I3D 2011 Report – Part II: Industry Session

An industry session kicked off the second day of I3D (there were papers on the first day that I’m skipping over since I’ll do a paper roundup post later).

This session was comprised of two talks by game industry speakers – Dan Baker (Firaxis), and Chris Hecker (currently working on the indie game SpyParty). I’ll summarize each talk as well as the discussion that followed.

Dan Baker’s talk: “From Papers to Pixels: how Research Finds (or Often Doesn’t) its Way into Games”

Dan started by stressing that although most interactive graphics research has games as the primary target application, researcher’s priorities and the needs of the game industry are often misaligned. Game developers prize papers that enable increasing visual quality and/or productivity, describe techniques that are art-directable, and that inspire further work.

Dan complained that researchers appear to prize novelty over practicality. Often papers intended to inspire future research instead create things nobody needs, like a cheese grater-mousetrap combination (an actual patent registration). Papers are judged by other researchers who often lack the background needed to determine their utility.

As Dan pointed out, the vast majority of graphics papers over the years have not been used. He illustrated this by contrasting two papers which had citation rates wildly out of step with their actual real-world impact.

The first example was the progressive meshes paper – one of the most widely cited papers in the field, but it had very little practical impact. Why wasn’t it used? Dan identified three primary reasons:

  1. It solved an already solved problem – artists were already trained to create low-polygon models and weren’t looking for automatic tools which they couldn’t control and which would require changes to the tool chain. Building the mesh was a relatively small part of the art asset pipeline in any case.
  2. The process was fragile and the quality of the final result varied.
  3. Hardware advances rapidly reduced the importance of vertex and triangle throughput as bottlenecks.

In contrast, a paper on vertex cache optimization (written by the same author – Hughes Hoppe) had very low citation rates. However, it had a profound impact in practice. Almost every game pipeline implements similar techniques – it is considered professional negligence at this point not to. Why is this paper so heavily used by game developers?

  1. It was easy to implement and integrate into the asset pipeline.
  2. It did not impact visual quality.
  3. It increased performance across the board.
  4. It remained valuable in the face of ongoing hardware changes.

The reason papers languish is not developers apathy; if a paper offers promise of solving an important problem, game developers will try to implement it. Dan mentioned talking to graphics programmers at a game development conference shortly after the variance shadow maps paper was published – all of them had tried to implement it (although they eventually abandoned it due to artifacts). Dan gave three rules to help researchers seeking to do relevant research for game development:

  1. Hardware advances can rapidly render techniques irrelevant, but this can typically be predicted based on current trends.
  2. Give developers something they need – an incremental improvement to something useful is better than a profound advance in an esoteric area.
  3. Radical changes in the way things are done are difficult to sell.

Dan gave several examples of graphics research used by Firaxis in Civilization V (participating media, subsurface scattering, Banks and Ashikhmin-Shirley anisotropic BRDFs, wavelet splines, and smoothed particle hydrodynamics), and suggested that researchers interact more with game developers (via sabbaticals and internships). He ended by listing some areas he wants to see more research in:

  • MIP generation for linear reconstruction
  • Temporally stable bloom
  • Texture compression
  • Shader anti-aliasing
  • Better normal generation from height data
  • Better cloth shading

Chris Hecker’s talk: “A Game Developer’s Wish List for Researchers”

Chris recorded the audio of his talk, and has a flash animation of the slides synchronized to the audio (as well as separate downloads) on his website.

One comment Chris made resonated with me, although it was unrelated to the main topic of his talk. He said he thought games are around where films were in 1905 in terms of development. I’ve been looking a lot into the history of films lately, and that sounds about right to me – games still have a long way to go. Anyway, back to the theme of stuff game developers want from researchers. Chris stated that although it is commonly thought that the top (indeed only) priority for game developers is performance, the top three game technology priorities in his opinion are robustness, simplicity, and performance, in that order. He went into some more detail on each of these.

Robustness: this is important because of interactivity. Players can get arbitrarily close to things, look at them from different angles, etc. and everything needs to hold up. Chris describes several dimensions of robustness: what are the edge cases (when does it break), what are the failure modes (how does it break), what are the downsides to using the technique, is the parameter space simply connected (i.e. can you tweak and interpolate the parameters and get reasonable results), and are the negative results described (things the researchers tried that didn’t work). Published papers in particular have a robustness problem – when game developers try to implement them they typically don’t work. Page limits mitigate against a proper analysis of drawbacks, implementation tips, etc. Now that most journals and conference proceedings are going paperless, Chris claimed that there is no reason to have these restrictive page limits.

Simplicity: Chris stated that games are always at the edge of systemic complexity failure. If the toolchain is not on the edge of collapse, that means the game developers missed out on an opportunity to add more stuff. It’s the classic “straw that breaks the camel’s back” problem – the added complexity needed to implement a given technique might not seem large by itself, but the existing complexity of the system needs to be taken into account. If the technique does not provide a 10X improvement in some important metric, adding any complexity is not worth it. Simplicity, even crudeness, is a virtue in game development. Like robustness, simplicity also has many dimensions: are the implications of the technique explainable to artists, does it have few parameters, is the output intuitive, are the results art-directable, is it easy to integrate into the tools pipeline, what dependencies (code, preprocessing, markup, order, compatibility) does the technique have, etc.

Performance: As Chris described it, this is different than classic computer science performance. The constant matters, typically more than the O() notation. Researchers need to specify the time it takes for their technique to operate in milliseconds, instead of giving a frames-per-second count that is useless since it includes overheads for rendering some arbitrary scene. It’s important to discuss worst case performance and optimize for that, rather than for the average case. Researchers should not just focus on embarrassingly parallel algorithms, and should do real comparisons of their technique’s performance. A “real comparison” means comparing against real techniques used in practice, against real (typically highly optimized) implementations used in the field, using real inputs, real scenes and real working set sizes. The issue of “real scenes” in particular is more nuanced than commonly thought – it’s not enough to have the same triangle count as a game scene. Any given game scene will have a particular distribution of triangle sizes, and particular “flavors” of overdraw, materials, shadows, lighting, etc. that all have significant performance implications.

Chris talked about the importance of providing source code. Researchers typically think about their paper as being rigorous, and their source code as being “dirty” or “hacky”. However, the source code is the most rigorous description of the algorithm. You can’t handwave details or gloss over edge cases in source code. Availability of source code greatly increases the chance of games developers using the technique. Given that only a small fraction of papers are relevant to game developers (and a small fraction of those work as advertised), the cost of implementing each paper just to figure out if it works is prohibitively high.

As for what to research, Chris stated that researchers should avoid “solutions looking for problems” – they should talk to game developers to find out what the actual urgent problems are. If the research is in the area of graphics, it needs to integrate well with everything else. AI research is especially tricky since AI is game design; the algorithm’s behavior will directly affect the gameplay experience. In the case of animation research, it is important to remember that interactivity is king; the nicest looking animation is a failure if it doesn’t respond fluidly to player commands. Perceptual models and metrics are an important area of research – what is important when it comes to visuals?

Chris ended his talk with a few miscellaneous recommendations to researchers:

  • Don’t patent! If you do, warn us in the abstract so we can skip reading the paper.
  • Put the paper online, not behind a paywall.
  • Publish negative results – knowing what didn’t work is as important as knowing what did.
  • Answer emails – often developers have questions about the technique (not covered in the paper due to page limits).
  • Play games! Without seeing examples of what games are doing now, it’s hard to know what they will need in the future.

Following discussions:

These two talks sparked lots of discussion in the Q&A sections and during subsequent breaks. The primary feeling among the researchers was that game developers have a very one-sided view of the relationship. While researchers do want their research to have a practical impact, they also have more direct needs, such as funding. Computer graphics research used to be largely funded by the military; this source dried up a while ago and many researchers are struggling for funding. If it’s true that games are the primary benefactor of research into computer graphics research, shouldn’t the game industry be the primary funding source as well?

Regarding the use of “real” data, most of the researchers are anxious to do so, but very few game companies will provide it! Valve is a notable exception, and indeed several of the papers at I3D used level data from Left 4 Dead 2. More game developers need to provide their data, if they hope for research which works well on their games.

Companies in other industries do a much better job of working with academic researchers, establishing mutually beneficial relationships. Industry R&D groups (Disney Research, HP Labs, Adobe’s Advanced Technology Labs, Microsoft Research, Intel Research, NVIDIA Research, etc.) are a key interface between industry and academia; if more game companies established such groups, that could help.

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  1. Mauricio’s avatar

    I must say that I disagree with Dan’s assertion at the beginning of his presentation that “3D CAD is boring” (paraphrased). I say this as a graphics engineer working on decidedly non-boring CAD (and DCC apps) at Autodesk. Also, he said “nobody uses OpenGL,” regarding researchers using it to demonstrate their work, but there wouldn’t be any Mac or Linux support for us without OpenGL. That being said, I am also an avid gamer, so I don’t mind the *emphasis* on games, just not to the exclusion of all else, which is what Dan strongly implied, if not outright stated.

    Also, your list of industry R&D groups would not be complete without this: http://www.autodeskresearch.com, proud sponsor of I3D 2011. =)

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