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Carmack, Sweeney and Andersson Unplugged

The big three rendering architects effectively did an AMA at the G-Sync launch. Here's the transcript.

The future of PC gaming

In this final section of the discussion, Carmack, Andersson and Sweeney talk about their views on the PC platform and how it is likely to evolve. In many ways, it is as much a retrospective as it is a look ahead to the future. Carmack in particular is keen to discuss the orders of magnitude in GPU power that we've seen since he arrived in the business, and the question is how the increasing performance we'll see over the next few years will actually be utilised. Over and above that, we have also seen an evolution in the form factor of the PC itself. Today, we can fit 20 teraflops of GPU performance into a Titan SLI PC. One day in the future, that same level of power will be packed into your smartphone...

Press QuestionCan you guys comment on the PC desktop as a gaming platform moving forward five or ten years from now?
Johan Andersson

I see a completely bright future. This is a great technology in the right direction for PC. There's really no experience that can be comparable to having a really high-powered PC with 120Hz gaming, especially with G-Sync. Having games play that way and also having a quite open ecosystem that we have on the PC. I really like PC. So, going forward, I'm not sure, typically in these type of conversations people get stuck on, OK, so free-to-play is going to take over everything, mobile will take over everything, yeah, it's so black and white. I see a great use for all of these things. You see massive adoption of tablets - iPads and Android tablets and all that - but most of those are used just for consumption. That's starting to change a little bit and that's a very welcome change. The PC is really a general machine for everything and people use it for everything.

On the PC I have at home I use it both on the large 30" screen that I play first person shooters on or sit at my desk and actually work at home or I just take the same PC and switch it over to a 100" projector and sit on my sofa. That's probably not a common setup and it requires a very specific type of very small apartment that I have but there are very few platforms where you can do the same thing.

Tim Sweeney

I've always kind of looked at the PC as a kind of pinnacle platform for the industry. You know, it's the place where you can do everything including serious work, [and] you can play games. You can play games and buy GPU hardware that's faster than anything else you can buy on any other platform. How many teraflops can you put in a PC now? Twelve? Fifteen teraflops?

Tony Tamasi

You can actually do twenty teraflops in a single PC.

Tim Sweeney

Twenty teraflops in a single PC. That's always the very nature of the PC being open and expandable over what any fixed platform would be able to achieve. And, you know, we're now embracing these mobile devices in our life but when we need to do real serious work we always go back to our PCs and many serious types of games. If you're playing League of Legends or any of these games that require really intense communication and build an intensive community.

Even if you're a console gamer you're going to online forums talking to people on your PC. So everything we do tends to gravitate around PC and it's a little bit depressing as the PC market ebbs and flows, you know, around 2005 that, the beginning of the last console generation the PC was in a really depressing space. The quality of drivers there was just really abysmal and it was just really hard to go out and buy a game and get it working on your hardware - and that's really changed dramatically. Nowadays, things generally work. Even the lowest end Intel integrated graphics laptop you can go out and buy, it works! And that's a great thing for Nvidia and the whole industry because it means that you can start with that, your game works, you can play it and you can realise you need more and you can go out and buy a better PC or a bigger GPU and continually upgrade from there but the very fact that the whole thing works is critically important and I think it's going to be a really big driver in the growth of the PC as a gaming platform.

You know, we've been attracted to shiny things, I think that the other platforms come and go. Smartphone and tablets are here forever because that form of computing is going to always be attractive but it's purely a content consumption tool and when we go to really participate deeply in complex games and sit down for a long experience or building a game as developers or do engineering on computers or anything else it's always going to be on a computer of some sort.

"I've always kind of looked at the PC as a kind of pinnacle platform for the industry... You can play games and buy GPU hardware that's faster than anything else you can buy on any other platform." - Tim Sweeney, Epic Games.

Not quite 20 teraflops of processing power (more like 13.5TF), but here we're seeing three GTX Titans in SLI running Crysis 3 at max settings at 2560x1440. The scalability of the technology isn't perfect - even here we're seeing certain effects causing minor frame-rate drops.
Tony TamasiSo John, the question basically, what are the details with the PC as a gaming platform?
John Carmack

So there are obviously lots of different directions that things can go. In many ways I sort of look at the PC as the muscle car, the hot rod of gaming where you've got the people that just want their Honda Civic and they've got a shiny phone that's providing the experience or a pre-packaged console. Clearly the PC ecosystem has warts on it. There are a lot of challenges and problems, the fact that you can put together that system back there with three monster GPUs and three 4K graphics cards... the fact that you can do that and you don't need to be an operator in a research lab, you can buy the systems and plug them all together. That's pretty awesome and the fact that you can then do the experiences at the high-end that at times are almost a decade ahead of what you can do on the consoles. You can sort of see the future with it or what people on other platforms will see because you have that opportunity to trade money and convenience for an experience that you simply cannot do at any other place.

But there's the possibility that something - whether it's a Steambox or something like that - it's hard for me to imagine it as a likely scenario but it's not inconceivable that something like that could take over and be the most cost effective way for people to be doing all their computing needs and it might be good enough to handle something like that so you could see a PC-like ecosystem conceivably taking back over the living room and kicking out the consoles.

I mean, I wouldn't really hazard a guess with these, I mean I think there's enough inertia that the consoles would be successful to a large degree almost without question. But, how things turn out as they begin to age and they get a little bit long in the tooth and the PCs are clearly more powerful... I mean, the consoles do some things right and there are things that the PC suffers in comparison but if the PC starts addressing those things and developers have a preference for a more open platform you can imagine scenarios where that works out pretty positively.

At this point Oculus is very tied to the PC space or, I think eventually we'll have a mobile component for it. We can't say when it's going to be like that but the PC environment is what's going to be driving all of these things and Microsoft or Sony wouldn't approve an Oculus plugged in device to the consoles, and there's no opportunity if you want to do something off the beaten path like that. So you can say that a lot of the innovating things will happen there, a lot of the crazy IO devices, the things people will be experimenting with but the large scale sort of macroeconomic trends in PC I have no idea there, I really don't know. It's been exciting to see it where the PC looked like there were many cases where it was sort of dying off. It's a renaissance now with all the development that does go on and Steam has been a really important part of it.

Johan Andersson

I like also that the PC has moved from being this grey box to something that looks like an Ultrabook. Well, partially, you still have nice black boxes with the high-end graphics cards also, there's actually been quite an evolution there. It's not the boring, plastic, old boxes we've had before.

Tony Tamasi

I guess you don't really need to think about an 'or' there, I think that they can all exist and they all have their place. I've got consoles at home, I've got PCs at home, I've got tablets at home and I've been playing all of them and they're good at different things and they work in different ways on all of them. The openness of the PC is exciting for innovation but it's also part of its warts. If you try to fix all of those warts on the PC it looks like something different and I think we've got decades of education saying that, some of those things, the openness and flexibility of PC is what makes a PC a PC and whether that PC is a Falcon Northwest box with a Titan in it or a Razer Blade notebook or an integrated iMac or something more mobile. I think that's cool and that's what makes a PC what it is.

"I like also that the PC has moved from being this grey box to something that looks like an Ultrabook... there's actually been quite an evolution there. It's not the boring, plastic, old boxes we've had before." - Johan Andersson, DICE.

Johan Andersson talks about the diversification of the PC games machine form factor. One of the most impressive we've seen recently is the Razer Blade - a cross between a Macbook Air and a Macbook Pro, packing an Intel quad-core CPU and an Nvidia GTX765 into an ultra-thin 14-inch gaming laptop.
Johan Andersson

The one thing I haven't really heard people talking about is the amount of devices that I have at home - both the amount of PCs, amount of laptops, amount of different types of screens - is quite immense and, I mean we're just two people, and a lot of people have larger families and even more devices scattered everywhere. We could see a future where, it's getting quite awkward to have all these completely independent boxes, they're essentially just form factors, but what would be ideal in some cases is just having a single server at home, where I can play my games on Steam on my big projector with a gamepad or at the same time from the central server, someone could be playing a game on an ordinary monitor or my tiny phone type device that has been taken over by the system essentially.

And it's a PC that's just hidden away that just wirelessly connects to all of these things because then you can get to a point of view, where this thing we were talking about - getting the seamless experience with all these different form factors - and you can switch between them quite frequently and you can see the same thing in an office also. That's really an interesting type of future with more dumb devices because there's so many different types of devices and so many different types of form factors that make sense for different cases but all of them now are very standalone. Which makes sense, I guess, if you travel and are bringing your phone with you but, yeah, at home it would be interesting to have. That's a very different future.

Tony TamasiAbout five or ten years away, what does the world look like?
John Carmack

Alright, so, we actually had this in email conversation thread recently at Oculus... [it] starts off with "my god look at how good looking some of these rendered humans can be" and I certainly see where we'll have worlds where we'll be interacting in some way and somebody made the comments like, "yeah in five years - we've been hearing that for 30 years," and it made me sit back and say, "OK, 30 years ago, the state of the art was the movie Tron and it's interesting when you say, oh right, yeah movies look so dramatically better," but I think the even more persuasive argument is like, OK, what used to take a half hour to render a frame, we can render that in real-time, better-looking, on a wristwatch today and I think it's not the heyday comparisons that are the most persuasive about what technology will change and I don't think that anybody from 30 years ago rationally would have been making a hard headed prediction about where we are today because we can't wrap your head around these six or eight orders of magnitude that we've had since then.

So, you know, we can say five years ahead, yeah, we can probably make credible comments about that. You'll still be able to buy Xbox One or PS4 new five years from now - unquestionably. There will be tons of content developed for that. We'll have 4K resolution displays on tablets and HMDs and we'll have another order of magnitude pretty straightforward on there with Moore's law. GPUs are great at turning transistors into performance and we'll have ten times the performance. It means that you can probably run that triple 4K display at double the frame-rate from one GPU. That starts looking pretty impressive.

I mean it's great seeing some of these things that are technical freight trains and they're going forward whether we're paying attention to them or not. Things like the display technology, the process advances that are going on there, the networking advancements that's going on - there's a trillion dollars in economy pushing these things so a lot of that's going to keep going, and it's going to be great to sort of be along for the ride and figuring the kind of interesting systems areas where there's a convergence of what becomes possible now that people wanted before as the sort of cornerstone of where the real innovation is going to happen, and we can always turn the cranks on what we've already got and always get better but the insightful things are when you notice something that you hadn't even thought about and previously dismissed as impossible is now possible and orders of magnitude just sneak up on you like this.

"30 years ago, the state of the art was the movie Tron... what used to take a half hour to render a frame, we can render that in real-time, better-looking, on a wristwatch today" - John Carmack, Oculus VR.

Carmack points to Tron as an example of the orders of magnitude we have seen in rendering technology over the last 30 years. What was once the state of the art is now child's play for today's rendering tech.
Johan Andersson

So I had a little bit [of a] different angle in that [we have] a really clear view of some of what we can do from a visual point of view in like one years, two years, three years up to, for all purposes, four years. Not exactly, not concretely, but still some pretty good idea there and that's really cool and there's a lot of pretty easy things you can do and some really hard problems that we want to solve in pure visuals.

Actually one of the hardest challenges, and perhaps this isn't the best context for it, but it's really important to understand it I think is that it's not necessarily the visuals and how we create the rendering techniques and how we update our games and stuff like that, it's actually, I want, we really would like to solve how we actually create our content and create our game worlds. That's a massive issue. I can see how we can do these super advanced rendering techniques, for instance awesome, amazing, dynamic lit environments where everything's destructible and everything is interacting but how we actually build those worlds. That's the massive difference, the massive challenge for us as an industry also.

It's not clear whose problem it is to solve that, so everyone has to work together and there are many components of that. So, G-Sync that's a part of that, our engines that we're working on is a giant part of that, but also how we work as an industry to create games, because our goal, with our engine is to build, create amazing game experiences...

I think, going forward, how we're going to create these games in five years if we continue our current trajectory but we sort of want to create the engine better and make more amazing games all locked into essentially just tools and we work. Tools, authoring... some are pure rendering techniques, some of them are just how you work with AI in giant environments. Fitting all of that together is just a massive challenge.

John Carmack

Game content creation; does it start becoming like fab construction with only three companies in the world that can claim next gen?

Johan Andersson

The main thing [is that] we have to become a little bit more of an ecosystem. You can't have this sequel house with five million people working on this single game. You have to divide it up more and share more and do things more procedurally and do things with better tools.

John Carmack

Proceduralism, yeah, that's the next big thing of the last two decades.

Johan Andersson

Yes, but there are aspects of it... pure proceduralism...

John Carmack

Content as a creation tool.

Johan Andersson

Exactly. For some of our games, for racing games as an example. With a 32x32km world, you're racing through that at 200kph, you want to create railings across that. That should just be [done] super quickly by just quickly clicking and everything just gets populated and having everything managed. There are some parts where we can do that but we want that across the entire world. It's a big challenge, and a really interesting challenge and I think there will be many components to it. That sort of covers the entire spectrum also.

"At some point... Nvidia is going to find a way to put a hundred teraflops of computing power in your pocket. Carmack said something really smart earlier... when you put all of those components together you don't have a product, you have a superpower." - Tim Sweeney, Epic Games.

The future of rendering technology is the ability to generate The Avengers in real-time on your PC - or perhaps even your smartphone or tablet.
Tim Sweeney

Yeah, the content creation challenges are really severe. At Epic we're always caught up in these questions with the next-gen game budgets going up to one hundred million dollars a game, and how does that work relative to the installed base but when you take the longer term view...

At some point in the next couple of decades Nvidia is going to find a way to put a hundred teraflops of computing power in your pocket. Instead of having the first generation of these massive displays that we look at, you know, that cost... built with a lot of material and now we have these VR headsets but each one of those is a reduction in size but also an improvement in quality. I think the ultimate trajectory is you have, you know, dual 4K or 8K displays in the form factor of Oakley sunglasses and when you have all that put together... Carmack said something really smart earlier that I think absolutely captures this, when you put all of those components together you don't have a product, you have a superpower.

Tony TamasiSo, if there's anything in the game industry that you would hold your breath for what would that be?
John Carmack

Yeah, I mean I think that maybe all of us are building the future that we want to see. That's the greatest part of being sort of a technologist, is that when we think something is important enough and set it up trying to make it happen, I guess on some of these things it is nagging hardware vendors for doing things but sometimes it's rolling up our sleeves and just kind of working on the important things ourselves.

Tim Sweeney

You know the industry is in a really awesome position now, it feels like, you know, there are engines like the Unreal Engine pushing the high-end really hard and engines like Unity bringing in users from all over the place and forming the foundation of indie development today. It's a great time to be a game developer and with distribution systems like Steam and just the ability to distribute stuff for yourself - it's a great time. Without having to deal with the publisher and retail, you can do an enormous amount of game building and game distribution [and] build a company now.

We built Epic back starting in 1991 without investors, without massive complex financial entanglements - just make a fun game and profit from it. This is a great time for this. The pace of innovation in the industry right now, you know, with all of the devices and stuff like Oculus introducing really interesting and practical VR, it's going to be a very interesting time to see all of this come together. I feel like the next-generation of video games will be built around a very different set of technologies and infrastructures than in the past. It's going to be developers that direct rather than retail contract heads, it's going to be really open and exciting.

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Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.


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