Medal of Honor – Warfighter game uses Enlighten technology
Geomerics’ Enlighten lighting technology has been used on top game titles, such as Medal of Honor – Warfighter, Battlefield 3, Need for Speed: The Run and Quantum Conundrum. We talk to Geometrics’ founder Chris Doran to find out how it works and what this tech means for developers and gamers…
Chris Doran is Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Geomerics. Prior to forming Geomerics, Chris was an Advanced Research Fellow at Cambridge University. He was made a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellow in 2004 and has helped to bring two new companies to market. He’s a regular speaker at international conferences and was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Physics for his work in turning promising physics research into practical applications.
3D World: When was Geomerics formed?
Geomerics was formed in 2005 as a spin-out from Cambridge University. Though in reality it was not until early 2006 that we had the key staff in place and could start work seriously.
3D World: What was the main aim of your company?
We had a slightly unusual case to put to investors when we started the company. We were pooling the know-how of a group of academics into a strong problem-solving capability, and part of the goal was to use the company to bridge between business and academics in a streamlined way.
I left my University post to run the company, but the other academics remained in post, and we had a good scheme set up by which we could call on their expertise on demand.
Unlike other groups of academics, I was keen that we developed into more than just a consultancy service. I wanted to grow a company that would develop products, take on staff and expand.
Enlighten has been used on Medal on Honor - Warfighter. "The games industry is extremely dynamic, and uptake of new technology can be fast. Any technology that makes a clear difference in the quality of a game for the end player is likely to be widely adopted," says Chris Doran. © 2012 Electronics Arts.
When we formed we had good ideas of the areas we knew we were strong in, but we did not have a firm idea of a single product to develop. So instead we produced a series of demos and talked to companies across a range of industries. We then had to aggressively discard product ideas and focus in on the area where we saw the greatest potential to make a quick impact.
3D World: When did you first realise the need for a product like Enlighten?
The end result of our early phase of producing demos and undertaking detailed market research was the decision to focus on lighting technology for computer games. The first part of this decision was the choice of sector. The games industry is extremely dynamic, and uptake of new technology can be fast. Any technology that makes a clear difference in the quality of a game for the end player is likely to be widely adopted. In addition, the industry was just entering a new console cycle, and was open to the idea of investigating new technologies.
The decision to go after lighting was based partly on our areas of expertise, but also on the clear message that came back from game developers. They were happy with many of the technologies developed for the PS2, but felt that lighting was an area where considerable improvements could be made for the PS3 and Xbox 360.
3D World: What were the challenges in developing Enlighten?
There were many challenges in developing Enlighten. The first was the obvious one. We set out to deliver real-time global illumination in a games console, running at 30fps with limited resources. Most people told us this was impossible!
Putting aside the obvious complexity of the problem we were attempting to solve, there were many other obstacles to overcome. The biggest of these is getting accepted by the platform holders – Sony and Microsoft.
Without development kits you cannot develop truly useful technology. But before they give you a kit, they want to know which games you are working on! And of course, we didn’t have any customers, because we had nothing to sell them. We had to resort to developing PC demos, getting developers interested, then feeding that interest back to Microsoft and Sony. We also had to appear at all of the conferences showing off our demos to generate interest.
Enlighten was used on Battlefield 3. "We set out to deliver real-time global illumination in a games console, running at 30fps with limited resources," says Chris Doran. "Most people told us this was impossible!" ©2011 EA Digital Illusions CE AB
It all took time, but eventually we secured our first dev kits, and could start the task of optimising our algorithms for the platforms.
3D World: How long have you been working on it?
We started initial R&D on Enlighten in 2006, so we have been working on it for 6 years now. The first version of the product was finished in 2008 and first went into developers’ hands then. The first games to use Enlighten finally came out in 2011. These were large, complex games and the 3 year development time was not unusual. It was frustrating for us having to wait so long for content built with Enlighten to arrive, but it was worth it.
The technology went through a major re-write in 2009, mainly as a result of our collaboration with EA DICE. DICE wanted to light entire worlds in real-time, both for the game and for their editor tools. That meant we had to find ways to scale up another order of magnitude, while staying in the same compute and memory budgets. This was a challenge, but by 2009 we had developed a sufficiently deep understanding of the hardware and the problem space that we were able to meet DICE’s requirements.
3D World: How does Enlighten work?
The first thing to understand with a game is just how limited the resources are. There was no point us constructing a fancy all-encompassing global illumination algorithm if it consumed all of the available resource to just hit 50fps. There would be no room for the rest of the game, which typically involves game logic, character animation, physics, AI, audio and a host of other processes. Typically we might be allowed 5ms of CPU time, and around 10MB of memory to work with.
"Our goal was to generate these lightmaps dynamically based on changes to input lighting and surface albedo," says Chris Doran. ©2011 EA Digital Illusions CE AB.
We also had to consider the way geometry is authored for games. The transition to the PS3 and Xbox 360 was quite painful for some, as this was the time when developers stopped baking lighting into textures, and started to work with lightmaps. This approach gave more flexibility to the lighting path and was very hardware efficient, but at the time developers were assuming that the lightmaps would be statically baked ahead of time. Our goal was to generate these lightmaps dynamically based on changes to input lighting and surface albedo.
We started out developing GPU algorithms, which were based on reconstructing the radiosity lighting in lightmap space. This approach was good enough for our early PC demos, but we quickly learnt that the GPU was not going to be the appropriate home for Enlighten on the consoles. The GPU was a heavily contested resource, and most of the spare compute capability was elsewhere. On the 360 it was usually in a spare CPU thread, and on the PS3 it was in the associated processing units on the cell chip.
By this point we knew that our algorithms had to be CPU-friendly, but the commitment to lightmapping techniques meant we could assume that geometry had been appropriately authored with lightmap coordinates available. This gave us a solid platform to investigate approaches.
The remaining architectural decisions were around whether the technique should be totally dynamic or rely on a pre-processing step. Developers obviously prefer techniques that just work in the game, but they are well-used to the fact that optimisation for hardware is part of the process of getting a game running at an acceptable level.
The challenge is to minimise the upfront work load and to ensure it does not interfere with the content creation process. After researching the problem intensely it was clear that fully dynamic approaches could not get close to the quality that could be achieved with some advance pre-processing of the geometry, so that was the approach we adopted.
Enlighten was used on Eve Online. "Developers obviously prefer techniques that just work in the game, but they are well-used to the fact that optimisation for hardware is part of the process of getting a game running at an acceptable level," says Chris Doran. ©2011 CCP Games
Enlighten works by processing the geometry that is likely to remain static in a level, and returning acceleration structures that go directly into the game runtime. These are compact, highly efficient structures based purely on the geometric relationships between objects. In game, or in the game editor, Enlighten then takes the input from the direct lighting path, bounces this round the world, and returns two data structures.
The first is a set of lightmaps for the static surface geometry. These go straight into your shader code in precisely the same way you would use a static lightmap. The second data structure is probe data which populates the world. These probes are used to light the dynamic objects in a world, and again the probe data is updated dynamically.
The key advantage of this approach is that all lighting can now be updated dynamically, as can the surface albedo. So the environments artists can iterate on lighting and texture in real-time, which is a huge authoring saving. And dynamic lighting can also form an integral part of your game. Various techniques are also provided in the product for handling large-scale destruction, so that walls can be knocked out without the lighting breaking.
Enlighten was used on Need for Speed: The Run. "Environments artists can iterate on lighting and texture in real-time, which is a huge authoring saving. And dynamic lighting can also form an integral part of your game," says Chris Doran. ©2011 Electronic Arts.
3D World: Could you tell us a little bit more about the titles using Enlighten’s technology?
The five most notable games to have been released using Enlighten are Medal of Honor Warfighter, which just launched on Oct 23, Battlefield 3, Need for Speed: The Run, Eve Online and Quantum Conundrum. We were very pleased with the way Enlighten was used in all of these games, not least because each developer chose to use Enlighten in a different way.
For example, Medal of Honor Warfighter and Battlefield 3 focused on the use of light where there are large amounts of destruction occurring. The teams wanted heavy realism, and lighting played a key role in achieving that.
Both of these games used Enlighten in combination with the Frostbite 2 game engine – an engine that our technology is integrated with. Battlefield 3 was singled out for the quality of the lighting, which gave us an immense sense of pride.
We are now a key component in the Frostbite 2 engine, which was initially built for Battlefield 3, but is now being rolled out internally across many studios, including the Danger Close studio that developed Medal of Honor Warfighter.
Frostbite 2 is a stunning achievement, and it puts Electronic Arts in a very strong position as we approach a new generation. Two more titles have been announced using Frostbite 2 and Enlighten. These are the latest Command & Conquer title, and Army of Two: The Devils Cartel. Videos from all of these are now appearing and all look stunning.
Watch the Enlighten Games 2012 video
3D World: Is there any lighting tech that’s comparable to yours?
There is no competing technology that has adopted our approach. We set out to be an end-to-end lighting solution, with authoring tools, a runtime, and the ability to run in multiple ways. So, for example, we offer baking tools so that developers can bake out static lightmaps if the game does not require dynamic lighting, or if they are running on a low-end platform. We also have runtimes for all major devices: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U, Vita, iOS and Android. No-one else offers this level of coverage.
Our main competition comes from developers spinning their own technology in-house. They will often take the latest graphics research paper on global illumination and try implementing it.
This approach can be made to work on a per-game basis, but it is costly and prone to failure. Our other main competition is from developers not requiring dynamic lighting in their game. But we now have a response to that as well. Our workflow is so much more streamlined than alternatives that developers are starting to license our technology just for the workflow benefits and the baking tools.
They get all of the advantages of a real-time workflow and instant iteration, with the guarantee of a high-quality baked lightmap at the end.
Enlighten has other technical capabilities not available elsewhere. Any surface can be made to glow, giving area lights for free. This is a great technique for highlighting areas of a world. Enlighten also handles dynamic colour change, which makes it easier for the artist to work with light and colour simultaneously.
3D World: How has this technology progressed in the last few years? (We understand that it was being used previously on PCs and consoles, and was limited to that, but now it can be used on mobile devices. How has that been achieved? What did you need to add to the tech to get it to that stage?)
We made two significant additions to the product over the last 12 months. The first was the addition of baking tools, so that we could serve the sector of the industry that was not interested in fully dynamic lighting in game. The second was our introduction of a mobile version of Enlighten.
The mobile version uses precisely the same data structures as the console and PC version, and runs on both iOS and Android. We expect to be adding Windows 8 to this shortly. The main challenge was getting the runtime optimised for ARM, but this turned out to be quite smooth. One advantage of being located in Cambridge is that we have ARM on our doorstep, and they were very keen to help with the low-level optimisations. The end result is that the latest high-end mobile devices can run Enlighten as fast as today’s consoles. So for these real-time global illumination on mobile is definitely practical.
It is perhaps worth reflecting on how far Enlighten has come at this point. We started out six years ago tackling a problem that many people thought was impractical on the most powerful PCs available at the time. We now have a proven solution working on a phone! The progress these devices has made is astonishing.
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3D World: What does the move into the mobile device arena mean for Enlighten and your company?
We first showed demonstrations of our mobile implementation at the Game Developers Conference early this year, and the level of interest was staggering. There is wide acknowledgement that the next great opportunity for games is developing high-end graphically-rich content on mobile devices, bringing games to a whole new market. We believe that global illumination is a key part of the puzzle, and that Enlighten is perfectly placed to allow developers to capitalise on this opportunity.
3D World: What does Enlighten mean for the gaming industry – in terms of the gameplay?
Dynamic lighting brings interesting gameplay opportunities – indirect lighting can give clues to where enemies are located, shooting out lights and dropping flares can be tactical devices in shooters, and we know that developers have a number of other creative uses in mind. But often the most important use of Enlighten is in setting the mood of a game. We encourage developers to use Enlighten to approach a game level with the mindset of a cinematographer. The lighting is not telling the story, but it is important to have the lighting correctly reflect the mood of a scene. If you are chasing down confined spaces then rapidly changing lighting can give a sense of unease and ramp up the tension. If your area is brightly coloured you want the lighting to bring this out. Often these effects are subtle, but for the player they can really ramp up the level of immersion.
Enlighten was used to great effect on Battlefield 3. "Often the most important use of Enlighten is in setting the mood of a game. We encourage developers to use Enlighten to approach a game level with the mindset of a cinematographer," says Chris Doran. ©2011 EA Digital Illusions CE AB
3D World: What does Enlighten do for game developers?
Enlighten offers three things to game developers. First, improved workflow and a mature stable product gets your game made more quickly – you can focus on content creation knowing that the runtime will work. Second, instant iteration drives up the quality as artists can experiment and keep tweaking until they have fully realised their vision.
Too many games fall short of the expected quality level because the art team simply run out of time. Finally, fully dynamic in-game lighting offers new creative possibilities, which we are beginning to see employed now. Altogether this is a very compelling proposition for games developers.
3D World: What studios are currently using Enlighten and what titles are coming out using the tech?
As you might expect, we cannot talk openly about all of the studios that have licensed Enlighten and their titles. Studios like to keep this information secret until close to launch. The next three titles that we can briefly mention are the new Medal of Honor, Army of Two, and Command & Conquer titles with EA. More information on those will be released shortly. We are also working on titles with CCP, Take 2, THQ, Mail.ru, Bestway games and a host of others. There are over 20 titles currently in development using Enlighten and that number is increasing rapidly.
3D World: We know that you’ve added baking technology to Enlighten, isn’t this a backwards move?
We did worry that this could be seen as a backward move, but once you realise that our vision is to be a complete end-to-end solution for game lighting it makes complete sense. There may be areas of a game that do not need dynamic lighting, or even levels within a game. And there may be different versions of a game for different platforms – dynamic lighting for the high end, and baked for older platforms.
The point is that you want to have a consistent look across all of the different possibilities, so it makes sense to use the same underlying technology. It unifies the authoring pipeline, allows re-use of the data structures and minimises the artist workload. Also, our real-time technology ensures that our baking technology is way ahead of any rival product for speed. It fits much better with artists’ ideal way of working, where they can iterate on the final result.
3D World: We understand Enlighten picked up the 2012 Develop Award for Technical Innovation – you must be very pleased. But has all the feedback been positive and do you know how you can take Enlighten further now?
Most of the feedback has been positive, but there are always steps we can take to improve the technology. Currently we do place some restrictions on how geometry is authored. These are very similar to restrictions you would place if you have decided upfront that your game is using lightmaps, but that is still a restriction. The lightmapping step itself is also a bit tedious. We are working hard to remove all of these restrictions, and to automate as much of the pipeline as possible.
Another piece of feedback is that Enlighten is currently a ‘performance tool’. You can think of it like a Formula 1 car. It is great at what it does, but you do need a level of skill to drive it successfully. We are constantly looking at ways to simplify the product by automating processes, or offering a choice.
"Another piece of feedback is that Enlighten is currently a ‘performance tool’. You can think of it like a Formula 1 car. It is great at what it does, but you do need a level of skill to drive it successfully," says Chris Doran. Image from Need for Speed: The Run, ©2011 Electronic Arts.
We see this as increasingly important as we start to service the mobile market. Developers for mobile care far more about getting the game out quickly and simply and would rather have a stripped down version of the product that requires less interaction.
As we start to service this market it is going to drive the product ever further in the direction of a simplified workflow.
3D World: What’s the next step for the tech and your company?
As we gear up for next generation, we are working hard to make sure Enlighten is ideally positioned.
We know we can scale up the graphics quality with more powerful hardware, and all of our improvements to the authoring workflow will make it easier to generate larger amounts of content without ramping up the development cost.
The final piece of the jigsaw is handling even greater levels of dynamism, and potentially user generated content. We showcased a solution for fully dynamic global illumination at GDC 2012. This enabled dynamic objects to bounce light back into the world, and onto other dynamic objects.
We can do this without compromising the lighting quality or significantly impacting the runtime cost. We are working on refining this research and making it easier for developers to use. We are expecting ever greater levels of dynamism in worlds in the future and this is a big area of focus for us.
Thanks to Chris Doran for granting this interview. We can’t wait to see how future videogame titles use the Enlighten tech and what Geometrics does next.
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on Thursday, October 25th, 2012 at 5:08 pm under News, Technology.
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Tags: Enlighten, Medal of Honor - Warfighter, videogame lighting, videogame technology