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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Coding to Metal – The Kind of Video Game Development Meme that Can Only Appeal To the Lowest Intellectual Denominator [Part 1]

As a self-proclaimed techspert, which is the highest form of honour and authority that anyone can earn, I am never more amused by superstitious and ironically irrational nonsense, then at the juncture of a new generation of video game consoles. Why? Because this is that special time in the history of contemporary entertainment technology where some of the most ridiculous claims about hardware and potential reach their tipping point. 

You see, video game consoles are essentially downsized, simplified computers and their ardent fans—those who see things in them that simply defy reality—are a similarly downsized bunch when it comes to their critical thinking faculties, especially with the kind of nonsense they espouse. The naivety of a console proponent can be likened—only on those terms—to that of a religious fundamentalist, as both often passionately argue about the unknown or nonexistent factors when making their respective cases because they have no substantive evidence on their side of the argument. 

Console hardware nut jobs are of the belief that a console, built from outdated computer hardware, but with some arbitrary code name, will somehow make that hardware excel in a manner that is absolutely beyond belief or comprehension. The last generation of consoles had this fervour at an all-time high as a sizeable number of people truly thought that the Playstation 3's CELL CPU architecture was some kind of mystical entity that could outwit a super computer. Of course, in reality, it was nothing less and nothing more than a specialised CPU with some similarities to a GPU than traditional CPU architecture.

Without a doubt the Playstation 3's CELL CPU was a special and rather complex concept at play, but it was no more a miracle than any other highly proprietary concept on the market. The CELL, unlike other CPU systems, contained around 7 additional threads (SPUs) that had the specific design purpose of supporting the system's graphics processor, the Reality Synthesiser (RSX)—that happened to be a very outdated Nvidia 7800GTX with half the bandwidth—in performing those post-processing tasks that gave most of the recent games their fancy lighting and feature effects. It was an excellent concept, and in a sense, demonstrated how the Playstation 3 was in fact a dual GPU system where the RSX provided the front work in terms of output and resolution, while aspects of the CELL's SPUs handled all of those 'next-generation' effects and post-processing tricks. There was nothing magical at play as this was how such a system would technically be expected to work and within its specification and output levels; no unquantifiable potential was tapped or exploited. By PC standards, the CELL and RSX combination matched up roughly to an underclocked Nvidia 8800 GTX, which isn't really saying much.

Many Playstation 3 titles were, in fact, running at lower than 1280x720p resolution while barely managing a stable 30 frames-per-second, and in quite a few cases, losing out in performance and image quality to their Xbox 360 counterparts. The exclusive Playstation 3 titles, made by first party developers of the Sony family, took greater advantage of the hardware earlier on in the console's life cycle, producing some excellent and rather challenging results that created some air of arrogance and baseless speculation among the fan base around 2009. This was around the time when Killzone 2 was debuted on the system and had its fans making many exorbitant claims about how the console was doing things that just weren't possible on an equal-specification PC, thanks to the 'coding to metal' factor paired with the mysteries of the CELL and RSX architecture. This would be the argument that the special developers/chosen ones—dedicated to that console specifically—were able to harness a fundamental, hidden potential within the console hardware that was entirely impossible to harness from a technically advanced home computer. 

Much like any religious propaganda or claim, this sounds nice because it is unfounded, unsubstantiated and creates an air of mystery and enchantment with even special jargon thrown in for flavour. This would be the kind of lofty nonsense that gives the console's tribal-minded followers a sense of hope and more importantly, a sense of superiority over the 'unbelievers'. Of course, like all things subject to this concept called reality, the coding to metal claim is a gross exaggeration of something that barely yields a slight performance enhancement at best; it isn't magic and there is no incalculable potential at play.

Despite the mindless claims made, there was nothing supernatural about Killzone 2's development that outdid the PS3 hardware. It was a flashy result of very discrete but essential optimisation and engine technique compromises. But, but, but, the 128-bit HDR? No, you fucking idiot! This is the kind of 'retardism' that hurts consumers and perpetuates nonsense myths. Take the fucking red pill and STFU!
...N00B!
Killzone 2 (and its successor), were merely the product of an efficient design philosophy that involved a closed-corridor shooter game design paired with efficient graphics engine optimisations that allowed for the final product to be realised. The developers utilised deferred rendering for the lighting component of the game's engine, because it is an excellent and economical way to incorporate more lights onto a given scene with a much lower hardware budget, and this came at the sacrifice of High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting, which remains a common staple for most current generation titles. There was nothing miraculous about the lighting in that game, as deferred rendering has been used before on PC titles with similar, if not superior, results. In fact, Dead Space, another critically acclaimed multiplatform title also utilised deferred rendering with the same sharp lighting and lens flare effects. It was truly a demonstration of what post-processing and rendering techniques can do for a title when it comes to hiding discrete shortcomings and even flaws. Furthermore, a lot of Killzone 2's post-processing, including the light rendering, was actually done on the many SPEs of the CELL CPU. 

You heard that right, there was nothing 'magical' about Playstation 3's 'Reality Synthesiser' also known as the RSX, which was about as real as an Nvidia desktop 7800 GTX, but with a half-crippled bandwidth. It was a highly commendable development effort that exemplified efficiency and clever usage of technique using the PS3 GPU in conjunction with its specialised CPU threads to produce something stellar, because the ends result is what truly matters. Unfortunately, there was nothing here that the PC couldn't easily accomplish on a very similar budget. Better yet, you don't even have to take my word for it; have a look at Guerilla Game's presentation on the development of Killzone 2. The presentation, that's also a downloadable PDF, is quite an eye-opener and a learning experience for those interested in development themselves (Valient, 2009).

The problem with hardcore proponents of video game consoles, is their incessant, relentless tendency to grossly overstate the benefits of 'coding to metal' as a means to explain high graphical fidelity at lower hardware budgets. While coding to metal certainly helps reduce inefficiencies and potential issues with a software operating in a closed piece of hardware that will never be subject to part changes and the perils of fundamental, low-level hardware revisions, there is a realistic and practical limitation regarding the potential performance yields. Individuals need to realise what coding to metal is and what it isn't; what it can accomplish, but with equal consideration to the obvious hardware constraints towards what it just cannot accomplish.

I will be making at least one more post on this subject as I will likely discuss a recent title that has been redone for the next generation consoles. The features and improvements in this title by themselves speak to the point that was being made in this post about the relevance and limitation of coding to metal; what it actually means and represents, and what it doesn't when it comes to hype and empty conjecture from individuals simply hyperbolising their favourite hardware on baseless theories.


References

Valient, M. (2009, May 23). Deferred Rendering in Killzone 2. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://www.guerrilla-games.com/presentations/Develop07_Valient_DeferredRenderingInKillzone2.pdf

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