Our New Game: I Am Dolphin

After an incredibly long time of quiet development, our new game, I Am Dolphin, will be available this Thursday, October 9th, on the Apple/iOS App Store. This post will be discussing the background and the game itself; I’m planning to post more technical information about the game and development in the future. This depends somewhat on people reading and commenting – tell me what you want to know about the work and I’m happy to answer as much as I can.

For those of you who may not have followed my career path over time: A close friend and I have spent quite a few years doing R&D with purely physically driven animation. There’s plenty of work out there on the subject; ours is not based on any of it and takes a completely different approach. About three years ago, we met a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital who helped us set up a small research group at Hopkins to study biological motion and create a completely new simulation system from the ground up, based around neurological principles and hands-on study of dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Unlike many other physical animation systems, including our own previous work, the new work allows the physical simulation to be controlled as a player character. We also developed a new custom in-house framework, called the Kata Engine, to make the simulation work possible.

One of the goals in developing this controllable simulation was to learn more about human motor control, and specifically to investigate how to apply this technology to recovery from motor impairments such as stroke. National Geographic was kind enough to write some great articles on our motivations and approach:

Virtual Dolphin On A Mission

John Krakauer’s Stroke of Genius

Although the primary application of our work is medical and scientific, we’ve also spent our spare time to create a game company, Max And Haley LLC, and a purely entertainment focused version of the game. This is the version that will be publicly available in a scant few days.

Here is a review of the game by AppUnwrapper.

I got my hands on the beta version of the game, and it’s incredibly impressive and addictive. I spent two hours playing right off the bat without even realizing it, and have put in quite a few more hours since. I just keep wanting to come back to it. iPhones and iPads are the perfect platform for the game, because they allow for close and personal, tactile controls via simple swipes across the screen.

I now have three shipped titles to my name; I’d say this is the first one I’m really personally proud of. It’s my firm belief that we’ve created something that is completely unique in the gaming world, without being a gimmick. Every creature is a complete physical simulation. The dolphins you control respond to your swipes, not by playing pre-computed animation sequences but by actually incorporating your inputs into the drive parameters of the underlying simulation. The end result is a game that represents actual motion control, not gesture-recognition based selection of pre-existing motions.

As I said at the beginning of the post, this is mostly a promotional announcement. However, this is meant to be a technical blog, not my promotional mouthpiece. I want to dig in a lot to the actual development and technical aspects of this game. There’s a lot to talk about in the course of developing a game with a three person (2x coder, 1x artist) team, building a complete cross-platform engine from nothing, all in the backdrop of an academic research hospital environment. Then there’s the actual development of the simulation, which included a lot of interaction with the dolphins, the trainers, and the Aquarium staff. We did a lot of filming (but no motion capture!) in the course of the development as well; I’m hoping to share some of that footage moving forward.

Here’s a slightly older trailer – excuse the wrong launch date on this version. We decided to slip the release by two months after this was created – that’s worth a story in itself. It is not fully representative of the final product, but our final media isn’t quite ready.

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Game Code Build Times: RAID 0, SSD, or both for the ultimate in speed?

I’ve been in the process of building and testing a new machine using Intel’s new X99 platform. This platform, combined with the new Haswell-E series of CPUs, is the new high end of what Intel is offering in the consumer space. One of the pain points for developers is build time. For our part, we’re building in the general vicinity of 400K LOC of C++ code, some of which is fairly complex — it uses standard library and boost headers, as well as some custom template stuff that is not simple to compile. The worst case is my five year old home machine, an i5-750 compiling to a single magnetic drive, which turns in a six minute full rebuild time. Certainly not the biggest project ever, but a pretty good testbed and real production code.

I wanted to find out what storage system layout would provide the best results. Traditionally game developers used RAID 0 magnetic arrays for development, but large capacity SSDs have now become common and inexpensive enough to entertain seriously for development use. I tested builds on three different volumes:

  • A single Samsung 850 Pro 512 GB (boot)
  • A RAID 0 of two Crucial MX100 512 GB
  • A RAID 0 of three WD Black 4 TB (7200 rpm)

Both RAID setups were blank. The CPU is an i7-5930k hex-core (12 threads) and I’ve got 32 GB of memory on board. Current pricing for all of these storage configurations is broadly similar. Now then, the results. Will the Samsung drive justify its high price tag? Will the massive bandwidth of two striped SSDs scream past the competitors? Can the huge magnetic drives really compete with the pinnacle of solid state technology? Who will win?

Drumroll…

They’re all the same.

All three configurations run my test build in roughly 45 seconds, the differences between them being largely negligible. In fact it’s the WD Blacks that posted the fastest time at 42s. The obvious takeaway is that all of these setups are past the threshold where something else is the bottleneck. That something in this case is the CPU, and more specifically the overall hardware thread count. Overclocking the CPU from 3.5 to 4.5 did nothing to help. I’ve heard of some studios outfitting their engineers with dual Xeon setups, and it’s not looking so crazy to do so when employee time is on the line. (The potential downside is that the machine starts to stray significantly from what the game will actually run on.) Given the results, and the sizes of modern game projects, I’d recommend using an inexpensive 500 GB SSD for a boot drive (Crucial MX100, Sandisk Ultra II, 840 EVO), and stocking up on the WD Blacks for data. Case closed.

But… as long as we’re here, why don’t we take a look at what these drives are benchmarking at? The 850 Pro is a monster of a drive. Those striped MX100s might be the real heros though; ATTO shows them flirting with a full gigabyte per second of sequential transfer. Here are the raw CrystalDiskMark numbers for all three:

Samsung 850 Pro:

Sequential Read : 520.557 MB/s
Sequential Write : 489.836 MB/s
Random Read 512KB : 407.993 MB/s
Random Write 512KB : 465.648 MB/s
Random Read 4KB (QD=1) : 24.216 MB/s [ 5912.1 IOPS]
Random Write 4KB (QD=1) : 71.216 MB/s [ 17386.7 IOPS]
Random Read 4KB (QD=32) : 398.378 MB/s [ 97260.3 IOPS]
Random Write 4KB (QD=32) : 331.571 MB/s [ 80950.0 IOPS]

2x Crucial MX100 in RAID 0:

Sequential Read : 898.908 MB/s
Sequential Write : 905.506 MB/s
Random Read 512KB : 695.787 MB/s
Random Write 512KB : 854.666 MB/s
Random Read 4KB (QD=1) : 26.271 MB/s [ 6413.8 IOPS]
Random Write 4KB (QD=1) : 110.554 MB/s [ 26990.8 IOPS]
Random Read 4KB (QD=32) : 430.077 MB/s [104999.3 IOPS]
Random Write 4KB (QD=32) : 413.606 MB/s [100978.0 IOPS]

3x WD Black 4TB in RAID 0:

Sequential Read : 530.522 MB/s
Sequential Write : 494.534 MB/s
Random Read 512KB : 61.752 MB/s
Random Write 512KB : 162.619 MB/s
Random Read 4KB (QD=1) : 0.724 MB/s [ 176.7 IOPS]
Random Write 4KB (QD=1) : 4.461 MB/s [ 1089.1 IOPS]
Random Read 4KB (QD=32) : 5.090 MB/s [ 1242.8 IOPS]
Random Write 4KB (QD=32) : 5.307 MB/s [ 1295.6 IOPS]

I don’t claim that these numbers are reliable or representative. I am only posting them to provide a general sense of the performance characteristics involved in each choice. The SSDs decimate the magnetic drive setup for random ops, though the 512 KB values are respectable. I had expected the 4K random read, for which SSDs are known, to have a significant impact on build time, but that clearly isn’t the case. The WDs are able to dispatch 177 of those per second; despite being 33x slower than the 850 Pro, this is still significantly faster than the compiler can keep up with. Even in the best case scenarios, a C++ compiler won’t be able to clear out more than a couple dozen files a second.

Oddly Elaborate Apple Error Message

I just wanted to share this. Popped up today while initializing an NSDateComponents object.

components:fromDate:toDate:options:]: fromDate cannot be nil
I mean really, what do you think that operation is supposed to mean with a nil fromDate?
An exception has been avoided for now.
A few of these errors are going to be reported with this complaint, then further violations will simply silently do whatever random thing results from the nil.
Here is the backtrace where this occurred this time (some frames may be missing due to compiler optimizations):

So that was unexpected.

The Scandalous Yetizen Costume

There’s been a lot of chatter on the various blogs and news sites about the IGDA and Yetizen party incident. I’m not going to rehash that. See these articles if you’re not up to date on the whole controversy:
http://www.joystiq.com/2013/03/28/igda-party-features-dancers-prompts-controversy-resignations/
http://www.joystiq.com/2013/04/09/igda-defines-new-rules-for-future-industry-parties-after-gdc-mi/
http://yetizen.com/2013/03/30/official-statement-by-the-yetizen-ceo-on-the-yetizen-igda-gdc-party/2/
I will comment that I thought that the controversy was a wholly pointless manufactured thing and Brenda Romero’s resignation did not help anybody. That said, I was a little surprised to discover that the scandalous, allegedly inappropriate outfits that created all this trouble aren’t actually shown anywhere, in any of the news about the incident. At all. Not on Joystiq, not on the Gawker owned Kotaku, nowhere. I thought that was strange. Luckily I have photos of the Yetizen models from the previous year, so… here it is. This is the outfit that forced two IGDA members to resign.
Yetizen Outfits
Now you know.

A Glimpse of What I’m Working On

I’ve decided to focus a little less on complaining and a little more on the actual work I do. Here’s a teaser:
Monitor array
I had a substantial amount of help with the over-water environmental rendering (not pictured) from a friend of mine, Nauful Shaikh. See his site for some great graphics work.

This wall of monitors was graciously made available to us by the Computer Science department for a presentation to the President of the University as well as a healthy mix of department chairs from Neuroscience, Neurology, Brain Sciences Institute, Computer Science, and Electrical/Computer Engineering at Johns Hopkins. I’m driving it at 60fps off a single 7970 in Eyefinity 6. It was supposed to be Crossfire but somebody’s driver is broken *cough cough* so I had to gut the render pipeline somewhat. Total resolution is 5760×2160 plus some margins for bezel compensation. The actual app is Kinect and PS Move enabled, and maybe I can share more about it this summer. The focus is a dolphin which we’ve developed with significant help and guidance from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, who let us work directly with their dolphins to better understand the animals, how they move and think, etc.

We’re planning to launch an iPad version this year on the iTunes App Store, and create a large scale interactive installation version for aquariums, hospitals, museums and similar at 4K resolution in stereoscopic 3D.

Follow-up on DirectX/XNA

Received today, and hopefully the “you can quote me” part means this is an exception to NDA because it’s important:

The message said “DirectX is no longer evolving as a technology.” That is definitely not true in any way, shape or form. Microsoft is actively investing in DirectX as the unified graphics foundation for our key platforms, including Xbox 360, Windows Phone and Windows. DirectX is evolving and will continue to evolve. For instance, right now we’re investing in some very cool graphics code authorizing [sic] technology in Visual Studio. We have absolutely no intention of stopping innovation with DirectX, and you can quote me on that. 🙂

My intent was not to start a firestorm of questioning on DirectX’s future viability, and I said up-front that I felt that communication was poorly worded with regards to intent. My frustrations were also apparently poorly worded. Since I accidentally launched this, let’s clear up a few things.

Number One: In the absolute (and implausible) worst case scenario that MS really scales back their Direct3D support to a minimum, that situation is still better than OpenGL. The Direct3D system is a technically superior piece of technology, and support for working with it is still better than OpenGL whether you’re a hobbyist or a pro. I cannot emphasize this point enough, so for the love of god stop bringing up OpenGL. It’s a badly designed API and has been since I started doing this in 2000.
Number Two: A new picture is coming into focus that shifts a lot of the DirectX SDK’s burden onto VS. This hasn’t been made previously clear to us on the MVP side. As I’ve begun to explore the tools already inside VS 2012, I like what I’m seeing. It’ll take some time to see how it all plays out, but in a very real way having Direct3D integrated into core VS development is a serious promotion.
Number Three: There’s more content in today’s email regarding XNA which I don’t care to share, thanks to a stern NDA reminder. (Ironically, when MS finally gives us what they should be saying to the public all along, I can’t share it.) But this is very much a case of “put up or shut up” and defending XNA’s status as a serious technology seems patently ridiculous to me right now. The community, whether it’s my work or someone else’s, has stepped in to integrate .NET and DirectX for many wonderful use cases. But there are things we can’t do (like Xbox) and it’s clear that matters to a lot of people. It’s not clear that it matters to Microsoft.

That said, I am not walking back my actual complaints about how DirectX and XNA are being handled. I like the work that’s been done in integrating VS and DirectX, which is arguably many years overdue. That doesn’t make everything else okay. The fact that we’re having this discussion, the fact that my dashed off blog post exploded on Twitter, the fact that clarification had to be written up behind the scenes — this is a problem. Which brings me at long last to the actual point I was trying to make yesterday:

As developers, we need Microsoft to communicate clearly with us, in public. As MVPs we were asked to act as community representatives, to guide everyone interested in the tech and have an open line on future development. Apparently that means we get half-hearted vague emails from time to time that dodges our serious questions and casts further doubts about the status of the technology and teams, all covered by an NDA agreement. And then, shockingly enough, people get the wrong idea. We’re sitting on the outside, trying to play this stupid guessing game of “which Microsoft technology is alive?” XNA doesn’t support DirectX 10+ or Windows 8, but it’s still a “supported product”, as if that means anything in the real world. Windows XP is still a “supported product” too.

It shouldn’t take a leaked email to force a straight answer.

DirectX/XNA Phase Out Continues


Please read the follow up post.

This email was sent out to DirectX/XNA MVPs today:

The XNA/DirectX expertise was created to recognize community leaders who focused on XNA Game Studio and/or DirectX development. Presently the XNA Game Studio is not in active development and DirectX is no longer evolving as a technology. Given the status within each technology, further value and engagement cannot be offered to the MVP community. As a result, effective April 1, 2014 XNA/DirectX will be fully retired from the MVP Award Program.

There’s actually a fair bit of information packed in there, and I think some of it is poorly worded. The most stunning part of it was this: “DirectX is no longer evolving as a technology.” That is a phrase I did not expect to hear from Microsoft. Before going to “the sky is falling” proclamations, I don’t think this is a death sentence for DirectX, per se. It conveys two things. Number one, DirectX outside of Direct3D is completely dead. I hope this is not a shock to you. Number two, it’s a reminder that Direct3D has been absorbed into Windows core, and thus is no more a “technology” than GDI or Winsock.

Like I said, poorly worded.

There are a few other things packed in there. XNA Game Studio is finished. That situation has been obvious for years now, so it also should not really come as a surprise either. And finally the critical point for me: our “MVP” role as community representatives and assistants is appreciated but no longer necessary. On this point, the writing has been on the wall for some time and so I should not be surprised. But I am. Maybe dismayed is a better word.

As I’ve said previously, I don’t feel that the way DirectX has been handled in recent years has been a positive thing. A number of technical decisions were made that were unfortunate, and then a number of business and marketing type decisions were made that compounded the problem. Many of the technologies (DirectInput, DirectSound, DirectShow) have splayed into a mess of intersecting fragments intended to replace them. The amount of developer support for Direct3D from Microsoft has been unsatisfactory, and anecdotal reports of internal team status have not been promising. Somebody told me a year or two back that the HLSL compiler team was one person. That’s not something you want to hear, true or not. Worst of all, though, was the communication. That’s the part that bugs me.

When you are in charge of a platform, whatever that platform may be, developers invest in your platform tech. That’s time and money spent, and opportunity costs lost elsewhere. This is an expected aspect of software development. As developers and managers, we want as much information as possible in order to make the best short and long term decisions on what to invest in. We don’t want to rewrite our systems from scratch every few years. We don’t want to fall behind competitors due to platform limitations. Navigating these pitfalls is crucial to survival for us. Microsoft has a vested interest in some level of non-disclosure and secrecy about what they’re doing. All companies do. I understand that. But some back and forth is necessary in order for the relationship to be productive.

Look at XNA — there have been a variety of questions surrounding it for years, about the extent to which the technology and its associated marketplace were going to be taken seriously and forward into the future. It is clear at this juncture that there was no future and the tech was being phased out. Direct3D 10 was launched in late 2006, a bit over six years ago, yet XNA was apparently never going to be brought along with the major improvements in DWM and Direct3D. How long was it known internally at Microsoft that XNA was a dead-end? How many people would’ve passed over XNA if MS had admitted circa 2008 (or even 2010, when 4.0 was released) that there was no future for the tech? The official response, of course, was always something vague and generic: “XNA is a supported technology.” That means nothing in Microsoft world, because “it will continue to work in its current state for a while” is not a viable way for developers to stay current with their competition.

Just to be clear, I don’t attribute any of this fumbling to malice or bad faith. There’s a lot of evidence that this type of behavior is merely a delayed reflection of internal forces at Microsoft which are wreaking havoc on the company’s ability to compete in any space. But the simple ground truth is that we’re entering an era where Windows’ domination is openly in question, and a lot of us have the flexibility and inclination to choose between a range of platforms, whether those platforms are personal computers, game consoles, or mobile devices. Microsoft’s offer in that world is lock-in to Windows, in exchange for powerful integrated platforms like .NET which are far more capable than their competitors (eg Java, which is just pathetic). That was an excellent trade-off for many years. Looking back now, though? The Windows tech hegemony is a graveyard. XNA. Silverlight. WPF. DirectX. Managed C++. C++/CLI. Managed DirectX. Visual Basic. So when you guys come knocking and ask us to commit to Metro — sorry, the Windows 8 User Experience — and its associated tech?

You’ll understand if I am not in a hurry to start coding for your newest framework.

Before things get out of hand: No, you should not switch to OpenGL. I get to use it professionally every day and it sucks. Direct3D 11 with the Win8 SDK is a perfectly viable choice, much more so than OpenGL for high end development. None of the contents of my frequent complaints should imply in any way that OpenGL is a good thing.

The Promise of Motion Control

I saw a blog post on IGN today: 4 reasons why the Nintendo Wii U will fail by Ian Fisch. I won’t comment on the WiiU, because I was one of the people who said the Wii was going to flop and man oh man was I ever off the mark on that one. But I did want to highlight a particular chunk of his post:

When people think of the massive success of the Nintendo Wii, they usually think of middle-aged moms playing Wii Fit, and senior citizens playing Wii Sports bowling at the retirement home. Indeed, the success of the Wii, much like the success of the Nintendo DS was due, in a large part, to casual gamers. We tend to forget that, originally, the excitement for the Wii was at a fever pitch among hardcore gamers. If you were a hardcore gamer then, you might remember sharing Eric Cartman’s excitement over the potential of Wii’s “motion control controls.”

It was hardcore gamers that gave the Wii its terrific launch. For about a year and a half, hardcore gamers were as enthusiastic about the Wii as their out-of-shape mothers soon would be. Of course, once hardcore gamers discovered the severe limitations of the Wii’s motion controls, the system became little more than a dust collector. The Wii U will not get this initial surge of excitement from hardcore gamers. The original Wii tantilized the hardcore set with the (false) promise of a new level of immersion – a step toward virtual reality.

I currently work for the BLAM Lab at Johns Hopkins University, which is part of the Department of Neurology. I helped found a group here called Kata. The Kata Project exists for a lot of reasons, but this idea is really our heart and soul:

In Japanese language, kata (though written as 方) is a frequently-used suffix meaning “way of doing,” with emphasis on the form and order of the process. Other meanings are “training method” and “formal exercise.” The goal of a painter’s practicing, for example, is to merge his consciousness with his brush; the potter’s with his clay; the garden designer’s with the materials of the garden. Once such mastery is achieved, the theory goes, the doing of a thing perfectly is as easy as thinking it.

I’m doing a rich mix of work here, centered around game development not only for medical and scientific research purposes but also commercial production. The key point, though, is that everything we do is centered around the study of biological motion and what it means for games. We’ve got touch, Wii, PS Move, or Kinect, Leap, or whatever else is coming down the pipeline, and I don’t feel that the potential of any of those devices has really been explored properly. The Wii implied something that it turned out not to be, sadly. Motion control itself, combined with game design that really focuses on using it in new and interesting ways, has a very distinct future separate from what we’ve got today. Fruit Ninja is an early expression of it, I think. Of course I believe that we’ll be the ones to crack the code, but no matter how it happens I find it extremely interesting to observe what people are doing with the rich data we can get out of motion control systems. So far Kinect and most iPad games seem to be an expression of how much data we can throw away, instead. That needs to change.

Gamma FAQ

I am working on Part 2 of my Digital Color posts, but it won’t be ready for a while yet. The goal of that post is to talk all about luminance, brightness, gamma, and the various other attributes and properties of how light a color is, rather than what shade it is.

In the meantime, please accept my apology and consider reading this page I found: the Gamma FAQ by Charles Poynton.