Game Developer’s Conference 2007: A Wrap-Up of Notebook Related News

by Reads (7,326)

INTRODUCTION


The two expo floors at GDC 2007 were absolutely buzzing (view large image)

Scouring the GDC for content relevant to this site – and you – meant butting up against a lot of dead ends and showing up for seminars none of us could use. The fact of the matter is that the gaming industry is still having a hard time discriminating a laptop from a desktop, while you and I both know there’s a world of difference.

But there were several diamonds in the rough (admittedly the majority from Intel), and as I relax on my flight back to sunny San Diego, I can go ahead and regale you with…well…craziness.

S3 STILL CAN’T GET ITS ACT TOGETHER

I feel bad saying these things about S3 because the people at their booth were for the most part friendly and helpful. But I’m going to anyhow, because someone needs to say it.

S3, everyone wants you to succeed in the graphics business except for you. We’re so starved to talk about someone other than ATI and nVIDIA that the notion that Intel is heading into discrete graphics territory again excites us, excites us in ways you usually have to pay extra for.

Now apparently someone at S3 thought that because the GDC was largely filling the void that the cancelled E3 was leaving behind, that it meant we should be "irreverent" and "have booth babes." This was not the case.

I know a lot of you used to read E3 coverage for the booth babes. It’s okay, you can come out and say it. But actually seeing a booth babe in the wild isn’t hot. It’s just really depressing, and when you think about what she basically is, you’ll understand why: your job is to be a piece of meat, showing off your body and having nothing whatsoever to do with the booth you’re hanging out in. I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but you really just feel bad for them.

S3 also had a network game of Quake IV running on multiple systems powered by S3 video cards, that had fairly smooth framerates but weren’t running at native. They were taking sign ups, but I politely declined.

Probably the most heartbreaking thing was the part of the kiosk with the notebooks.


That’s a whole two sad notebooks you see there (view large image)

So what we have here are two units past their prime. They’re both Pentium M based Centrino machines, and both have clearly seen some use.

On the right is an old Fujitsu running a low-powered discrete S3 part, and the gentleman helping me at the kiosk politely informed me that it wasn’t really a gaming part. I guess my only question would be: "Then why bother with a discrete one?"

On the left is an old Gateway that had apparently been bought off the shelf and modded. But it’s what’s inside that counts, and this Gateway harbored the sparkle that keeps hope for S3 alive in all of us, no matter how hard they try to crush our spirits. You see, S3 modded an MXM card and put their desktop chip on it. I played Unreal Tournament 2004 on it with the details maxed out at 1440×900, and apart from some iffy trilinear filtering, it looked great and played like a champ.

They did this as proof of concept, that they could produce an MXM card as a drop-in upgrade. The rep I spoke to informed me that they were actually planning on putting their DX10 part on it.

When I asked him if S3 had secured any ODM deals, he could only tell me they were "in talks" with "major manufacturers." Heh.

It’s funny because S3 stuck out like a sore thumb, and it’s frustrating because they just refuse to do well.

But now that I’ve seen booth babes in person, I can say I never want to see one again.

THE BIG STORY: INTEL CARES

For notebook gamers, this was really Intel’s show. We updated you about their Laptop TDK, a software kit for developers to employ in making their games more notebook friendly, and we brought you details on the direction Intel’s newest integrated graphics core, G965, is going in.

I’m pleased to say I have more details for you.

In my discussion with one of Intel’s representatives – an individual from the Laptop TDK design team – I learned that they have not yet reached out to other graphics vendors, instead opting to focus on simpler measures that may be taken to make laptop gaming more friendly. The TDK is new technology, and they’re taking "baby steps" to introduce it to the market.

The big kick for laptop gamers came late Thursday during a lecture on the specifications of the Intel G965 core. While I’ll spare you the details of how to optimize your code for the core, I can at least give you some esoteric information about its design.

As you may or may not be aware, the G965 sports hardware texture and lighting, increased support for anisotropic filtering (up to 16x), shader model 3.0 in hardware, and a hybridized pipeline featuring eight fixed function units and eight programmable execution units. This makes it essentially a cross between existing DirectX 9 hardware which uses traditional graphics pipelining, and DirectX 10 hardware which employs unified shader units. All of these features come together to form an unusually robust integrated graphics offering from Intel. Real engineering ingenuity packed in what one Intel representative called "a four dollar chip." A four dollar chip capable of bloom and HDR (though admittedly probably the same way the GeForce FX 5200 was "DirectX 9 capable" – which is to say, it can do it at about 5fps.)

When asked about the G965’s mobile counterpart, the 965GM, the news was for the most part good. The 965GM is virtually identical to the desktop part, with two important differences:

  1. The clock speed will be slower than the desktop version.
  2. It will support DirectX 10.

The 965GM is also launching this month as part of Intel’s Santa Rosa platform, and while performance will likely initially suck, this WILL change. Intel’s coders are busy writing drivers that expose the hardware shader and T&L support. The problem at the moment is that shader programs are being run on the CPU instead of the GPU, though a production driver (version 14.25) with hardware Pixel Shader 3.0 is available on their support site. As was presented in the slide, "the kinks are being worked out."

Oh yeah, and Crysis was playable in Intel’s booth and looking gooood.

THE OTHER BIG STORY: MULTI-THREADING FOR THE MASSES


AMD’s multi-threading seminars were absolutely PACKED (view large image)

Well kids, the dawn of the multi-threaded game is at hand. Multi-threading was the subject of several seminars from both AMD and Intel camps, with AMD stressing making multi-threaded games that scale beyond a set number of cores and Intel urging developers to use multiple cores to improve battery life and performance.

It’s worth noting that AMD’s seminar was absolutely PACKED, and it’s my understanding that all of their multi-threading seminars were. They stressed strong granularity of multi-threaded code beyond dedicating individual threads to different functions (i.e. graphics thread, physics thread, sound thread), and boldly declared "the end of the La-Z-Boy Programming Era."

Those of us enjoying our Core 2 Duos and Turion 64 X2s, rejoice: at least ONE advanced feature of our shiny new processors is going to see some use. 😉

INDEPENDENT GAMING

Independently developed games are a major part of the GDC, and with good reason: one of the GDC’s main functions is to get. you. hired. The GDC floor had an exhibition area full of games people could play that were developed by people who were either students, hobbyists, or just entrepeneurs.

These games are particularly interesting to us because they don’t have the development backbone that studio games have and as a result, they tend to be less aggressive about using 3D hardware. Oh yeah, and they’re also frequently free.

I’ll post a list of the games when I do my wrap-up of the Game Developers Choice Awards, but I do want to single out one game in particular that I enjoyed on the floor, it was called Tangram, here’s a screenshot:


Tangram (view large image)

Impossible to explain unless you experience it, but a lot of fun for those of us who grew up on games like Galaga, Lifeforce and Gradius III.

If you like shooters and you like puzzle games, you can download the Windows version of Invalid Tangram here (http://www.goosey.info/Personal_InvalidTangram.php). I had a chance to speak to the designer, and found the game to be a very enjoyable blend of two completely disparate genres. And hey, it’s entirely 2D and totally independent of your 3D hardware.

ERICSSON’S NEXOS

Here was a product with a great idea and a middling execution. Ericsson teamed up with a company called Summit Tech to produce a product called "Nexos." What Nexos fundamentally is, is a platform to release games on that operates on…well…anything. (Except maybe screenless household appliances. Or housepets.)


Nexos wants your living room. And your house. And the entire outside world. (view large image)

The platform standardizes log-in and navigation across a variety of platforms, from PCs to mobile phones to set-top boxes, and from there you can connect to assorted games playable with other people.

The problem is that even though I just described it to you, it still doesn’t totally make sense, and to me that was really its achilles heel. If I had trouble piecing it together – and I know technology – how will anyone else get into it?

But then, I’d probably say the same thing about "Second Life."

It’s a cool idea and it’ll be interesting to see if it comes to fruition. You can read more about it here: www.nexosims.com

CRAPPY GAMES…IN 3-D!

Someone explain to me why the hell someone would demo a stereoscopic monitor using the PC version of Eragon? Here’s a game so bad even IGN doesn’t have anything nice to say about it.


IZ3D 22" 3D Monitor, giving Eragon another dimension to suck in. (view large image)

If you pre-order, you can get this $999(!) 22" monitor from IZ3D for just $819! Oh boy! For what it’s worth, the 3-D sort of worked in the same way that Friday the 13th Part 3-D and Captain EO worked for the older folks in the audience. That is, if you put the 3-D glasses on. If you don’t, it just looks like crap.

But what Jimmy? You say you already wear glasses? Just put their 3-D ones on over ’em! You’ll never know the difference, at least until that stinging migraine seeps into your temples.

I’ll be fair. Unreal Tournament 2004 was an EXTREMELY popular title to demo at the show, and IZ3D was no exception. It looked…okay? I don’t know what to tell you. I’ll be impressed when I see 3-D technology that isn’t thirty years old.

HP AND VOODOO MAKE A STRONG SHOWING


(view large image)

The "laptop" you see above has a screen size of twenty freaking inches. Seventeen pounds.

I was able to chat up representatives at the HP booth, where they were promoting their Voodoo gamers brand and HP Compaq workstation brand. Seeing the 20" Clevo-based Voodoo SLI notebook in person was…well…

That thing is frigging enormous. It weighs seventeen pounds and gets about a half hour on the battery. Of course, it’s also basically a portable GeForce 7950GX2, so you weigh the pro’s and con’s.

The HP person I spoke to was very excited about the acquisition of Voodoo in September, and the Voodoo representative seemed equally excited. With the purchase by HP, Voodoo’s people have gained access to HP’s deep pockets and resources. Instead of rebranded Clevo units, we can now expect to see uniquely styled gaming machines from Voodoo in the future.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think HP smells blood from Dell, but I might be biased. This report’s being typed on an HP. 😉

MATROX’S DIGITAL TRIPLEHEAD2GO


(view large image)

The digital TripleHead2Go offers massive screen real estate, both for gamers and for media professionals.

Matrox announced their Digital TripleHead2Go at the GDC, set to retail at $299. No small price, but the device is very impressive in person (at least if you like having lots of screens.)

While the older analog DualHead and TripleHead2Go units were fairly functional if a bit buggy, the digital one seems to really alleviate that by working entirely with digital signals. Its capabilities are dependent primarily on the GPU driving it; all of the DVI ports on it are dual-link.

Essentially the way it works is this: you connect it to the DVI port of your laptop (or desktop PC if you crave more than two screens or if you’re using SLI), and it treats multiple screens as one HUGE one. While they recommend as their ideal configuration three 19" 1280×1024 monitors, the widescreen enthusiast could also theoretically connect two 1440×900 monitors to it. Possibly more.

A review of the unit will be forthcoming.

THE INDEPENDENT GAMES FESTIVAL AND GAME DEVELOPERS CHOICE AWARDS


(view large image)

The picture belies the over three thousand attendees at the show.

I will say this: nerds put on a GREAT show.

The IGF covered a lot of unique, underground games, most of which were fairly minimalistic in their use of 3D hardware – making them particularly attractive to people like us, who tend to be bound to integrated graphics parts.

The highlights of the IGF had less to do with the gaming honors themselves (though the games were VERY creative and worth checking out) and more to do with the antics of the honorees and the generally irreverent nature of the awards show. It was introduced and closed with animated clips of Sam & Max (from the "Sam & Max" adventure games), the host was pretty light, but the real stars were the winners. Not just because they were honored, but because most of them are pretty regular folks like you and me, just maybe with a bit less sun.

The first winner took the opportunity at the end of his speech to propose to his girlfriend, which of course elicited rounds of applause from the audience of 3,500. The next winner wound up being more or less bottled anarchy for the remainder of the show.

Jonathan Mak walked away with three awards for his game "Everyday Shooter." His first win was immediately after the newly engaged couple. He approached the podium, looked at a friend off the stage…and asked him to marry him. His friend came up on the stage, touched his shoulder, said "no," gave him a hug, and left. Jonathan promptly left the podium, award in hand. His second and third wins were nearly as irreverent, and led to a lot of chuckling and anticipation in the audience.

The only real downside to the IGF portion was the heavy sponsorship and self-promotion of GameTap, who gave out their own award to three lucky recipients. Speeches about the beginnings of GameTap, a commercial about GameTap…screw GameTap.

The actual GDC awards were a fairly entertaining affair. The evening turned out to be a wash for Bethesda, whose "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" was nominated in several categories but received no wins. It was largely a big night for "Gears of War" and "Wii Sports;" PC games made a middling showing. Highlights were Shigeru Miyamoto’s lifetime achievement award, and Alexey Pajitnov’s "first penguin" award, given to him for making "Tetris." The two men largely responsible for my miserable GPA in high school in the same place. I’m sure there are at least a couple of you out there that can relate.

I can’t be the only one who had "Tetris" on his graphing calculator in high school, or the only one with it on his cell phone now. 😉

CONCLUSION

The GDC may superficially not have had much to offer us notebook users, but read between the lines. The big focus in PC gaming was the transition to multi-threading – beyond just dual cores. But Intel seemed particularly interested in being part of the future of gaming and for once, taking their role as the largest graphics vendor seriously. Mobile gaming is finally sparking some real interest, and there was a big push for what the vendors called "casual gaming" – games like Pop Cap and so forth that don’t tax the system heavily and can be easily played on the go and in short bursts. Sound good to you?


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