Thursday, February 21, 2008

GDC08 Wednesday

Wow, it was an exciting day at GDC!  I started off the day going to the Technical Artist round table hosted by Jeff Hanna of Volition.  Jeff is a great guy.  I met him in the hall before the session and he and I had a fun chat about tech art stuff.  During the session, Jeff defined a tech artist as a roady - or a stage hand - the guys working behind the scenes to make sure that everything runs smoothly.  We discussed the difference between a tech artists and a tools programmer.  We also came up with a bit of a list of good things that tech artists should do - Use your own tools so that you're forced to see the problems with them, write complete step by step docs for all of your tools, sit with the artists as they use the tools you've created so that you get a good idea of how your tools are working in production.  Artists are our customers and we should be working together with them - instead of somewhere else in the studio.

Next I attended the Microsoft keynote.  They took advantage of the keynote to really push their platform.  The Xbox 360 is great, but I wish they hadn't turned the keynote into a "shove it down your throat" advertising pitch.  I did enjoy Peter Molyneux's demo of Fable 2 (featuring co-op play), and Tim Sweeney's demo of the latest features in the Unreal Engine (dynamic ambient occlusion, large crowds of characters, Ageia soft body physics, and realistic destructability).  Cliffy B also made a "look how cool I am" appearance to announce that Gears of War 2 will be available this November.

After the keynote, I went to a session on the animation in Drake's Fortune given by Judd Simantov and Jeremy Yates from Naughty Dog.  It was cool to hear about all of the tools that Judd created to make it possible for the animators at Naughty dog to mix motion capture and keyframe animation seamlessly.  At Bioware, we're using Puppetshop for animation, and I was happy to see that a lot of the tools that Judd wrote for Drake's Fortune do the same types of things that Puppetshop already handles.  I also got a few ideas for additional Puppetshop extensions to make animating characters much easier for our animators.  This is why I love GDC - I get all kinds of great ideas to use in my projects.  Jeremy talked about how they went about pushing their motion capture to look more like keyframe animation and how they pushed their keyframe animation to look more like motion capture.  In the end they were able to make both animation types fit together very well so they all of the motion feels like it's part of the same style.  After playing Drake's Fortune myself for about 8 hours last weekend, I think it's probably the best console game out right now.

I had lunch with Bruce Straley and a couple of other guys from Naughty Dog and then headed off to my next session - Neil Hazzard's annual review of using real-time shaders in Max.  There wasn't a lot that was new in Neil's talk this year other than the details of how to implement real-time shadows in your shaders.

Finally I attended a session hosted by Nvidia on realistic skin rendering.  The demo they were showing off uses 17 passes and 750 megs of texture memory.  I was pretty floored to hear those figures.  They say that the core concept is very scalable though.  The main idea with the skin rendering is the subsurface scattering technique of image space blurring - the same technique used in the ShaderFX node that I wrote.  The new element in this demo was that they created something like seven different versions of the blurred texture and took different weighted samples from each for the R, G, and B channels to achieve the final result.  Combine that with a physically based specular term and some nice fresnel fall-off and you've got some very expensive but very realistic skin.

Next I went to the show floor and went straight to the Vicious Engine booth.  I've been really excited to see what the guys at VCS have been cooking up since I left.  What I saw didn't disappoint at all!  They've added a bunch of new features to the engine to support the new consoles including rag doll physics, a node-based material editor, and a very nice animation blending system.  I would recommend the Vicious Engine to anyone.

To finish up the night, I got together with a group of old friends and headed off to China Town to go to dinner at the Empress of China.  It was super tasty, and I especially enjoyed catching up and remembering all kinds of craziness from past game projects.  Good times!


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