Playing in Stereo
Stereoscopic 3D films are a big hit at the movies, but gaming is getting in on the 3D thrill-ride too. Around 400 of today’s modern games can be played in stereoscopic 3D (S-3D) with the help of a software driver that takes an existing PC game, and estimates what it should look like in S-3D. Examples of this include Dynamic Digital Depth (DDD), iZ3D, and NVIDIA GeForce 3D Vision drivers. For the latter, the main things you need are a GeForce graphics card, 3D Vision-Ready display, and Windows Vista or Windows 7.
According to 3D Vision Product Manager, Andrew Fear, NVIDIA supports such games in two ways, the first being NVIDIA automatic driver mode. ”In this mode, our driver handles all of the work and profiling to make a game work. Generally speaking, the game developer doesn’t have any changes,” says Fear. “The second way is that the game developer wants to work with us to interface on a lower level of our 3D driver to enhance their game.”
According to Fear, Batman: Arkham Asylum works well in 3D and also features NVIDIA’s PhysX technology. “Also, Capcom’s Resident Evil 5 is optimised for 3D Vision,” he adds. “This means that you get true out of screen effects, like empty bullet shells coming out of your gun towards you and enemies lunging towards you. It also means that all the cutscenes are in full 3D so that the immersive nature of 3D is never broken.”
Autodesk is also betting on S-3D – the company’s senior industry manager for Games, Mary-Beth Haggerty claims that all of Autodesk’s games products are flexible enough to be used for stereoscopic 3D games. “Artists can use these tools to create rich 3D environments that support their characters and story, producing a compelling 3D game experience,” she adds. “Autodesk Maya has additional tools for stereoscopic work, giving artists feedback on what the 3D stereo scene could look like. Programmers can also trust our middleware when working on a 3D game. Autodesk Kynapse assists with stereoscopic gameplay by making characters more responsive to their environment with 3D perception.”
S-3D offers a pronounced immersion factor that gamers love and S-3D PC games are a clear driver for performance hardware sales, but console S-3D represents the money-maker on the game developers’ side. That’s the view of Neil Schneider, president of the industry standards group S-3D Gaming Alliance (www.s3dga.com) and Meant to be Seen (www.mtbs3d.com). “I see a future where game developers can charge a little extra for an S-3D unlock code or a specialized download version,” he says. “The ‘3D Ready’ world we are heading towards will be critical for this.”
At the forefront of a new movement for S-3D console gaming is Blitz Game Studios, with a 2D scrolling-style kung fu beat ‘em up title, Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao, which is authored for stereoscopic 3D experience on PS3 and XBLA. According to Andrew Oliver, Chief Technical Officer at Blitz Games Studios, the game is “old skool- just like the games we used to love years ago.”
Oliver reveals that while Blitz was developing the IP for Invincible Tiger and the game itself, the company was simultaneously working on its stereoscopic 3D technology. “We really believe that S-3D is the future of digital entertainment,” he adds. “We see it happening in film and we knew gamers would want it too, so we started on that technology early. We took the tech to a certain point before we wanted to test it in a real development environment.”
Blitz chose Invincible Tiger because it was relatively low risk to implement. “By building in 3D as an option we thought we could create a convincing, exciting S-3D effect without pushing it too hard and potentially putting the player off the experience. I think we’ve achieved this balance really well,” explains Oliver.
“Invincible Tiger supports all the major output formats so you’ll need a 3D Ready TV and the correct glasses to go with it,” he adds. “But you can also play it with anaglyph glasses – that’s the old style red/blue or other combination glasses that most people associate with 3D. It’s not as impressive as the S-3D but it still makes the game more immersive.”
Another games company involved is Ubisoft, with a massive game tie-in to James Cameron’s stereoscopic movie Avatar, which will be available in a S-3D option for supported hardware. Previews have been shown at games conferences, but the full version will make a huge impact later this year if the teaser trailer movie is anything to go by.
Also getting some 3D action is independent development studio Crytek, which as well as working on the S-3D title Crysis2 also offers a full game development platform with S-3D capabilities. CryENGINE 3 is a Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, MMO, DX9 and DX10 all-in-one game development solution, next-gen ready with scalable computation and graphics technologies.
According to Neil Schneider, what makes Blitz, Crytek, and Ubisoft’s work unique is their engines are designed from the ground up to work in S-3D without the need for a stereoscopic 3D driver. “This is the true measure of a game developer’s involvement in S-3D,” he adds. “Furthermore, before the S-3D gaming standard is in place, if developers are purposely only working or positioning themselves with just one or two products, I see this more as a limited technology demo. We very much want to see game developers get out of the technology demo phase, and start working towards industry-wide support and adoption.”
Schneider insists that anaglyph or red/blue glasses shouldn’t come up in conversation about S-3D at all. “This is a matter of display technology and has nothing to do with the capabilities of the game,” he says. “The exception to the rule is when companies distribute anaglyph glasses to give a taste, with the hopes that the consumer will buy a modern full colour, comfortable S-3D solution. Anaglyph should never be treated as the final product – it has nothing to do with modern S-3D gaming.”
|Playing for moneyStereoscopic films offer a much higher gross per screen than their standard equivalents- is there any evidence that this will be the same for games developers?Neil Schneider, president of the industry standards group S-3D Gaming Alliance anticipates a change in video game buying habits in S-3D’s favour. “By 2010, I expect the display industry to begin transitioning to 120Hz and polarized solutions almost as standard equipment. I don’t think these solutions will include S-3D glasses or technology by default, but we are moving to a “3D Ready” world.”
“If you spent money on a 3D Ready television and knew about the S-3D benefits, wouldn’t you want to be sure you were playing your games in stereoscopic 3D?” he asks, “I think the decision process that gamers will go through is first: ‘which titles will work in S-3D on my solution?’ and second, ‘is it a good game I will enjoy playing?’”
On condition that there is an S-3D gaming standard in place, Schneider thinks it’s realistic to expect console S-3D gaming to take off on a wide scale within two years or less. “However, this will only happen if the S-3D display industry takes gaming as seriously as their customers do! That’s a different matter.”
Andrew Oliver, Chief Technical Officer at Blitz Games Studios, thinks that S-3D being included in all games is a way off, but hopes there will be an increase in the number of games that have S-3D support as an option. “I’d like to see maybe three such games in the next year and at least double that the year after,” he says. “I believe it will start to garner more interest and more and more will buy 3D TVs, which will hopefully encourage more developers to get stuck in to making S-3D games. I also believe this move will firmly establish S-3D as the compulsory feature for the next generation of consoles.”
“There are actually no stats possible for S-3D games yet, as Invincible Tiger is the first,” he adds. “So the industry will be watching to see how it goes. Up to now, we know it gets a great reception when people see it in S-3D but we hope it’s just the start of more to come.”
So what opportunities will a S-3D future offer artists? Aaron Allport, Studio Art Director for Blitz Games Studios, advises being in at the start. “As we move into any new technology, there is always an opportunity for people to become experts in the new technology and therefore get a ‘first mover’ advantage. They have a skill that those with ‘traditional’ experience will be behind on. And it’s no different with S-3D. It’s always good to be an innovator, not a follower.”
Andrew Fear thinks it will highlight your skill as an artist. “Everything in 3D looks better, so artists that spend more time to animate or create a really complex model get the benefit of now seeing it in complete 3D,” he says. ”The same rules still apply for stereoscopic 3D – you have to be concerned about lighting, shading, etc. It’s just now you can really unlock all of that depth information that you normally don’t get on a 2D display.”
Allport says stereoscopic 3D work differs from conventional games projects in several ways. “Artists have to model a lot more and can’t use 2D ‘billboards’, which is very common for games, as everything needs to render in real-time,” he says. “So it does mean a bit more work. The main challenge comes with special effects such as smoke, fog, fire, and so on, because they are always 2D ‘tricks’ in games, but it’s hard to get them to look realistic in 3D. We need to develop methods to make these effects more volumetric in future.”
“It’s mostly additional considerations,” continues Allport. “Obviously, artists still need to be aware of all the standard techniques as the game will need to ship in 2D as well. But there will, of course, be an additional set of requirements and restrictions.”
Squarezero has been creating autostereoscopic animations in 3D for brands and events as well as 3D animations for real time render engines to be used in the gaming market. The company’s head animator and technician, Jon Ossit, says that artists will experience a slight learning curve for S-3D content creation. “However it helps that a lot of the leading 3D and compositing applications are already providing S-3D tools,” he says, citing Maya’s real-time stereoscopic camera rig. “Also applications that allow you to composite stereoscopic streams as if they are one are streamlining the entire S-3D pipeline.”
Squarezero’s director and head of animation Olly Tyler points out that content creation is more complex when having to factor in depth along with the usual production issues. “The depth levels need adjusting for optimum effect,” he says. “Some elements can be blurred or double imaged if not set to correct levels. There are new processes or particular challenges to tackle such as declipsing, parallax, depth of field, transparency depth, edge tearing and multiple camera rigs.”
Fear feels that pretty much the same considerations apply to game development as to stereoscopic movie creation. “Most game developers select camera angles and interaction with their game to highlight different parts of the world,” he says. “The challenge that most game developers have over movies is that there is a lot of head up display (HUD) info which is a lot like subtitles in a movie. Game developers are beginning to see how they can make the HUD info and 3D work together when they start to work in stereoscopic 3D.”
Autodesk’s Mary-Beth Haggerty says the main hurdle for game creators in the short-term will be the balance of creating a game for 3D while keeping the content playable on an ordinary TV. “It will take some time for 3D capable televisions to have a big enough install base to support an all-3D-all-the-time game,” she explains. “Until then we will probably see 3D used in cinematics, special levels or as a ‘switch’ mode. Creative directors will need to balance the visual language needed for a rich environment on ordinary televisions while avoiding user confusion/sickness on a 3D-capable television until the market is ready.”
According to Schneider, the good news is that both the game developers and the S-3D Gaming Alliance want to form a specialized standard for S-3D gaming so developers get the exact quality and artistic imagery they want, and all S-3D display solutions are equally supported out of the box. “It’s in no game developer’s interest to support any one solution exclusively,” he says. “Our intention is to tackle both the PC and console markets equally.”
“We need to start developing in real 3D,” agrees Andrew Fear. “Artists and developers now need to spend more time and effort figuring out exactly how a model, whether that be in a game or another medium, looks in 3D and what does and does not work. Being able to see their work in 3D also makes this whole process much more straightforward than many of them would anticipate. Artists can really see how their extra efforts really affect the end result.”