At this year’s Nvision conference in San Jose, I managed to catch up with Roy Taylor to talk about some of the current issues surrounding the gaming industry. Roy is vice president of content relations at Nvidia and is also head of the marketing sub-committee in the PC Gaming Alliance, which means he spends a lot of his time talking with gamers, developers and some of the big industry decision makers.
One of the biggest movements in the industry at the moment is of course the advent of game physics – the technology has been around for a while, but its awareness has sky-rocketed over the past twelve months and we’re now starting to see GPU-accelerated physics appearing in games.
We also talked about artificial intelligence and how games are going to become much more immersive as and when technology allows developers to do more before finally touching upon one of the biggest issues facing PC gaming today: piracy.
What follows is an condensed version of the thirty minute discussion we had about the various issues described above.
Physics is gameplay
Tim Smalley:It's good to speak to you again, Roy. Can you give me an update on where you are with physics in the next-generation of games? I assume you're working pretty hard to raise the awareness of physics—and PhysX in particular—and get developers thinking about how they can use the technology to improve their games?
Roy Taylor: There's a whole bunch of particularly interesting things going on with gameplay physics at the moment.
The first thing is that the publishers, developers and ourselves are coming to the realisation that gameplay is essential not only in terms of the end users' enjoyment, but also in terms of selling games. This means interactivity.
What I mean by that is: the degree to which you can interact with the game is your subconcious definition of enjoyment and playability.
TS:OK, so looking at some of the things that are being talked up by Nvidia at the moment—like Stereoscopic 3D and PhysX for example—I'm worried that gameplay is going to come in second because the developer is focused too much on making the game look pretty. What do you think about that?
RT: I've looked at some great graphics demos recently and they were pretty, but less fun in terms of gameplay at the same time. If you think about what makes the game enjoyable – those are things like where I can walk, swim, drive, fly and what I can control, push or destroy? Whether that's got the original Sonic the Hedgehog, where we were concerned with how high a little hedgehog could jump or roll, or more recently Crysis, where we have fun deciding whether to smash a building up or drive over it with a tank.
This interactivity is what we think of as gameplay and it turns out that this is 100 percent enabled or restricted by the degree of the physics implementation. So gameplay is basically physics.
TS:With DirectX 9 and 10, there has been a lot of focus on graphics and sometimes not enough on gameplay. In fact, we've seen some incredibly pretty games that just weren't fun at all where it's clear that gameplay was a secondary consideration to graphics. But without gameplay you've got no game – you've just got something that looks pretty, but is pointless like you say. With this in mind, do you think that with the increased awareness for gameplay physics, publishers are refocusing their efforts on gameplay again?
RT: It's absolutely true that some publishers believe there is a greater return on investment on programming physics—not necessarily PhysX—than there is on graphics right now. This doesn't mean that won't change again soon though. In fact, it's worth remembering that the more physics you put into a game, the more graphics horsepower you need because there are more elements you need to render in each scene. But yes, the point you're make is absolutely correct in terms of where the developer gets the greatest bang for buck right now.
It's fair to say that you and I are romantic about PC gaming – you write about the 3D graphics industry because you love it, I work at Nvidia because I love it. With the publishers, it's all about business and they're not rosy tinted. And so they will only spend more programming effort if it results in better games that sell more. Physics is hot right now because that's the thing that's changing – it's a mini-revolution that's taking place. I believe 2008 is 1993 all over again. What I mean by this is that in terms of where we are with physics, that's where we were with 3D graphics in 1993 – we've just got started and this is the first year and this is the first year of scaleable GPU accelerated physics using PhysX.
Cell Factor was the first PhysX-accelerated game.
TS:If we go back to Cell Factor: Revolution (the first tech demo released by Ageia), the problem with it was that nobody could play it because you need the hardware to run the demo. If physics is heading in Cell Factor's direction, that's great, but I'm worried that physics will be used for the sake of being used...
RT: But physics is gameplay...
TS:...but what if you're using physics just for the sake of using it – to make something look pretty for the sake of looking pretty? A bit like what we saw with many DX9 and DX10 games that almost completely forgot about what makes games fun.
RT: OK, don't forget that physics is more than just destruction. Theoretically, if a games developer focuses on physics destruction over the inherent use of physics in gameplay, that could be true. Most of them, however, don't.
Physics is not just one thing any more than graphics is. For the most part, we talk about destruction right now because it's the easiest thing for us to get our head around. It's also particles, soft bodies, rigid bodies and fluids and some other things – those I've listed are the most obvious problems we're looking to solve right now though.