that modern game consoles were not powerful enough to run 3D displays. So we set out to set the record straight.
Granted, it was more difficult than we anticipated. But we were able to show a game we have in development running live on both Xbox 360 and PS3 running in 3D on a few different types of 3D TVs. So it’s the first time anyone has seen this running and it really does literally add a whole new dimension to gaming.
How does your technology work?
For every frame, you need to draw a left view and a right view and then put that through a filter to combine them into one image suitable for the format of the TV. Unfortunately, various screens use different methods of displaying the two images needed, which makes it a big hassle.
However the biggest problem is the fact the format needs to be 1080p at 60fps. It’s obviously being created for 3D films and making full HD at 60fps is how people want to watch 3D movies in the future. Creating a game running at this resolution and speed is difficult at the best of times!
After that, you then have a further step of interlacing the entire two screens into a single frame, which needs an extremely fast graphics engine.
You’ve stated that a 3DTV and non-3D TV version of the game can be contained in the same copy. Does this imply that there’s no impact from the technique on the creation of art assets and so on?
Once you have a game running at 1080p at 60fps then this can run in 2D for normal TVs. But we will implement a display option that enables you to select the 3D TV you have, and then the game will add the further steps for the special 3D format relevant for the display.
Actually there is a further downside to art asset creation. To get a game running fast, game developers cheat by ‘bill boarding’ graphics – drawing things like flat trees for example. But any tricks like this look very bad when you see the scene in true 3D. Therefore, a lot more models will be required, which will impact the art asset pipeline and budget.
We now have the feature in BlitzTech, so if our game is running fast enough we have the option to give it the feature. For the demo we retrofitted it into one of the games we already have in development. Ideally it would be best to start a game knowing that the feature will be added, and to adjust the design and art style accordingly to accommodate it.
Could we see existing games in 3D TV versions in the future?
Sadly not. There would be a slim chance you could retrofit a game that was already running in the right mode. But you would have to make a further 10 per cent speed saving for the extra processing required, remodel any flat objects and ensure the camera is designed to not create uncomfortable viewing situations. Unfortunately you can’t just ‘plug-in’ 3D drivers to a game.
Are there any gameplay consequences for the technology, or is it more about making more graphically immersive games?
There’s no doubt it makes the game more immersive. Anyone who has seen the demo we have has been very impressed – it really has to be seen to be believed. We’ve proven it works well and are now playing with the technology as we believe that yes, there are new gameplay opportunities possible, which is very exciting.
How widespread are 3D TVs in the market?
Sadly, 3D compatible TVs are fairly rare at this point, with about 1.4 million expected to have been sold – mostly in the US – by the end of 2008. But the film industry is working out how to get 3D films to the home and most TV manufacturers are working on 3D capable TVs for launch next year.
When then would you expect these televisions to become a decent chunk of the market worth developing games for?
I think it will be a year or two. But games take this kind of time to develop, so it’s a case of considering the option now. We wanted to show people a glimpse of the future, which we did and it certainly drew the crowds.
Do you have any plans to license out your 3D technology?
Yes, we already do license our technology to other game developers and this is obviously a very cool new addition to our very powerful multi-platform games engine.
What do the console manufacturers make of it?
Those individuals that have heard about it have been curious but not convinced. Those who have seen it have loved it and agree that it looks stunning and almost feels like we’ve moved on a console generation. The games start to look like holograms and you very quickly you forget you are wearing glasses.
It should be noted that the glasses have changed significantly and look like graphic designer-stylee specs – a world away from the dorky red and green cardboard things!