July 1998


Shake, Rattle, and Quake

by Robley Curtice

Games may seem only for the young, but lately there has been an upsurge in interest among the older inhabitants of the computer world. The game industry may not grab the attention of the more reserved commercial world, but it is a 5.5 billion dollar industry (in 1997 - forecast to be $11.6 billion by 2001: Cowles/Simba Information) occupying an important niche in the entertainment field. And it is fun: witness all the management programs to allow bosses and system administrators to monitor their systems and track down employees playing Quake or whatever!

Seven-thousand bright, talented, phrenetic computer game developers recently converged at the 1998 Computer Game Developer Conference (CGDC or just GDC according to a Miller-Freeman press release) in Long Beach. CGDC was put on by the Miller Freeman Company as part of their empire of publishing and trade shows. Since games demand the highest quality data streaming, graphic delivery, audio fidelity and CPU performance, hardware developed for these demands soon finds its way into business and scientific applications -- games made CD-ROMs respectable and they are encouraging a similar path for 2-D and 3-D applications.

Video cards are an another example of this innovation. Originally manufactured to manage the graphic display in the monitor, game designers found that they needed more power in this area. The engineers responded first with a more robust card, then a card that supported 3-D. An unknown Silicon Valley startup, 3Dfx Interactive, in 1996 brought out a product that not only accelerated the game but made it look better. The card, Voodoo, was a frame buffer (FBI - yeah, really) and a texture mixture unit (TMU) that allowed a game to run fast. Recently the unit (a two chip design) has added a second TMU which allows games to swap twice the amount of textures. This card was chosen by the creators of Quake and Quake2, extremely popular "shooter" games, because of this multi-texture extension. Another card using a similar chipset is not only utilized for games but will find use in science and business applications, architectural renderings, for instance. The key is that any card that supports Open GL (Sun Microsystems architecture) can be used in areas other than games.

Being a sci-fi fan, we couldn't resist checking out the presentation of a crossover game at the conference, "Blade Runner." Louis Castle, president and co-founder of Las Vegas's hot game company, Westwood Studios, gave a dramatic introduction to the making of the game. A 1982 sci-fi cult-classic, the film starred Harrison Ford and was directed by the legendary Ridley Scott from the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Phillip K. Dick. Castle decided in planning the game that the events in the film would not change, but rather the game would build on underlying themes. Initially the game was budgeted at 2 million dollars but would end up being a 4 million dollar item - then making all the money back and then some with the first shipping.

The real-time game (which is out on the market now) captures the urban, "noir" quality of a high-tech, decaying police state in the future. An interesting aspect of the game is the use of what is called AI (artificial intelligence)for the characters, which means they are programmed to act independently in different replays. (In any game, when you are playing against the computer you are playing against the AI programming.) Reviewers have consistently lauded the beautiful graphic qualities and the echoing of the original's dreadful angst among high tech. It is also an example of the new motion-capture video technique, where original videos of people are converted in digital prototypes. In their search for authenticity, Westwood Studios contacted original set designers for sketches and worked with some of the actors who were in the film. The rendering of actress Sean Young is especially good.

And in further aspects of computer games, we dropped by the third annual 3D Design Conference and Exhibition in San Francisco where we met with designers and animators creating working in this spanking new field. These innovators have quickly begun using all the new techniques and hardware to not only work on games but also on commercial animation and feature film special effects. The three big names in this field are, of course, Steve Jobs's Pacific Data Images ("Toy Story"), George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic and Hollywood's three musketeers'(Geffen, Katzenberg, Spielberg) Dreamworks. Computer generated 3-D design is now seen in fields as widely diverse as architecture, mechanical engineering and forensics, to animation, digital video, specials effects and Web design. One trend we have noticed almost everywhere is that as ordinary computers become more and more powerful, they are being used where previously it has only been specialized, super expensive "high-end" hardware. Silicon Graphics seems to especially been hard hit when their blazing work stations are not required as much now as they used to be, and some of their ten-thousand dollar items reduced almost in half.

For someone working in this field, for a front-line company, the pay is more than adequate. Hundred thousand plus salaries are not unusual for top players. These are the kids that cut their teeth on "Star Wars" and a lesser known film, "Tron." In the past they would have been Hollywood recruits once out of film school, but now they may work anywhere in the U.S. for one of the hot 3-D companies. Previously many worked on a computer-controlled camera for in animation sequences for commercials. Now much of that is done in studios and at a higher quality. So as with so many aspects of the electronic world, this is the third conference and prior to three years ago there was no commercial 3-D field as it exists today- only funny glasses you put on for Vincent Price movies.

Robley Curtice (, a San Franciscan, is an early-retired teacher who haunts West Coast technical conferences searching for the 21st Century Killer App.

Copyright © 1998 by Robley Curtice. All Rights Reserved.

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