The technology behind games development

Australian developers use IT get a head start on competitors

THQ's <i>Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine</i>.

THQ's Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.

Innovation

IT managers must not only support the business, they have to help it innovate if it is to keep ahead in a the marketplace.

Plastic Wax, a Sydney-based animation studio and post–visual effects house with its own 60 seat studio and in-house motion capture facility, recently turned to a cluster-like render farm setup — IBM’s iData Plex technology with Windows HPC — to help process high quality graphics.

“Our render farms are basically large clusters,” IT manager, Terry Mickaiel says. “We have dedicated servers for both 3D and compositing rendering. Our render management software allocates the tasks to machines where they rendered the frame and save it to a shared drive.”

The farm has effectively cut rendering times by up to 50 per cent, and also cuts down on corrupted files during the rendering process. Productivity has also increased around 30 per cent.

Having the additional processing capacity has also meant that the company can accept a larger number of projects because it can more easily support the addition of more staff and contractors. [[leftquote: The vast majority of games are written in C++, or Flash but that hasn’t stopped the studio turning to Python and Lua]]

“By using [the render farm], we have more opportunities to refine our work and improve it,” Mickaiel says. “We also now have the time to integrate last-minute feedback from our customers.”

The Creative Assembly’s Pawlowski says innovation is a big part of keeping the company competitive as well as making the most of available resources. During the creation of a recent build system the studio cottoned on to the idea of using the high end graphics cards in its desktop PCs as a major component in the build system.

“These cards are designed for games, not crunching numbers,” Pawlowski says, “but someone worked out a way they could be used to crunch a certain set of numbers in a certain way that was much faster than your average CPU could.”

While the vast majority of games are written in C++, or Flash, Pawlowski says, that hasn’t stopped the studio turning to the Python and Lua languages to make the most efficient use of staff time.

Lua, in particular, has provided an avenue for the company’s less technical staff to make low-level changes to a game, freeing developers to perform more complex changes.

“You might have a character in a game who you are supposed to follow around a level,” Pawlowski says. “You could waste a programmer’s time and have them do ‘this, this and this’, then you change your mind… or, the programmer just embeds a Lua interface in the game, then a designer can come along, quickly learn Lua, and then rescript that character as you desire.”

The Creative Assembly has also made use of distributed computing, predominantly for the compilation of game assets. The set up enables the company to fully utilise the high-end gaming PCs distributed to staff who, at a given time, may be carrying out tasks no more CPU-intensive than browsing the Web.

“The agent takes one person’s job, splits it into 20 or 30 chunks and distributes it among the workstations,” Pawlowski says. “Each user may only be using 10 per cent of their CPU, so this agent will make use of the remaining 90 per cent at no disadvantage to each of the workstation users.

“We are also moving away from having a single, fast CPU to a multiple core setup — four cores, eight, 16 eventually — where programs are forced to distribute things in threads. That is similar to a cluster environment, but I can’t see us investing in a supercomputer cluster.”

As for competing with a globe full of rival game developing nations, Blue Tongue’s Chan says the breadth and diversity of the market means that local developers are likely to find a space in which to do well.

Tags MayathqHow do they do IT?The Creative AssemblyBlue Tongue Entertainmentgames developmentGDAAZBrush3DS MaxPlastic WaxHalfbrick StudiosInteractive Games and Entertainment Association (iGEA)games

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