Graphical Greatness

A house built on a shoddy foundation won't last very long, no matter how many amenities the structure has. In the game industry, a game's graphics are its foundation. Having amazing graphics is a basic requirement of any game these days, or consumers won't even bother to try it out.

Ironically, creating amazing graphics is probably one of the most time-consuming aspects of computer game programming. If there are any flaws, the players will immediately notice. Some companies employ entire armies of artists and graphical programmers, and even then it can take two years or more before that phase of development is complete.

Numerical Design Ltd. is a company that caters to this side of the business. Since 1983 they have been trying to improve computer graphics as well as make them easier to create. Today, their NetImmerse software lets artists create game prototypes without the need for programmers. This rapid prototype creation can save years off the development cycle for games and has successfully been used in popular titles like Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Mythic Entertainment’s Dark Age of Camelot.

We put the spotlight on NDL CEO John Austin to talk about NetImmerse, the recent high profile successes of NDL and the company's lifelong love of pretty pixels.

GiN: In terms of our industry, Numerical Design Ltd. is a real grandfather of a company, being founded back in 1983 by Turner Whitted and Robert Whitton. Originally, what was the company's goal back then?

Austin: The goal then – and still today – is to put great looking 3D pictures up on displays. We love pixels. The original products were used for high quality 3D rendering – making beautiful computer generated imagery no matter how long it took to render a frame (and without any hardware). Today our focus is on real-time 3D rendering – creating realistic images 30 times every second – and the driving market for that today is video games.

GiN: A lot has been said of the fact that one of NDL's founders, Turner Whitted, invented ray tracing. Can you explain for the non-expert exactly what ray tracing is, and how it is important in the game industry and elsewhere?

Austin: Turner is one of the pioneers in 3D computer graphics, first at Bell Labs, then at UNC, now at Microsoft Research. His contributions to the field go way beyond ray tracing, but that is what he is most known for. Ray tracing is used to create incredibly realistic computer generated images that accurately compute shadows, reflections, refractions and other realistic light interactions. It is incredibly important in the animation industry. In the game industry it's not used because you cannot compute the images fast enough for real-time requirements of games.

GiN: Over the years NDL has been a consultant for such diverse agencies and companies as Adobe Systems, IBM, the Environmental Protection Agency and Mythic Entertainment. What kind of services does NDL offer that both the EPA and Mythic would be interested in?

Austin: 3D graphics. It's just that the specific applications have evolved over time. Our first product, rPlus, was used by customers to create high quality images. In the mid-90s, we did some consulting for companies like IBM and the EPA, and then for some game companies. The contacts, expertise, and code base that we developed consulting with game companies are what grew into our new line of business of providing the NetImmerse engine to game developers.

GiN: Speaking more about NDL today, how large a firm has the company become? Would you consider NDL a small, medium or large sized firm?

Austin: We now have just under 20 folks and have plans to continue to grow.

GiN: Mr. Austin, you joined NDL in 1998, coming over from Hewlett-Packard. What about NDL attracted a talented professional like yourself away from one of the largest computer companies in the world?

Austin: Not to disappoint you, but I am afraid the main reason is that I love living in Chapel Hill, my family has put down roots here, and when HP closed their local office I wasn't going anywhere. I'd known the folks at NDL since the company got started; I was in the first graphics class that Turner taught at UNC. In 1998, NDL was looking for someone to provide a little adult supervision and they thought I might be useful in that regard.

I love graphics, and at the time it was clear to me that the application that was driving innovation in 3D graphics was video games. NDL had the beginnings of a great product and so I thought there was a lot of opportunity.

Another part of it is that I love working with incredibly talented folks, and NDL has always had great people.

Finally, it's just a whole lot more fun working at a smaller company. I was only at HP a short time, but when at a company that size it's really hard to see what kind of difference you make every day. Plus, I'm not cut out to be a middle manager in a big company – my PowerPoint skills are not refined enough.

GiN: Can you tell us a little bit about your personal background?

Austin: My undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering and my first job was designing computer hardware back in the late 70s. I got interested in graphics and software while working on a project to put a moving 3D map display in helicopters. After a few years, I decided to go back to school, and that brought me to computer graphics program at the University of North Carolina here in Chapel Hill. I stayed on after my degree a few years and worked on the Pixel-Planes research graphics project, then on graphics hardware at Sun Microsystems, Division, Inc. and Hewlett-Packard. The common threads here are graphics, hardware, and North Carolina. This is the first "pure" software company I've worked at – I really miss building hardware and keep trying to figure out a way for us to get in the hardware business.

GiN: Recently, NDL has started to become more visible, pushed into the limelight in no small part because of their current flagship product, NetImmerse. Can you tell us a bit about what NetImmerse is?

Austin: NetImmerse is an object-oriented C++ graphics engine and software toolkit. Game developers who use NetImmerse can spend their time making their games look great and play well, saving time and money in the process. Our engine provides the features and performance a game needs to look great, and runs on PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube. The tools make it easy to preview and create animations, optimize scene graphs, and tune performance.

We introduced the product in 1997 and have continually enhanced and improved it. In 1999, it won Game Developer Magazine's "Product of the Year" award in the libraries and tools category (based on independent reviews of competing products), and last year we were a finalist for the same award. More than 35 games have been released on the engine and another 35 titles are currently in development.

GiN: So, how exactly does NetImmerse help save developers engineering costs and development time?

Austin: The tools allow artists to quickly create a compelling game prototype, without the need for programmers and then add, improve, enhance, and optimize the look, feel, and playability of the game from prototype to gold master. The 3ds max and Maya plugins allow the artist to create game specific content, preview the game on the target platform, edit and tweak content for performance and visual quality, and export that content with platform specific optimizations.

The engine saves the programmer the time of implementing from scratch various effects and features such as particle systems, collision detection, and rendering. The 3ds max and Maya plugins support the Gamebryo component framework, which allows developers to add custom features specific for their needs. Since the engine's API is identical across platforms, it is very easy to develop a game for multiple platforms.

One of our customers told us that they saved two years in their development process by licensing our technology. Another, in an article they wrote about their development process, said licensing NetIMmerse was one of the five key reasons for their success.

GiN: NetImmerse has been used to help create some amazing games recently, like Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Mythic Entertainment’s Dark Age of Camelot, both of which are nominated for this years Game Industry News Game of the Year Awards. Yet, both games and others that used NetImmerse look different. You can't really look at a title and know that the NDL engine has been used. How do you keep the engine from taking on a distinct look and feel that other similar products exhibit?

Austin: And I'll add a third title that got great reviews – Freedom Force – which has a comic book style completely unlike the others.

The best word to describe our engine is flexible – it allows each developer to add the features and look that will make their game truly unique. We believe we have found the proper "level" of engine and tools that developers want. They are not so high level that they are restrictive and force the developer to do things a certain way – which could cause all games to have a very similar look and feel.

We have a very easy to use architecture that gives developers the ability to write a game in just about any genre whether it's sports, racing, action-adventure, RPG, or FPS. We provide a toolset that is easy to fit into a developers production pipeline, giving them the freedom to push their creativity to develop award-winning games in a cost-efficient way.

GiN: I hear you have some exciting announcements planned for this year's Game Developer Conference. Care to shed a bit of light on what future plans we might expect to see from NDL?

Austin: At GDC, we will launch our latest 3D game development system – known as Gamebryo. We believe Gamebryo will be seen as a major step in the evolution of game development. It builds on our proven NetImmerse technology with many new features and has a completely new tools architecture that provides a framework for game development that gives the team the freedom to expand their production pipeline – it is not a "one size fits all" environment. Gamebryo lets you develop your game your way.

We have been working non-stop for over a year on this new product and we are very excited about the upcoming launch at the Game Developers Conference.

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