Archive for the ‘Hardware’ Category

Lost in Translation

February 10, 2012

As long as I remember, I have had this particular fondness toward arcade games (and I mean the actual coin-operated ones), especially when growing up. Obviously we are now living in the post-arcade era where sophisticated home systems made arcades finally obsolete, but fortunately at least classic arcade games continue to live on through collectors and, of course, emulation.

What made arcade games so special back then was that they offered, in a way, a window into the future of consumer real-time imagery, as in, what could be possible in home environment somewhere down the line. In fact, for me they acted like windows quite literally since I rarely had resources to actually play the games, but awkwardly hang around them. Watching other people play was almost equally exciting nevertheless, which made me a rather lousy customer for the local arcade as a juvenile.

Even though arcade games by and large came from a variety of developers, one publisher was and, in a way, still is in a league of its own: Sega, and particularly the Sega AM2 team led by design genius Yu Suzuki. I’ve yet to encounter an entity that has broken ground in video game graphics as ambitiously as Sega has, with games that continuously redefined what the real-time image can do.

The closest games to my heart out of the Sega’s overwhelming portfolio are the ones released in the 80s using so-called Super Scaler technology. These are the titles that simulate 3D space by algorithmically scaling the bitmap art assets creating an illusion of traversing along the z-axis. The effect was nothing short of staggering and light years ahead what home systems could do at the time. Games, like Out Run (1986), After Burner (1987) and Thunder Blade (1988), to name but a few, all used this Super Scaler system, and the whole charm of them, I would argue, was ultimately reduced to the smooth scaling effect.

As said, the above-mentioned arcade games ­represented the absolute high-end of the gaming spectrum at the time. The commercial success of them naturally created financial pressures to bring the arcade experience to the home systems, such as the Commodore 64, as well. The problem was, that the C64 represented virtually the direct opposite end of the spectrum with its lackluster hardware in terms of screen resolution, color palette and computational horsepower in general.

Of course, that didn’t stop money-grabbing publishers, such as Ocean and U.S.Gold, bringing Out Run and the likes to the low-end home systems. The issue was that, for instance, Out Run was not so much about the gameplay per se, but the spectacle of driving smoothly through the colorful scenery filled with eye pleasing details. When those things were stripped off in the low-end versions, such as the one on the C64, there wasn’t that much, if anything, conveyed from the original experience anymore due to the hardware limitations. All that there was left was a really bad game, even by the C64 standards.

The original Out Run was indeed a rock-solid fusion of software and hardware that carried through the visual concept Out Run was built on gracefully with no hiccups whatsoever. The game ran beautifully at high and steady frame rates, contained striking transition effects when driving from one section to the next one, and offered vast variation in terms of visuals in general. I’d say Out Run was best the year 1986 had to offer for real-time imagery which the everyday audience had access to.

However, the way the C64 version was constructed was completely backward. The exercise here was to shove the concept of Out Run into the system in any way possible regardless the inherent hardware limitations. There was indeed nothing – not a single chip – inside the C64 that would’ve warranted or justified the ludicrous idea of porting a game like Out Run to such a weak system. Which is painfully obvious just by glancing at the end result, especially in motion.

In the end, everything comes down to the fact that the real-time image as a medium can’t be separated from the hardware platform that it’s on; the real-time image is the software and the hardware. I can only imagine the level of disappointment of someone who actually paid real money for an arcade conversion like the C64’s Out Run and thought having nearly the same arcade experience at home. It was like buying Star Wars: Episode IV on DVD and getting Star Wars Uncut instead.

It goes without saying that in the end the logic of such endeavors had got to do more than anything with the power of Intellectual Property and the “fraudulent” financial leverage that came along with it. In fact, all this makes me think of fast food joints where the pictures of the burgers above the counter represent nothing of the actual products people are shoving, rather happily, into their faces. What they are doing is consuming the simulacrum of the Big Mac, not the Bic Mac depicted in the marketing materials.

The problem of horrible arcade conversions wasn’t the poor target hardware in and of itself. There were quite beautiful games on the C64 at the time, like, for instance, Uridium (1986) that utilized even the awkward shape of the C64 pixels for its advantage. The problem was the completely backward and corrupt creative process. And I’m using the term creative very loosely here.

Yes, Size Did Matter

February 4, 2012

The younger audience of today is probably having hard time comprehending the concept of sprite that pretty much defined real-time imagery for more than a decade or so between the 80s and 90s. Sure, we do still use the term to denote planar 2D images representing 3D objects in a 3D space, but it has a very different meaning today than back in the day.

In the era of 8 and 16 bit systems, like the Commodore 64, Super Nintendo or Neo Geo, sprite denoted specifically an independent, dynamic visual object (like a space ship or a race car) of which properties, such as size and number, related directly to the capabilities of a certain piece of hardware. So, for instance, the C64 could display no more than 8 sprites at a time which paled in comparison to the 96 sprites the more advanced Neo Geo was able to push to the screen at once. Put simply, sprites were Lego-like building blocks for the dynamic elements of the game, and very much of the visual outcome depended on them, whether one liked it or not.

As said, not only the number of simultaneous sprites varied between the systems, but so did the sizes of them as well. That is, how many pixels one sprite could consist of in maximum, which was relatively few in lower-end systems, such as the C64. This limitation made larger game characters and other dynamic objects that more fascinating at the time, even if the assets usually consisted of several sub-sprites to make an impression of a one large one.

An iconic example in my mind is The Way of the Exploding Fist (1985) originally developed on the C64 that was, in addition to the great gameplay, celebrated indeed for its seemingly massive characters, which, of course, consisted of a number of separate sprites. Nevertheless, the size of the characters in and of themselves bore so much aesthetic value that the technical side was secondary: big was big was big.

Since the fascination of real-time imagery is very much based on the recognition of technical limitations and, at the same time, pushing that envelope of what is considered possible, it’s not coincidence that some games, especially the ones released on the launch of a new hardware platform, exploit this frame of thinking. The thing is, there is this short post-launch window within which a game can make an impression employing merely the basic features of the freshly released platform.

One instance that comes to mind is Super Mario World (1990) that came bundled with the Super Nintendo as a launch title. So, I believe the sole reason why there was a huge Bullet Bill, aka Banzai Bill, right at the first level was indeed to impress new console owners, or people playing at stores, with the power of the SNES. And since the sizes of game characters were highly limited in the previous generation of hardware, it was only natural to put an oversized version of an already established character to mediate the point across: Kids, we can have this big Bullet Bills from now on.

It was the inevitable decline of sprite-based hardware that made the issue of size obsolete in the realm of real-time imagery. Once everything was constructed with polygons, the dimensions of art assets became totally relative, and thus a non-issue technically speaking. Which seems to escape people who marvel, say, God of War III (2010) as a technological achievement for its colossal characters. I can too scale up a 3D model in a 3D software environment as much as I please and technically it makes no difference whatsoever.

If, then, one “superficial” attribute has to be singled out that bears any technical meaning in art assets today, it’s definition instead of size.

The Next Generation

December 29, 2010

What has kept me following the real-time image industry, if you will, all these years has always been its rapid evolution, the way it constantly reinvents itself through iteration of hardware and software. How everything looked so much better on Amiga 500 after using and getting accustomed to Commodore 64’s visual offerings. The continuous iteration is in the core of the real-time medium, and really the magic and transcendental purpose of it, as in technology at large.

How come, then, it feels like the evolution of the real-time image has been plateauing in the past few years? What is it so different now than, say, five years ago?

It’s the decline of the exclusive high-end PC –gaming, what’s different.

For instance, judging by trailers and screenshots, the upcoming multiplatform Crysis 2 is clearly a step down in almost every possible sense from its three-year-old PC exclusive predecessor, Crysis. It really is, and no amount of post-processing (of which there’s plenty) can hide that uncomfortable fact. And the sole reason for that is the long obsolete console hardware Crysis 2 is primarily developed for. Consequently, I have next to zero excitement towards Crysis 2, which said aloud sound equally sad as distressing.

So, we are now in a situation in which high-end PC hardware is practically a generation ahead of the console counterparts, but without any decent software to take genuinely advantage of it. Instead of getting another Crysis, we get poorly optimized console-ports, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops, which perform often nowhere near as they logically should on a fair PC.

Without the high-end dedicated PC –gaming, we have no more messianic games looming in the horizon, exciting and inspiring us like Doom, Quake, Half-life 2 or Crysis did at the time. PC supposed to be about pushing the boundaries of the medium, not sweeten up console-leftovers with ridiculously expensive hardware.

All things considered, I hate to say but it seems there really will be no major, groundbreaking developments happening in the video game space until the next console hardware cycle emerges, which may or may not happen somewhere in 2012 at earliest. It’s like consoles have taken real-time imagery as a hostage, and we, the enthusiasts, have no options but to wait on their next move.

Epic Castle

November 3, 2010

The original Unreal developed by Epic Games back in 1998 really was the second time when I was genuinely blown away by the mere visuals of a video game in home environment, first one being Doom in 1994. I believe Unreal was back then one of the first games to take every bit out of newly released 3DFX –card: Sophisticated lens flares, colored lights, dynamic reflections on some of the floors, multi-layered textures, volume fog, and so on. And not to mention the moment when I stepped outside of the ship and saw the breathtaking skybox with moving clouds for the first time, I’ll never forget that.

But as a game, Unreal was deemed as a glorified “tech demo”, and I have to agree with that to some extent. In fact, the demo at the Unreal’s start screen, in which the camera flew around this castle, demoing basically everything the engine had on its sleeve, was almost enough for me to get satisfied with.

So, does this sound any familiar?

Yes, Epic pulled off the exact same thing earlier this year when Cliff Bleszinski presented Unreal Engine 3 on iOS with Epic Citadel –technology demo at the Apple event. People, including me, couldn’t believe that the castle in Epic Citadel really was rendered in real-time on a tiny handheld device that iPhone/iPod Touch is, it simply looked too good to be true. But it was.

I think Epic Citadel is an interesting case in many sense.

First of all, it amazes me how Epic provided me almost the same exact sense of wonderment with two different titles 12 years apart, given the rapid progression of the industry. Ok, id Software has no bad track record either, but it breaks my heart to ask how relevant id actually has been lately? [update: RAGE HD on iPhone looks pretty awesome] Epic has become almost a synonym for high quality graphics, and such breakthrough titles under its belt like Gears of War, besides being the best looking title of its time and giving birth to a genre, really have proved Epic’s worth.

Secondly, Epic Citadel’s technology is out of this world. Of course, I’m saying this only because of the platform on which it is, but nevertheless, it’s pretty amazing that we can now run graphics on a device this small that are in some sense on par with of Half-life 2. And the fact that Epic Citadel uses a technology called relief mapping that renders some of the textures in pseudo 3D, which HL 2 lacked altogether, blows my mind the most.

Ok, Cliff Bleszinski could use some medium size t-shirts for a change instead of those extra small ones, I’ll give you that.

Are We There Yet?

September 19, 2010

Drawing with the Commodore 64’s classic Koala Painter wasn’t the easiest task to do; joystick as an input, lots of crashes, pixels as big as Lego-bricks, and not to mention, a highly limited color palette. In fact, everything else was somewhat tolerable and forgivable, even the crashing if you just knew what procedures to avoid, but you just couldn’t get around with the poor amount of colors that was available. And because the resolution was equally poor, rasterization techniques were essentially ruled out from the get-go due to the hideous results.

Luckily, color palette has since then increased steadily from C64’s 16 colors, to modern hardware’s millions of colors. What this transition has caused by and large is that the number of colors has become basically a non-issue in contemporary mainstream real-time imagery discourse, as if the whole project of colors would be concluded. And it essentially is, since the 16,7 million color palette has been a consumer standard for years now, and obviously “good enough” for majority of people.

So, I started to think what else has come to its evolutionary end in the realm of real-time imagery, and one instance I could think of was screen resolution. I’m highly skeptical that there will be a demand for higher than 2560 x 1440 resolution (which is the resolution of a typical 27” display for professional use) in near future, since even 1920 × 1080 (Full HD) has been something of a gold-standard for quite some time. And bigger resolutions would entail bigger displays, which is hard to imagine happening in home environment for logistical reasons alone, given the enormous physical size of today’s flat-screen TVs.

Ok, I really didn’t see the iPhone 4’s Retina Display coming, but I guess only few of us did. The Retina Display’s resolution is far beyond the reasonable need, so it’s rather safe to declare that the pixel-density has now officially hit the ceiling, or at least is about to hit in the very near future.

As said, color palette and resolution haven’t been issues for a while now, which gives rise to the question when do we have, for instance, enough onscreen polygons ? Or when lighting is “good enough”? Perhaps I’m comparing apples to oranges here, since palette and resolution are more directly dependent on the technical features of hardware, than number of polygons or quality of shadows. Still, it would make sense that there will be a day when we aren’t anymore discussing polygons or shadows per se, but solely the artistic use of them. The technical discourse becomes obsolete.

In a way, I really don’t want to see that day, since the chase is always better than the catch.

Big Visuals in Little China

May 3, 2010

Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is an interesting “back to the roots” –type of thing. It throws away now familiar third-person perspective, just to go back to the bird-view found in the first Grand Theft Auto from 1997. I had a privilege to come across with the iPhone version of the GTA:CTW, and it nevertheless exceeded my expectations (if I had any). But still, since it was originally developed for Nintendo DS which has a far more sophisticated hardware than iPhone, I knew constantly in the back of my mind that there was a better version out there: a definitive version. Therefore, I made an early decision to not look at the DS –version before I had my time with the version I possessed and I’ll reflect later why.

iPhone’s GTA:CTW is one of the greatest looking games on the platform, Zen Bound being the best at the moment, in my opinion. What amazed me was how detailed the world is: cars have working turn/reverse/headlights, there is a dynamic time-of-day –lighting (which works fine and is well justified on this one) and weather effects with credible lightnings and so forth. Additionally the performance is excellent with little to none hick-ups with the frame rate.

As said, the perspective is now similar with the first GTA, but still not quite exactly the same. In GTA:CTW the view is little tilted and therefore perhaps more three-deey. What’s interesting is how well sprites work with a tilted view, which is rather counter-intuitive. And thanks to the perspective, there is practically no pop-up to be seen, like in GTA IV in which pop-up is constantly rubbed in your face. So in fact, GTA:CTW‘s visuals are more coherent in that way.

Notice how the light beams react accordingly to the walls: there’s much more going on than simple decals there.

To be honest, the sole reason why I was so impressed with the game, was the platform. You always perceive things through a framework. With video games it’s the hardware which constitutes certain kind of expectation for the visuals. It’s funny how reluctant I still am to look at the superior sceenshots of the DS –version, because I know my iPhone –version is the compromised one, and I hate compromises.

In a way, it’s sad that it’s so hard for me to enjoy things that are not presented, as “they should (or could) be”. It really is. I think it’s deeply rooted in human nature, and it must be one form of “keeping up with the Joneses”: we’re not satisfied with what we have if there is a reasonable possibility to have things a little better.