n-Space Blog

Alive and Kicking

Posted in Analysis, Editorial by Dan O'Leary on April 6, 2011

Six months ago I wrote about n-Space “hitting the wall.” In October of last year, a perfect storm of circumstances forced me to do the unthinkable – layoff the entire staff after almost 16 years in business. Things have changed a lot since then and it’s well past time for an update…

n-Space is still very much alive.

The week after the layoff many of us were back in the office, putting the pieces back together and finalizing deals to rebuild the company. We now have 5 titles in development – three on 3DS, one DS and one for 360 Kinect. We have rehired as many previous employees as possible, and picked up several new ones as well. Our total headcount now almost 60 and climbing, and we’re all very excited to share with you what we’ve been working on. Look for more on that front in the run-up to E3.

None of this would have been possible without the hard work and sacrifice of our staff who have, through it all, showed great strength and done amazing work. Coming back from the dead is hard to do and it left n-Space somewhat fragile, but with our reputation and capabilities intact. Later this year I intend to roll out plans for employee profit sharing and stock options, among other new benefits. Until then, irreverent t-shirts, carmel apple lollipops and an upcoming retreat are how I show my thanks for their hard work and undying support.

Disappointingly, but not too surprisingly, our recovery has received no significant coverage by the local or game media. It’s funny how quickly bad news spreads, especially in this internet age, and how many ignorant, hateful people rushed to dance on our grave that day. Sour grapes? You bet. Thanks to our fans, friends and family that have supported us through this challenge.

The industry seems to have turned the corner. <Knock On Wood>

Both DICE and GDC were very good conferences from a business development point of view. n-Space attends these shows to meet with potential partners, pitch concepts and discuss their upcoming development needs. We had nearly such 20 meetings at GDC alone, with a variety of publishers. All were anxious to place products on console, handheld, web and mobile platforms. This is a welcome change from the last two years, when meetings felt more like obligations than opportunities.

I believe that established independent developers like n-Space who have managed to survive the recent bloodbath are set to flourish. It’s not a return to normal, but establishing a new normal as the industry has fundamentally changed. Here are a few predictions / observations:

  • The traditional console and retail box product approach still faces many challenges in the coming years as consumers spend more and more of their precious money and attention in other spaces.
  • Mobile and browser-based gaming are here to stay, supported by powerful new price points and monetization methods. There are some really great games out there that cost absolutely nothing to play, unless you want to accelerate your progression, improve your character, etc. This isn’t something new, of course, but it is gaining a lot of traction as evidenced by TenCent’s recent $400m acquisition of Riot Games, creators of the popular multiplayer online battle-arena game, League of Legends.
  • Almost nobody in the industry, except maybe Nintendo, wants another console before 2014. Most are very thankful for the success of Kinect (especially Microsoft!) as it will extend the lifespan of the 360 and this entire generation. Expect to see Microsoft and Sony both delay a new console launch as long as they can.
  • 3DS is hot. Publishers see the staggering success of DS, with over 130 million units sold, and can’t help but get in line to support this platform. The hardware is awesome and the launch has been Nintendo’s best in history. The 3D visuals are very compelling and provide immediate WOW factor, but also create a dramatic improvement to the overall visual aesthetic and quality that lasts well past the initial impressions. Combined with the significantly improved graphical capabilities, the games look fantastic and the whole system totally delivers on the “magical” experience that everyone has touted since E3 2010. Look for more of our impressions in an upcoming blog entry.
  • Impressions of NGP are mixed. As gamers we love it – awesome hardware is something Sony does best and they have a great slate of titles planned. As developers with tremendous handheld experience we are rooting for it – more business opportunities and new challenges. As a business we’re curious how viable it is financially. Games will be very expensive to develop, requiring high unit sales to be profitable. Publishers will likely look to minimize those costs by porting PS3 titles, with as few changes / improvements as Sony will allow. I’m not sure the result will excite consumers enough to drive sales. A classic Chicken and Egg scenario may play out. Publishers we’ve talked to mostly share our position of cautious enthusiasm, but a few are enthusiastically supporting it.
  • Kinect is hot. Hotter than anyone (Microsoft included IMHO) expected. With more than 10 million units sold it has gone from niche accessory to bonafide success and a bandwagon that everyone is looking to get on. How long it will last is the bigger question now, but it’s clear that Microsoft is committed to it for both core and casual markets and retail as well as XBLA. If the sales trend continues and some must-have software titles emerge it could become a real force to contend with. Oh, and it sells 360s too. At Christmas 2010 my home 360 popped the RROD, sending me to secure a replacement before the family had new games and no system. The first three stores I went to were sold out! Impressive.
  • Next, next gen is around the corner. CryEngine, Unreal and Frostbite have all shown us what’s to come and it’s pretty amazing. I just wonder how our industry will bear the cost of development.
  • Apple may win it all. iPad 2 is a warning shot. Most initial analysis of its hardware have focused on the additional memory and dual core processor, somehow glazing over the fact that the GPU is 9x as powerful as before. That kind of jump is unheard of in a single generation. What would it take for Apple to roll that into iPhone 5? How about the next revision of AppleTV? Add App Store support and Bingo! You’ve got a $99 console with virtually unlimited games for $5 or less. Oh, and it also does anything else you want. Want more? There are rumors that Apple is looking to license AirPlay to TV manufacturers. No AppleTV needed – play games on your near-360/PS3 powered smartphone or tablet (using the devices touchscreen, gyro and accelerometers for WiiMote+ style controls) and push the video to your living room set. All of this could happen in the next 12 months. In fact, it will very likely happen, and maybe sooner. I don’t think there is any coincidence at all that Apple arranged to have its last big announcement at the same time as GDC, nor that WWDC 2011, their big annual developer conference, is scheduled at the same time as E3. Also expect more on this in a future blog entry.

The job market in the game industry is flooded with entry level talent.

As part of our hiring efforts, n-Space hosted a space in the GDC career pavilion this year – a first for us. It was a positive experience and worth it for PR and Good Will alone. Jen, Cheryl and Erica worked the booth for three long days and kept smiling throughout it. They met a lot of great people, collected some strong resumes, gave out n-Space t-shirts and carmel apple lollipops.

The overwhelming majority of candidates were entry level. Thanks to a recent surge in the number of schools selling the dream of a job in game development, there are a tremendous number of kids looking for a start in this challenging industry. I’m afraid this will end badly for many of them, who are often poorly prepared by opportunistic programs and are competing with many other experienced candidates affected by rounds of recent layoffs around the world.

If you are in this group, you better know your craft and be prepared to work very, very hard to make yourself stand out and get noticed. We’ll do a separate blog post on that topic very soon.

That’s all for now. Sorry for the long-winded post, but I have a lot on my mind after 6 months of silence. Look for more activity here from now on, with posts from myself and other n-Space staff.

Thanks for your interest in n-Space.

More on 3DS pixels…

Posted in Analysis, Shawn Leaf by Dan O'Leary on August 3, 2010

Contributed by n-Space Technical Director, Shawn Leaf.

Some say the new 3DS from Nintendo will feature per-pixel lighting.  Sounds cool!  But what does that mean?  To explain per pixel lighting requires a bit of background information…

How Rendering Works

When a graphics processing unit (GPU) is painting a 3D scene, it typically uses triangles that were authored by a 3D artist and then pushed through a math-intensive pipeline that results in 3 points placed on your screen.  Those three points (vertices) carry information the GPU uses to shade the face of the triangle.

By the way, when you see GPU stats about fill rate, that’s the number of pixels in triangle faces that the GPU can shade per second.  When you’re drawing a complex game scene, painting the pixels just once is not sufficient.  You need extra bandwidth to draw shadows, reflections, layers of transparency, etc.  So that raises the question, how many times per frame can we paint the 3DS’s stereo screen?

Given:
•    DMP’s PICA200 spec sheet claims a fill rate of 800 million pixels per second
•    The 3DS stereo screen is 400×240 pixels per eye:  400 * 240 * 2 = 192k pixels plus the non-stereo screen of 320×240 = 78.6k pixels, total of 268.8k pixels in a frame
•    And let’s say we want to draw at 60 frames per second

800M pixels per second / 268.8k pixels per frame / 60 frames per second = 49 and change… so, it’s got enough horsepower to repaint the whole stereo screen and the non-stereo screen 49 times a frame.

To put that number in context, how does that compare to a PS3 or Xbox 360?  These guys say 4 giga-pixels.  Repeat the math above with 4 giga-pixels and a 1920×1080 (1080p) frame buffer…  32.  Repeat the math again with 4 giga-pixels and a 1280×720 (720p) frame buffer…  72.

So, the 3DS is in good company… especially since its 49 is based on stereo rendering and that 720p 72 is not.

Back to rendering…

What’s in a vertex?

A vertex can contain…
•    Position – where
•    Color – what color
•    Texture Coordinates – if there’s a texture image to be applied, what part of the texture
•    Normal Vector – which direction is “up” and away from the triangle mesh

Why does that matter?

Two of these vertex components are used for lighting:  the position and the normal vector.  These two components describe the triangle’s surface at the vertex, and thus can be used to determine how a light source affects that surface.

Old school rendering hardware computes the lighting for each vertex, and then interpolates the result to create a smooth gradient across the face of the triangle.  This looks pretty good.  But, someone had a better idea…

Lighting Each Pixel

As GPU computational power increased, someone realized that they could afford to do the lighting calculation not just at the vertices of a triangle, but at each pixel that gets painted.  This produces much more realistic results than interpolating, and opens the door to a really cool feature… normal mapping.

Remember that normal vector in the vertex that points up and away from the mesh surface?  If we encode those up vectors in a texture map, we could sample the map per pixel and have a much more detailed surface.  A normal vector has X, Y and Z components that indicate the up direction.  A color texture has red, green and blue color components.  By storing the X in the red, the Y in the green, and the Z in the blue, we can store surface information in the texture instead of an image.

Now the GPU shading hardware can extract the surface normal from the texture instead of from the vertices, and voila… incredible surface details without an insanely dense triangle mesh.

This kind of computational ability per pixel opens the door to other rendering features as well, including different lighting models, refraction and environment reflections.

Summary

So, the GPU in the Nintendo 3DS appears to be quite the power-house, at least by the specs.  I look forward to seeing what we game developers can do with this little box!

Nintendo 3DS observations…

Posted in Analysis by Dan O'Leary on July 26, 2010

It’s been a little over a month since E3 2010 and Nintendo’s announcement of their successor to the DS we’ve come to know and love.  The 3DS was an “instant” hit, that, like most overnight success stories, was years in the making for Nintendo.

As long time Nintendo developers with over 20 DS, Wii and Gamecube titles under our belt, it occurs to me that we should take a minute to reflect on this new handheld.  This and subsequent reports on the 3DS are based entirely on our hands-on experience with the demos at E3, along with information we’ve gathered from publicly available online reports.

Stereoscopic 3D

Magical is the word that has most often been used in describing the 3DS’ signature glasses-free stereoscopic 3D display.  I agree.  It’s something your brain struggles to reconcile – the sense of visible depth created on a flat screen – but only briefly, before giving in to the pure child-like joy that follows.  For me it hearkens back to the Viewmaster or storybooks with scratchy lenticular cover graphics I had as a child, only animated and interactive.  It is effortless and amazing.

I won’t dwell on this now as it’s been well covered elsewhere.  Suffice it to say that seeing is believing.  If 13 of 15 of IGN’s editorial staff agree on anything, it must be pretty damn cool.  More importantly, even without this impressive, attention grabbing feature, the 3DS is a hot piece of kit.

What’s in a Name?

After a long line of incremental DS-branded handhelds, from the original DS to DS Lite, DSi and on to the biggest and best DSi XL, it would be easy to assume that 3DS is just more of the same with a stereoscopic 3D display.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  In reality, a review of the published specifications forces us to conclude that the 3DS is more like a “mini 3D Wii plus” than any DS.  Allow me to break that down:

  • mini – well, it fits in your pocket
  • 3D – stereoscopic 3D display
  • Wii – graphical performance, motion sensor and gyroscope input devices
  • plus – programmable shaders, rather than a fixed function pipeline, allowing features like per-pixel lighting, procedural textures, refraction mapping, subdivision primitives and gaseous object rendering

But that’s only half the story.  Let’s put a few of these numbers in perspective…

Many Tiny Pixels

In a world of 1080p HD and cell-powered processors, the idea of a Wii-powered handheld with a 400 x 240 resolution (800 x 240 interleaved per eye) may not strike many as next-gen, but resolution alone isn’t sufficient to evaluate the clarity and detail that a given display is capable of producing.  Let’s compare the pixel density of various game systems with the 3DS:

  • State of the art next gen console in a typical living room
    • 1080p signal displayed on a 36″ display
    • 1920 x 1080 pixels = 2202 pixels on the diagonal
    • 2202 pixels / 36″ = 61 pixels per inch
  • Wii on the same display
    • 640 x 480 pixels = 800 pixels on the diagonal
    • 800 pixels / 36″ = 22 pixels per inch
  • 3DS
    • 400 x 240 on a 3.5″ screen
    • 466 pixels / 3.5″ = 133 pixels per inch

When it comes to pixel density, the 3DS is king!  To get similar pixel density from a 1080p source you’d have to play on a 16″ screen.  So there are lots of tiny (7 thousandths of an inch) pixels, which allow for very crisp detail and smooth gradients.  But the DS does well in this analysis too, with about 100 pixels per inch on the diagonal.  Yet nobody considers it a graphical powerhouse… what gives?

Polygon Parity

The Nintendo DS can display only 2048 polygons per frame, with a display resolution of 256 x 192.  Under perfect conditions the average polygon would consist of 24 pixels; far from the ideal of 1 polygon per pixel, even in the best conditions.  In real-world scenes with overdraw, etc. it gets much worse.  Contrast that with the 3DS, whose DMP PICA200 GPU is spec’ed (PDF) at 15.3 million triangles per second (or twice that in some reports).  Even dividing that by a factor of 8 to allow for a combination of real world conditions, dual screens and inflated specifications, it equates to over 60k triangles per frame on the top screen.  That’s roughly 1.5 pixels per triangle, not far from the theoretical 1:1 optimum where texture isn’t even required and simple face color gives you all you need to create a perfect rendition of the scene at the display resolution of the device.

So it seems that the 3DS has a lot of very tiny pixels and can draw more than enough polygons every frame at 30+fps (CPU and pixel fill-rate willing) to use those pixels very, very well.  When you add the PICA200 pixel shaders to the mix, it gets pretty exciting graphically, especially when you consider the battery life and likely pricing of the 3DS, not to mention all the other features this article takes for granted.

What do you think?  Based on your response we’ll share more of our thoughts on this and related topics.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.