Thursday, October 16, 2014

Forza Horizon 2 developers contradict many by saying that ESRAM is "...ESRAM is pretty easy to manage..."

This was sent to me by one of our awesome community members. I actually do not go to Eurogamer all that often so I want to thank the anonymous user for linking this to me. After reading it I realized that this is absolutely worth a dedicated discussion.  There are some major quotes in this article that directly contradict what a lot of the people online are saying about the Xbox One, ESRAM and cloud computing that I found to be interesting.  Lets dig into this a little bit!

The first part that jumped out at me directly contradicts some of the notion on the internet that Microsoft are forcing people to develop games a certain way.  Andy Sage essentially shoots that down to some degree here:
Digital Foundry: Would the Xbox One's hardware tiled resources be a good match for an open world in terms of virtual texturing? Is that an approach you considered?
Andy Sage: We considered using this approach during pre-production, but decided that it would be too restrictive given our world size and limitations given the amount of data that can be put on the physical media. In the end we feel that the approach we took was a better fit for the project, allowing highly detailed and varied texturing, with massive vistas across the open world.
People like to diminish the idea of tiled-resources being a great way to make better games on the Xbox One, but in this case they actually passed on it because they felt it would be too restrictive.  I only point this out because it shows that there isn't only one way for developers to do things on the Xbox One.  There is no game development that is one size fits all contrary to what people think.  So when you see folks in the comments sections saying that developers hate being forced to do things Microsoft's way that is simply not true based on what Andy Sage, a first party developer, has now said.

This next bit stood out to me a little bit because he dropped cloud computing in there and it never really went anywhere.  The question was essentially asking how being a first party developer for the time being make developing games easier.  He makes it a point to drop in cloud computing being a great example and the part of the conversation goes dead.  Now I will admit there might be a bit of armchair journalism going on from my end, but it seems kinda strange that he let that part of the conversation just die considering the amount of time the internet spends shitting on cloud computing.
Digital Foundry: Before you formed Playground Games, you produced some good multi-platform work. To what extent does working for a single platform liberate you and allow for better results?
Alan Roberts: It's surprising how much time is needed in day-to-day work to keep multiple platforms compiling, running and at the same time trying to push boundaries on each. Additionally, most of the work estimates have to go up slightly and some features need to be implemented more than once to play to the strengths of each platform. In some cases you would have to settle for an inferior approach that works on all platforms due to time constraints.
Working on a single platform takes all of those worries away. Your feature list can get longer and this makes designers and artists much happier! Having your engineers code right down to the hardware is great too. We're able to really leverage the platform in ways that would be difficult without that focus. Our use of cloud computing is a really good example of that.
He does ask about the Drivatar stuff in the next question, but his follow up question is what stood out to me the most.
Digital Foundry: Have you made any changes or enhancements to the way it works based on community feedback - it turned out to be something of a Marmite feature for many in FM5.
I have to admit that even after looking up the word I do not know whether his use of the word "Marmite" is meant to be a praise or a dig of the Drivatar system.   It does sort of read like a dig.  My limited understanding of what the phrase Marmite means comes from Wikipedia.
"The British version of the product is a sticky, dark brown food paste with a distinctive, powerful flavour, which is extremely salty. This distinctive taste is reflected in the British company's marketing slogan: "Love it or hate it." The product's name has entered British English as a metaphor for something that is an acquired taste or tends to polarise opinions"
All that being said I am taking away from the interview that Digital Foundry is lukewarm on the whole Drivatar thing.  There is one very important thing to note and Matt Craven does that when he has the opportunity to speak again in saying the following:
Matt Craven: The Drivatars system continues to evolve and has done since the launch of FM5. The FM5 team have updated the systems post-launch and Drivatars continue to learn. The Drivatars in FM5 today, both individually and as a system, drive very differently than they did in the first several months. Thanks to sharing this technology across both games we were able to bring your FM5 Drivatar (and those of your friends) into Horizon 2 at launch.
The Drivatar system has only gotten better since the launch of Forza 5 and as someone who plays the Forza games a lot I can concur with that wholeheartedly.  I have no gripes about the system as it works today even in Forza Horizon 2.

OK.  Enough nitpicking.  On to the eSRAM!  In this part Andy Sage directly contradicts what Digital Foundry and a lot of other gaming media are portraying in that ESRAM is something that is difficult to use.  He even says that it was pretty easy for them!

Digital Foundry: 1080p, MSAA - already we're talking about a considerable ESRAM challenge - what was your approach to memory management?
Andy Sage: We scheduled specific optimisation phases during the project development, where we looked at improvements that would allow us to achieve the solid 30fps that we were aiming for. We analysed ESRAM usage during each of these phases and determined what gains could be made, in particular optimising which render targets were in ESRAM throughout the frame. This involved careful analysis of which targets were required at which point in the frame to allow us to maximize the amount of ESRAM resident resources at any one time. It was also necessary to have a good understanding of what the bottlenecks were for each rendering stage so we could target ESRAM optimisations for systems that benefited from the additional bandwidth. ESRAM is pretty easy to manage, mainly because you don't need to resolve textures to read them and you can make textures partially resident.
The parts that I underlined are the most important takeaways from the interview.  He says that managing ESRAM is not hard.  He actually says pretty easy.  The caveat is that you have to have a good understanding of how things are working.  That alone should tell you that a lot of these games operating at sub 1080p resolution, if you are obsessing over that sort of thing, come down a lot more to developers lack of understanding.  Now, that being said; I would not say that gets Microsoft off the hook.  They are still to blame for that obviously.  They need to stop with the corporate bullshit and actually get hands on with these developers who are running into trouble because they made the console that isn't as straight forward as their competition.

I am not even personally a resolution nazi, but if Forza Horizon can achieve 1080p 30FPS then I think most games should be able to at least reach 1080p on the system.  That is just my opinion, but I wouldn't think I am too far away from the general consensus of the gaming world at this point.

That is everything that I wanted to point out from the article in terms of popular message versus what these guys are saying.  There is one last big of, call it, housekeeping that I want to address and that is one of the captions to an image that was embedded in the article.  Lets take a look!

Real-Time Ray-Tracing

Here is the one giant thing I want to address before it gets out of control regarding lighting in Forza Horizon 2.  


Perhaps I am jumping the gun a little bit here, but the image you see above.  Take a second to read the caption.  "All reflections are rendered in real-time in Forza Horizon 2.  Cars, environments and light sources are all reflected..."  Before this shit gets out of control lets just put it to rest before it ever even wakes up.  This is absolutely not a confirmation of real-time ray-tracing.  I know this is a big thing is some communities, which will remain nameless, but lets just call this out and say right away that this was not a confirmation of real-time ray-tracing.  Furthermore, there has not been even one confirmed game to have used or plans to use real-time ray-tracing.  That is a fact.

That is all for me folks!  I hope you've enjoyed!  Have a great day!

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