Interview with Blitz Games co-founder and CTO Andrew Oliver

How were you first introduced to Stereo 3D technology?
I’ve been aware of people building expensive PCs with the nVidia graphics cards and specialist monitors for some time, but personally it struck home when I saw The Polar Express 3D at an IMAX theatre and thought: “My god, 3D’s really cool now.” It really did add something to the film and I think it was a turning point for a lot of people. It led me to think about games and how cool it would be if they were ‘pop out’ 3D and it just so happened that one of our programmers at Blitz had a set-up at home.

He brought some stuff in to show us about a year or so ago. It didn’t go too much further because we make mass-market games and there isn’t really a mass market for 3D games, or certainly not at that time. We don’t really do PC – well, we did do Reservoir Dogs – but generally speaking, we don’t, and there’s not enough of a market with 3D monitors. But then, we looked closer and saw that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks have all been announcing 3D films and realized that the mass market is likely to turn to 3D. We also noticed that Samsung, Mitsubishi and Texas Instruments are starting to make 3D televisions. So we got hold of some of these screens to see if we could get them to work on the PS3 and Xbox 360. And it turns out we could, but it was flippin’ hard. There’s no way I would say it was easy!

We felt that the mass market would accept 3D once they’d seen some of these new 3D films and with TV manufacturers starting to build in 3D. well, you can kind of work out where it’s all going and that it could work in theory. So we decided it was worth pursuing. After all, we quite often make games of films, and if the film is 3D, then it follows that the publisher should want the game in 3D, right? As we’re quite a technology-led company, we thought we should be able to offer this as a possibility. So we decided to go for it, and we’ve been working for, I don’t know, six to eight months to work out all the pitfalls and get things up and running, which we’ve done now.

You’ve done it? What were some of the pitfalls?
Some of the PC monitors out there that say they’re 3D, physically don’t plug into a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Either they need a double connector, or they’re not HDMI or DVI. And then some actually have strange modes, like the polarized monitors that have to run at a fixed resolution. If that resolution isn’t one supported by the PlayStation 3, it will never work. So we got quite a few monitors in, because if you go mass market, you’ve got to try to be compatible with everything – but I have to say, it’s the TVs that start to become very interesting.

We got them working and that’s actually what people would have in their living room, with their PS3 and Xbox 360 sitting below. They’re the ones that say 3D-Ready on them, and use active shutter glasses. I must admit, I knew about the shutter glasses a few years ago with the nVidia stuff and thought they were a bit flickery, but believe me: they are very much improved. You don’t notice any flicker at all – they’re really, really good.

That’s often the problem with anything new – if it’s not quite perfect, people tend to dismiss it. But if you see it now, it really is perfect. Yes, you have to wear glasses, and I have to say the glasses at the moment look a little geeky, but I’ve seen the new prototype glasses for the home market here and they look really great - just like normal sunglasses. People aren’t going to have an issue wearing them.

So you got this working on TVs – and it only works, at this point, with the 3DTVs? Or will there be monitor support as well?
We’ve got it working with quite a few. We spent a long time working with the Philips autostereoscopic screens, which don’t need glasses at all. We got it working, but I think it’s going to be a little while before autostereoscopic screens take off. Sharp has a nice one as well. At first we thought, that people wouldn’t want to wear the glasses so we concentrated on these. But it was a bit of a dead end for us. It’s really interesting but just not quite there yet. The 3D TVs were easier and that’s the realistic option.

You’ve put on your website that there have been an estimated two million units sold — I’ve been told it was definitely more than a million last summer. Anyhow, it’s significant, and the interesting thing is people are buying these TVs at the moment without thinking of 3D. They’re just buying them as TVs. Isn’t it cool that the TVs with this ability are sneaking into households so that all people have to do is buy some glasses, plug in a PS3 or an Xbox and buy games that are compatible.

So the biggest difficulty of making games in 3D - and this is the big, big problem - is the games must run in 1080p at 60 frames per second, because that’s what this 3D TV standard has dictated.

Interesting. Why 1080p, I’m curious?
Because it’s Full HD, and while companies a few year ago were talking about how hard it is to get a pixel resolution of 1080, so they used lower resolutions and scaled the picture, they’ve changed their tune. Now they’re saying that as people will be running Blu-ray, they’ll want it at 1080p, full-frame rate. They built that standard to say it’s full resolution. Actually, there is a substandard that says it can be 720, but you can’t build a game – the way that it scales, if you had a 720 game and tried to scale it to 1080, it actually messes up the 3D. So you have to make your game for 1080p.

So it has to be a native 1080p game, running at a 1080p resolution the entire time?
Yes. It’s tough – if you go and count the number of games out there that are in that resolution, there’s very few, probably five to seven on each platform. If you look at the Sony platform – they do Wipeout and a few others – Sony themselves have been showing off that they’ve managed to get the full resolution. But if you look at our last game, Karaoke Revolution American Idol Encore 2, we’re running at 60 fps, at 720, so the extra bit for us to design a game that is in 1080 is just a bit more rendering time. We’re confident we can do it and have shown a demo demonstrating this.

So you do believe that the consoles have that kind of power, it’s just that the games aren’t using it yet?
Yes. If you look at the early games on the PlayStation 2, and then compare them with the last few games like Black and Burnout, they look like different consoles. Give developers a few years and they’ll get really, really slick engines. We already have a really slick engine and we’re confident we can do it now.

I was just going to ask you about that – you have an engine now: the Blitztech Engine, and have just enabled native stereoscopic 3D.
We have a very fast game engine that we license and that our games are written on. We have a Volatile game that hasn’t been announced yet, but when you see that, I’d like to think you’ll be blown away. But people can see American Idol, on the PS3 and Xbox, and will notice huge crowd scenes, impressive lighting, real-time shadows, everything – and it’s all running at 60 frames a second. When people see that, they’ll realize that our technology is really very fast.

You can’t tell me what your game is at Volatile?
No, I think it’s going to be announced fairly shortly. I would say, before you hype people up, that it’s not going to be 3D – because we’re nearly finished.

That was the next thing I was going to ask. You’ve got the engine, which you’re enabling 3D on, and you also build games for others, as you’ve demonstrated – but do you have any stereo 3D games in development?

You’d mentioned that you reach out to those producing 3D movies, and I wanted to ask – have you spoken to James Cameron about Avatar?
I believe it’s already been licensed to Ubisoft. James Cameron was at the show [3D Entertainment Summit], and I was going to talk to him, but he was just completely mobbed and looked pretty annoyed by it, so I didn’t. But there are plenty of other movies, and the point was that I was up there to make a statement that if you are making a 3D movie, you should consider a 3D game. Clearly we have the technology running now. I suspect that other game companies will follow, but I’d like to think we’ve got a year head start on them.

I was wondering, because Ubisoft has been saying that Avatar will be a console game, and I wasn’t sure if your engine was a part of that, or whether they had been building their own.
We have licensed our engine to other developers, but not Ubisoft.

And I’m curious what interest you’ve gotten so far about 3D console games. Have you had any software developers call you up and say “We’re interested in Blitztech,” specifically because of this stereo 3D?
When you tell people that you’ve got 3D, and ask if they’re interested, the general response is along the lines of: “Mmmm, yeah, but it’s a bit of a novelty and there’s not much of a market for it. I guess it would add something, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the extra hassle of trying to make it run at 1080p with 60 frames per second.” because obviously that takes work, and a bit of money and such.

But actually, even people with a 2D monitor will get a very slick-looking game. So people have been kind of non-committal when they’ve heard about it, and we’ve talked to various publishers. But the few people that we have shown since December 2008, when we actually showed them our game running on a 3D TV, have said “Oh god, that’s really nice. It’s starting to look like a hologram – you can reach out and feel into the screen. You kind of forget you’re wearing glasses.”

And I have to say, our 3D looks better than the 3D you’ve been seeing on PCs, because on a PC you tend to have a fluctuating frame rate, which messes up 3D a bit. This is why it has to be 60 frames, because if you go and look at the 3D-Ready standard, it doesn’t actually specify 60 frames, it can run at 30 – but it doesn’t look that great. If you run it at 60, it suddenly comes alive and looks like a hologram. It’s amazing and you can really believe in it.

And on the PC, people are generally taking games like Need for Speed and putting it through special drivers to get it working on a 3D monitor, but it’s not like it was ever really designed to do 3D so there’s lots of stuff that doesn’t quite work correctly. It’s like if you take a 2D movie and try to make it 3D, or take a black and white movie, and try to color it up afterwards. It is color, but it doesn’t look right, whereas when you design the console game like we have, it works really well. You’ll have to take my word for it!

Oh, I do believe that, and one of the things I’m actually worried about is that people will be turned off by stereo 3D once again, because they think it’s a conversion process – like you said, something that adds extraneous color to the existing game instead of building a 3D experience from the ground up.
Yes, and just to make it even more difficult, not only do you have to run it at that resolution and frame rate, but any ‘billboarding’ – because we all cheat, and draw flat trees and such in the distance as backdrops – stands out like a sore thumb. We’ve found that we’ve had to go in and model a lot more than we’d usually have to, so there are actually more complex scenes as well – and you have to spend more time on the camera, so you don’t suddenly put the camera against the wall and then look out into the distance.

They’ve actually had to be careful about this in 3D movies. In a regular movie there are often fast cuts, like in conversation shots over the shoulder, then the camera looks at both characters, and then over the shoulder again and repeat this a lot. If this is done in a 3D movie, it’ll most likely make the audience a bit queasy because their eyes are trying to focus and refocus over and over again.

In games, we don’t cut cameras very often, so that’s one advantage for gamers. But we do have follow cameras, such as in a first-person shooter, where you might be looking right at a wall, turn, and look right down a corridor, then turn back at the wall, and if you see a near object, and then a far object, near, far, near, far, your eyes don’t like it and start to feel tired. This is because your eyes are refocusing on the depth and when watching traditional 2D screens, your eyes remained focused on one distance.

A big question for our readers, if they are becoming interested in stereo 3D, is what they should be investing in – because like you said, there are the polarized monitors, the 3D-Ready TVs, and the autostereoscopic displays coming down the road. You’re planning to support all of these, or as many as possible...
We’re planning to support the ones that we that will work. It’s been a lot of work, because you have to write drivers for each of the formats and TVs, which is what we’ve been spending a lot of time doing. Because clearly, if someone has a 3D monitor, and they bought a 3D game and it doesn’t work, they’re going to feel fairly cheated. The problem is, there are some out there which we can’t physically support for one reason or another. But theoretically, if it can work, we’ve made it work.

And I think other developers should go that far. There’s a market out there, they’re really interested in 3D, and hence that’s why they bought a 3D monitor. How cheated would they feel if they bought a 3D game for their PlayStation 3 and realize their 3D monitor doesn’t work. Where possible, we have done it, but one of the monitors physically needs a left and a right plug – it takes a left camera and a right camera, from the video card which has two ports. Well, we’ve only got one HDMI cable out of a PlayStation 3 – we can’t plug it in. It’s never going to work.

But the original question was, which of these different formats is the best bet – which do you feel is the most future-proof for those investing in the technology now?
Personally I think it’s 3D-Ready for the mass market, because it’s something that Samsung and Mitsubishi are building into their TVs, and people are buying that without even realizing that it’s 3D. They’re buying a regular TV, and it’s kind of in there. I think that’s pretty cool.

Can I ask you about the ViewSonic monitors that nVidia has been pushing? They’re 120 hertz, and that’s also supposed to be a technology that’s liable to be built into monitors from now on, such that you might just be buying an LCD panel, and it just so happens to have the speed you need to run shutterglasses at that 60 frames per second. Have you worked with those?
The technology that makes the glasses completely flicker-free needs that 120 hertz, so that’s the 3D-Ready standard out there in the Samsung and the Mitsubishi – and the ViewSonic – they run at 120 hertz. This is actually the expensive part – once you are at 120 hertz, adding the 3D is actually quite cheap.

To be perfectly honest with you, we haven’t got the ViewSonic, It’s on our list to get, but I imagine, being fairly familiar with the technologies, it should work very well. Until I see it, I can’t say, but we’ll definitely make sure it’ll be on our list, and we’ll definitely try to be compatible with any monitor out there that says 3D. If it physically possible, we’ll try to make sure it is supported in our engine.

The community’s going to be very happy to hear that. You mentioned autostereoscopic earlier – do you believe there’s a future for that, and if so, how far out might that future be?
We got the Sharp one working fairly nicely, which is kind of a semi-prototype, and we got the Phillips one working to an extent. They’re interesting but they’ve got a few problems. I think they will overcome these and we’re seeing a glimpse of the future, but I think it will be the between five-to-ten years future before they are in the homes as regular TVs.

They need more than just a left and a right view to create their 3D, and it’s been hard enough to give a left and a right view to the current screens with the Xbox & PlayStation 3. I think you’re looking at the next generation for autostereoscopic. Also, the technology is not quite there yet and they’re certainly not there in cost. They’re very expensive and not mass market yet.

Do you believe that the 3D market for games will depend on the current 3D initiative for movies, or do you think that it could survive on its own? Say if Dreamworks and so on fail to interest enough people in their 3D movies...
I think the two do go hand in hand, that it’s going to be these 3D movies that will make people realize that actually, 3D is really, really cool. Because at the moment, they think 3D is gimmicky. People who haven’t seen these new movies think it’s all gimmicky and it won’t work. But if they start to see lots of movies and walk out going “that was just so cool in 3D” and then they start to hear “Did you know that TV over there, if you buy that one, it’s $50 more but it can do 3D,” they’ll go “Oooh, I know what 3D is and it’s very cool, because I saw a film recently, it was a Pixar movie and it was 3D and it was brilliant,” then I think that will convince the consumer to buy the equipment. They need to buy the TV.

But you know, the studios are committed to it. There’s no doubt – all the CG animated movies are going to be made in 3D from now on. I’ve got no real doubts about that. The question at the 3D Entertainment Summit was, if you were making other movies, would you make them in 3D? And the tendency was, if it was a really big, CG-enhanced movie like a Pirates of the Caribbean, then you should seriously consider it.

By Sean Hollister, GameCyte