As GDC fever starts to build, this week's edition of Gamasutra's 'The Euro Vision' column sees Jon Jordan getting technical and looking over soon-to-be released tools from two of the UK's emerging middleware companies.
"Maybe it's because I've still got to sort out my travel arrangements, but at this time of year my thoughts turn to springtime in San Jose (or as now is San Francisco).
Yes, we're on the countdown to the Game Developers Conference 2007, and given the announcement Shiggy Miyamoto is giving the keynote, some people have probably already started a line outside the Moscone Center. Last year, the keynotes were so busy, I didn't even bother getting in the queue for Satoru Iwata and went to a lecture about real-time procedural shading and texturing techniques instead.
Sadly that's just the way my brain works. In a previous year, I rejected Will Wright's now legendary Spore talk to find out more about multi-threading physics on next-gen hardware. But who's looking stupid now? Multi-threaded physics is everywhere, while Spore remains unreleased.
So in such a similar vein, I thought this would be an appropriate opportunity to consider a couple of the new game development technologies coming out of the UK.
The Q Factor
Adopting the new approach to middleware is London-based company Qube Software
. It's about to release Q 2.0, a lightweight game development framework and art pipeline, which is designed to enable studios to maintain a coherent core tech base, while providing the flexibility required by individual teams. It does this thanks to its use of plug-in components, which can be optimised on a per-team and per-project basis. And because the specific plug-in code is kept away from the core framework, it's much easier to maintain and update the overall system.
"The design of the framework is special. It's multi-levelled so you can hit the very lowest bits of code, and it will also work at a high level through the plug-in interfaces," explains Qube's CEO Servan Keondjian [pictured]. "Looking at the way the development of engines is going, we don't believe middleware is about saying, 'We can sell you the best graphics' anymore. It's about giving customers the facilities to plug-in their own graphics algorithm for the type of game they're trying to make."
Readers with good memories might recognise that name. Not only is it memorable in its own right, but Servan also has a prior claim to fame as one of the architects of Microsoft's DirectX technology. In the early 1990s, he co-founded a company called RenderMorphics, which was bought to provide the foundation for the Direct3D component. He left Microsoft after working on the first three releases, moving back to London to set up Qube, together with another RenderMorphics co-founder and D3D worker, Doug Rabson.
"I never thought this would take as long as it has," he confesses, of Q 2.0's eight year development period. "When I left Microsoft, I thought six years and we'll be done, but that's the story of software."
Of course, as the technology's name suggests, there has been a Q 1.0 in the meantime. Available for PC and PlayStation 2, it was much more traditional middleware and while used internally by Qube, and couple of other developers, was never heavily marketed.
It's all systems go with Q 2.0 however, which will support PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC, as well as older platforms; in fact anything with floating point hardware.
"It's got the point where we're really happy with it," says Keondjian. "We've shown it to some studios during the past few months and we've had people coming in for one day evaluations and it's been good so far. We're now expecting to make it more readily available in February and are looking for a couple of studios to showcase it in the best possible way."
It Is Rocket Science
Another significant example of what's been referred to as Middleware 2.0, comes from Cambridge-based Geomerics
It's a company I've spent a lot of time trying to work out during the past year, and I've had to, as its technology is based on cutting-edge science. Known as Geometric Algebra, it's a rather obscure mathematical approach championed at Cambridge University (hence the company's location), that's typically been used to solve tricky problems in quantum mechanics and electromagnetic theory.
Or as CEO Chris Doran effortlessly explains it; "It's simple. It's about dividing a sphere by a vector." However, all laymen like us need to know is that it's an elegant way of representing 3D rotations and translations within a unified mathematical framework. This also makes it useful for solving some tricky problems in game development; notably real-time lighting, fast rigid-body physics and robust animation.
What's been interesting to observe though is the process Geomerics has gone through to try and fit its academics smarts within a neat black box that can be plugged into the current way of making games and doesn't require your average John Doe programmer to understand what the heck Geometric Algebra is all about.
And this is what the company will finally be unveiling at GDC 2007.
"We've shown our real-time radiosity solution to lots of companies, and they're interested but want to see it in a more game-centric form," says Doran. "So we'll formally be launching it at GDC and show it running on the consoles."
What's particularly important about the radiosity solution is the way it models reflected light, something that game engines haven't been good at doing to date because it's so processor intensive. According to Doran, reworking the problem within the magic of Geometry Algebra means developers will now be able to handle this in real-time, creating much more realistic-looking games. Neatly, the technique also integrates with existing rendering techniques such as high dynamic range lighting and normal mapping, so it won't be disruptive.
Now, doesn't that sound more interesting than watching a middle-aged Japanese man talking about an Italian plumber and little Hylian boy?"
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He spends a lot of time wisely nodding his head whenever talking to the likes of Servan Keondjian and Chris Doran.]