How GameWorks Makes Building Better Games Faster and Easier

by John Ratcliff

Editor’s note – NVIDIA Principal Engineer John Ratcliff is an industry pioneer who has been developing video games since 1984. He created “688 Attack Sub,” the first 256-color VGA game for Electronic Arts, as well as “SSN-21 Seawolf;” and “Scarab.” He was the lead engine programmer for “Planetside,” the world’s first massively multiplayer first-person shooter. He has worked at NVIDIA since 2009.

There has been a lot said about the GameWorks initiative in various forums in recent weeks. I wanted to share my view as a game industry veteran who now works for NVIDIA and contributes to GameWorks-related projects.

NVIDIA GameWorks

Early on in the industry, most games were developed by a few key programmers. Over time game companies might share their engine technology across titles, but there was little sharing beyond that. Game companies considered their graphics engines to be their “special sauce.”

As these game projects became larger, the focus has become creating game content. Developing new game technology represents risk. With tight deadlines, risk is something a game company can’t afford. So technological advancement in the game industry today is largely driven by middleware providers, which license the latest game engine technology to a broad group of developers.

That’s vital as the pace of innovation quickens. For example, over the past decade many new forms of simulation technology have become available, each more incredible than the last. It began with what is today considered basic “rigid body” physics. This gave us our first stacks of boxes you could knock over, maybe a swinging chandelier and a primitive “ragdoll” model to make a character falling to his death look a bit more realistic. Next came procedural physical animation, such as Natural Motion, which can simulate realistic character motion, often replacing the old requirement for motion capture and canned animation.

Middleware companies make sure game developers can keep up with all these changes to in-game physics, without spending years of development time to duplicate a feature already found in a number of competing games. In other words: game developers need more than just new ideas — they need help turning those ideas into great gameplay.

As someone who used to be on the other side of things, I can provide some perspective here. When I was working on my own game projects, here is what would happen: NVIDIA would create a mind-blowing demo. Then my boss would see that demo and say, “Hey, we should put that in our game, like now.”

The Missing Link

This would cause me to panic, because as cool as that demo NVIDIA just published is, it was just that — a demo. The process of going from a tech demo to something that could be incorporated into a functioning game was a huge missing piece of the puzzle.

Even though it was helpful to have full source code to these tech demos, it was still a major task to write from scratch your own implementation of the technique. Also, often a tech demo is just that a demo. It doesn’t have to address any of the myriad of issues raised by a full game engine integration. For example, how a particular technique has to work with every other part of the pipeline was often an open and unsolved problem.

No longer. Since I joined NVIDIA five years ago, I’ve been able to act as an in-house advocate for game developers, and I’m not the only one. NVIDIA has a long record of hiring the best software engineers. Many of my colleagues come from the game industry.

That’s why NVIDIA launched GameWorks. It’s now a mandate within our group that any new technology dreamed up by our R&D team must be packaged in a way that can be integrated and adopted by the game industry with ease. Rather than releasing a white paper, demo and some sample code with the implied message “you figure out the rest,” we’ll develop a formal SDK, documentation and tools, and build the product into one or more major game engines before we will call it “done.”

Today, middleware is the lifeblood of the game industry. Gone are the days when a game company could afford to do open-ended R&D projects, hoping that “something cool” would come out of it. Companies like Epic, Unity and RadGameTools are providing these as a service to the industry and thus delivering better underlying game technology for everyone.

We’re working with them — and directly with game developers — to make sure developers can pick up and use the latest technologies and techniques. Our PhysX physics-simulation engine already works in Unreal and Unity, as do advanced features like destruction, clothing and particles. In the future, fur simulation, volumetric rendering, fluid, fire and smoke will all just be more tools in the toolbox for artists and designers. Click here to see demos of GameWorks in action.

Why does NVIDIA spend so much time, money and resources to do this?  Because that’s what the company has always been about. NVIDIA’s mandate has always been to be the leader in visual computing. GameWorks is nothing more than a way to pursue that goal.