Search this blog

30 March, 2019

An unbiased look at real-time raytracing

Evaluating technology without hype or hate...

That would have been the title of my blog post if I published the version I had prepared after the DXR/RTX technology finally became public last year, at GDC 2018.
But alas I didn't. It remained in my drafts folder. Siggraph came and went. Now another GDC, and I finally decided to can that and rewrite it.

Why? Not because I thought the topic wasn't interesting. Hype is easy to give in to. Fear of missing out, excitement about new toys to play with, tech for tech's sake... Hate is equally devious. Fear of change. Comfort zones, familiarity.

These are all very interesting things to think about. And you should. But can I claim I am an expert on this? I don't know, I am not a venture capitalist, and I could say I've been right a number of times, but I doubt that reaches the threshold of statistical significance.
Moreover, being old and grumpy and betting against new technologies is often an easy win. Innovation is hard!

And really, it doesn't matter much. This technology is already in the hardware, and it will stay for the future. It is backed by large companies, and more will come on board for sure. And yes, it could go the way of geometry shaders and other things that tried to work "against" the established GPU architectures, but even for these, we did spend some time to understand how they could help us...

So, let's just assume we want to do some R&D in this RTRT thing and let's ask a different question. What should we be looking for?

The do and do not list of RTRT research.

DO NOT - Think that RTRT will make things simpler, or that (technical) simplicity is an objective. In real-time rendering, the pain comes from within. There's nothing that will stop people spending one month to save 0.1ms in any renderer. 
Until power is out of the equation, we will always build complex systems to achieve the ultimate quality vs performance tradeoffs. When people say that shadow maps are hard for example, they mostly mean that fast shadow maps are hard. Nobody prevents us from rendering huge, high precision maps with high-quality filtering. Even rendering from multiple light samples and doing proper area lights. We don't do it, because of performance optimization. 
And that's true for all complexity in a real-time renderer. When we add raytracing to the mix we only sign for more pain, hybrid algorithms, code paths, caching schemes and so on. And that's ok. Programmer's pain doesn't really matter much in the logistics of the production of today's games.

How many rendering techniques can you see?
How much pain was spent to save fractions of ms on each?

- Think about ray/memory/shading coherency and the GPU implications of raytracing. In other words, optimization. Right now, on high-end hardware, we can probably throw a few relatively naive raytracing effects and they will work because these GPUs are much more powerful than the consoles that constrain the scene and rendering complexity of most AAA games. They can render these scenes at obscene framerates and resolutions. So it might seem not a huge price to pay to drop back to 1080p and 60hz in order to have nicer effects. But this doesn't mean it's an efficient use of GPU power, and that won't stand long term.
Performance/quality considerations are a great culler of rendering techniques. We need to think about efficient raytracing.

DO NOT - Focus on the "wrong" things. Specular reflections don't matter much. Perceptually they don't! Specular highlights, in general, are a strong indicator of shape and material in objects, but we are not good at spotting errors in the lighting environment that generates them. That's why cubemaps work so well. In fact, even for shiny floors and walls (planar mirrors) with objects near or in contact with them, we are fooled most of the times by relatively simple cheats. We see errors in screen-space reflections only because some times they fail catastrophically, and we're talking there about techniques that take fractions of milliseconds to compute. And reflections with raytracing are both too simple and too complex. Too simple, because they are an easy case of raytracing as rays tend to be very coherent. And too complex, because they require evaluating surface shading, which is hard to do in most engines outside screen-space and is slow as triggering different shaders with real-time raytracing is really not hardware friendly.

Intel's demo: raytraced Wolfenstein ( Circa 2010.

- Think about occlusion on the other hand. It's much more interesting, can be more hardware friendly, definitely is more engine friendly and most importantly it's likely to have a bigger visual impact. Correct shadows from area lights, but also correctly occluding indirect lighting, both specular and diffuse.

DO NOT - Think that denoising will save the day. In the near future, for real-time rendering, it most likely will not. In fact in general denoising (even simple blurring that we sometimes already employ) can lift noise from high frequencies to lower ones, which under animation makes for worse artifacts. 

DO - Invest in caching and temporal accumulation ideas. Beyond screen-space. These will likely be more effective, and useful for a wide variety of effects. Also, do think about finer-grained solutions to launch work / update caches / update on demand. For this, real-time raytracing might help indirectly, because it needs in order to be performant the ability to launch shader work from other shaders. That general ability, if implemented in hardware, and exposed to programmers, could be useful in general, and it's one of the most interesting things to think about when we think of hardware raytracing.

DO NOT - Make the wrong comparisons! RTX on / RTX off tells a lie, because what we can't see with "RTX off" is what the game could look like if we allocated all the power that RTX needs to pushing conventional techniques or even simply more assets. There are a lot of techniques we don't use today because we don't think they are on the right side of the quality/performance equation. We could use them, but we prefer to push more assets instead.
If you want to be persuasive about raytracing, proper comparisons should be made. And proper comparisons should also take into account that rasterization without shading (visibility only) leaves compute units available for other work to be done in parallel. 
RTX hardware isn't free either! It costs chip area, even if you don't use it, but there's nothing we can do about that...

DO NOT - Assume that scene complexity is fixed. This is a corollary of the previous point, but we should always think at the very least, for overall visual impact, if simply pushing more stuff is better than pushing a given particular idea for "shinier" stuff, because scene complexity is far from having "peaked".

Offline rendering might (might!) be essentially complexity-agnostic today.
Real-time, not quite. (frame from Avengers Infinity War)

- Think about cases where raytracing could outperform rasterization at its own game. This is hard, because raytracing likely will always have a quite high cost, both because of the memory traffic that is required to traverse the spatial subdivision structures, and because it uses the compute units, while the rasterizer is a small piece of hardware that can operate in parallel. But, that said, raytracing could win in a couple of ways. 
First, because it's much more fine-grained. For example, refreshing very small areas in a shadow map could perhaps be faster with a raytracer. Another way to say this is that there are certain cases where the number of pixels we need visibility for is much smaller than the number of primitives and vertices we'd need to traverse in a rasterizer. 
The second thing to think about is how raytraced visibility goes wide, using the compute units and thus, the entire GPU. The rasterizer, on the other hand, can often be the bottleneck. And even if in many cases we can overlap other work to keep the GPU busy, that is not true in all cases!

DO - Think about engineering costs if you want the technology to be used now. It's true that programmer's pain doesn't matter. But at the moment RTX covers a tiny slice of the market. Programmers could find their pain in completing more important tasks... Corollary: think about fallback techniques. If we're moving an effect to RTX, how will we render it on GPUs that don't support it? Will it look very different? Will it make authoring more painful? That is something we generally can't afford.
In general, be brutally honest about costs and feasibility of solutions. This is a good rule in general, but it is especially true for an emerging technology. You don't want to burn developers with techniques that look good on paper, but fail to ship.

DO - Establish collaborations. Real-time raytracing is probably not going to sell more copies of a game. And if it's not going to save costs and make authoring more effective, if we're talking about uses in the runtime (an exception could be for uses in the artist tools themselves, e.g. to aid lightmap baking and/or previewing). It currently targets only a small audience, and you'll gain nothing by jumping on this too early. 
So, you probably should not pull your smartest R&D engineers from whatever they're doing to jump on this unless you have some very persuasive outside incentives... If not, you'll likely won't have many people to do raytracing related things. 
Thus, you should probably see if you can leverage collaborations with external research groups...

24 March, 2019

GDC 2019 - Everyday (shallow) ML

Here are the slides for my talk in the GDC 2019 Machine Learning tutorial day. 
Lots of slides, many more than what was shown on stage...


Code for my "nvgPrint", a nanoVG/OpenGL c++ library for super simple real-time, asynchronous plotting in C++.

Grab it till quantities last!

11 March, 2019

Rendering doesn’t matter anymore?

Apologies. I wanted to resist the clickbait title, but I couldn’t find anything much better...

And no, I’m not renouncing my ways as a rendering engineer, I’m not going to work on build systems or anything like that. Nor do I believe that real-time rendering has “peaked” or that our pace and progress in image quality has seen slowdowns. There is still a ton of work to do, and the difference between good and bad graphics can be dramatic...

But what I want to talk about a bit more (I mentioned this in my previous post) is what matters, and how do we decide that. ROI, perhaps an ugly term, but it gets the job done.

From product.

I’ve spent most of my now thirteen-old professional career in videogames working on production teams. A.k.a. making games. And lots of games I’ve helped making, I actually average a game per year, even when I was in production, which is quite unusual I guess.

Now, when you are in production, things are relatively simple. Ok, no, they are everything but. What I mean is that is straightforward... Ok, maybe still not the best description.

You start with some sort of rough plan. Hopefully, the creative persons have ideas, they present them to you, and you start making a sketch. What are the risks, things to experiment first, what are tasks that are more well known.

Unless you are bootstrapping an engine from scratch or doing major tech changes, mostly you’ll be asked for a ton of features, things people want. An unreasonable amount of them. Ludicrous.

So you go on and prioritize, estimate, shuffle things until you have some plan that makes sense. It won’t, but we know that, we start working and as things change, we re-adjust that plan, kicking features off the list and moving thinks up the priority...

So you get a gigantic amount of work to do, you get on the ride and off you go, fighting fires as they happen, course-adjusting and bracing yourself for the landing. For the most part. There are some other skills involved here and there, but mostly it’s about steering this huge ship that has both a ton of momentum and the worst controls ever.

Naturally, there isn’t much time to think about philosophical questions and other bullshit like that. In fact, plenty of times the truth is that you start losing control over the priorities, even.

That neat idea of reshuffling your list becomes more like a rough sort, and you don’t even necessarily have time or energy to understand why people who are asking for things need these things...

Production, on a good day.

If you go around and look at big enough productions, one pattern you will notice is that people start working without knowing the “why” of things. Which leads, no need to say, to quite sub-optimal solutions. But the production beast is an organic one, it’s unclean, it’s made by people and opinions and blood and sweat. Engineering is the art of handling all that and still shipping a great game, and it looks nothing like any idealized version of beauty some programmers might hold dear.

To technology.

Then you move to some cushy job in some central technology department, right? And now you have a problem. You have time, at least, sometimes.

You might want to work on things that help, or have a chance to help, more than a single product. If you do R&D, you will be doing things that have more risks and unknowns. In general, you aren’t so strongly tied to that list of features people are shuffling around day after day. Even when you are doing the only reasonable thing, which is to be attached to a product, you are not that close, you can’t be as you’re not part of the core team.

This is an opportunity because you can have some time and freedom, but also a huge risk because, in the end, the product is all that matters. Being singularly focused on production is not necessarily the best strategy for great products, because that monster swallows and consumes everything, focused on getting “more”, but straying away too much is the road to masturbatory efforts that can be irrelevant at best, dangerous most often.

So, you start thinking of ROI. What should I do? What’s best? You probably have things from multiple teams that could be done, and you have other things that you can persuade teams they should want...

In my case, being a rendering person, the question boils down to, what matters in rendering? How do I estimate how much a thing weights? When you move from “vfx artists want this particle trail thing and you have to do it tomorrow” to look at things with an iota of horizon, how do you decide?

Rendering doesn’t matter... it used to. Once upon a time, rendering made the games. Even more than that, entire genres. Doom, of course, is the obvious example, but there are many. The CD-ROM FMV game era. The hardware sprite and scrolling background fuelled platformers, shooters, and so on.

Chances are your engine won't create the next big videogame genre.

Then that ended, we arrived at a point where we had enough computing hardware that videogame genres are not defined by technology anymore. Perhaps this will change with VR/AR but for now let’s ignore them (they’re not hard to ignore either, these days).

But we still had a period where technology could be product defining. Call of Duty running at 60fps on ps3 and 360, for example, was quite unique, and that technical characteristic was instrumental to the product. Today doing a 60fps title is the norm, to ship at 30 is almost a gutsy move...

Rendering is thus restricted in the narrower field of aesthetics. It’s just... graphics. Sad if you think of that, right?

Well of course not! We have an ace up our sleeves, see. It’s true that technology is not genre-defining anymore, but AAA productions are insanely graphic-intensive. We love our computer graphics, and the amount of people dedicated to their care and feed is enormous. Everything is good again in the universe, rendering engineering reigns supreme.

So this is the first order of attack of the ROI problem. There are lots of things that are measurable in people and hours and dollars. These, pretty much, will automatically win over anything else. Let’s put them in the bucket of “really important stuff”.

By the way, when I say “measurable”, I don’t mean you can measure them or that you will. You most definitely will not! What I mean is that you could think of them and have a strong feeling they relate to said measurable quantities...

Chasing shiny things.

So I said you can bucket things. Things that are required to ship the game first. Things that help people second. Third, you get all your shiny things, which are, incidentally today what you could call graphics R&D. A good part of the stuff I do!

Should we stop doing that? No, of course I will never admit to that, c'mon.

But more seriously, it obviously can’t be that simple. There will never be an end to thing that “help people”, even if the best possible scenario you can still make progress, nothing is ever perfect. So obviously you will reach a point where some rendering effect trumps a tiny pipeline improvement, at least that is a given!

Moreover, though it is not that computer-graphic techniques, even when they are purely visual, do not help content production. We could point at the obvious trend of physically-based rendering, and how that helped (after a lot of growing pains everyone had to go through) to curb the explosion of hacks and ad-hoc controls that we had to create assets before.

But even smaller things can help artists to get more freedom, say even things like antialiasing, for example, might mean that geometry and other sources of discontinuity can be use more leniently, without transforming the frame in an undecipherable mess.

Not only there are diminishing returns for productivity improvements as for any other things, but the split point between features and productivity is often tricky. We definitely do not wait till everything is perfect before pushing more features out, the production monster wants to be fed.

And we shall never, ever discount the gigantic effects of familiarity, the other big scary monster. It is not worth sacrificing everything to it, but we should respect it. To use a technique well, to master it takes a long time. Changing things, even if entirely for the better, with no drawbacks whatsoever, still implies that we need to pay the (often huge) costs of loss of familiarity.

So? How do you decide? How do you measure? Then again. You do not. 

I hope he won’t mind me saying, this is one the paths to enlightenment forced on my by Christer, my former boss. How to put this. He has his tricks, not quite koans... So I learned that when he wasn’t persuaded about the opportunity of something, he would go and ask me to put things in more systematic ways, to try to narrow down that ever elusive “ROI”.

Then one time I think we were even arguing about how he could decide that a given initiative he was supporting would, in the end, be beneficial or the better course compared to another alternative. And he slipped and say that we don’t necessarily have to quantify this ROI thing! Of course, be both immediately caught that, even if we were over the phone he could almost sense my smile, but being the clever man he is, he managed to still be right despite the apparent idiosyncrasy...

The lesson is that we want to keep in mind that ROI thing. Not that we need to necessarily optimize for it and spend too much time chasing it. But we definitely need to keep it in mind, be always scared of the risk of doing irrelevant, or worse, damaging things. Keep ourselves accountable.

It’s the question, not the answer.

You might be excused to have thought that I put the question mark in the title, even if it isn’t in the form of a question, because of my poor English. But no, it was a clever thing you see, I actually went back halfway into writing this, and thought about it, and finally changed the punctuation. Only after deciding I would also write this, and feel so meta-clever. And again and ok, let’s stop this recursive loop...

And if I was really good at this, I could have jumped directly to the point and spared you all the blabbing, but I have time on my hands these days so. You’re welcome.

In the end, it is true that certain games should even chase diminishing returns because that’s what you do when you’re up enough. And it’s totally true that you can’t really quantify ROI anyway, so often times you should just do what you want. If someone really thinks something is important, and it’s not offensively bad, there should be space for that. In other words, because we know we are bad at ROI, we should realize that to chase it we should not chase it all the time (surprisingly, this is even a concept in optimization algorithms, by the way).

But! The questions are interesting.

How important shiny things are? Is there a point when state of the art techniques become so complex that they are unfriendly both to either content or programmers integrating/iterating, so much so that they will be used sub-optimally? And simpler solutions would have been actually better instead?

Think for example of something perfectly physically accurate, that can produce perfect images, but that behaves poorly when the inputs are not exact. This is not even such a wild scenario, you can see plenty of PBR games that would have been most likely best off without copy-and-pasting the GGX formulas, just because they now go nuclear with specular and aliasing...

Bloodborne might not be the pinnacle of RTR, but it is imaginative...
Even more interesting. Is there a point where the attention to graphical perfection actually produces worse graphics? Could it be, for example, that the efforts required to create worlds that are perfect, truly great quality-wise, comes in the way of creating worlds that have the variety, the artistry, the iteration and look that in the end are most often correlated to what people think of great graphics?

Again. In the end, we should remember that we serve the product. Not photorealism, per se, but the product. We do believe that photorealism is a great tool to create games, and I won’t question that. But still we have to remember that photorealism is not the goal, technology per se is useless. It’s the product, that we work for.

And if I had to guess, I'd say in most products today both end-user image quality and in most cases, performance, are bottlenecked by asset production, not the lack of whatever latest cool rendering trick. In particular by:
  • The sheer ability of authoring assets. Quantity / Variety.
  • The ability of iterating on assets. Quality.
  • The complexity of technical issues linked to art assets. Which in practice yield sub-optimal decision. Performance & Quality.
  • And the very fixed granularity of assets and their editing tools, the overall inability of performing large, sweeping art changes. The more an environment is "dressed" (authored) the more it hardens and resist change. Art direction. (and perhaps this also causes an over-reliance on some of the few tools that can do said sweeping changes, namely, post-effects)
N.B. All these are rendering problems! Implementation, research, even hardware innovation. Despite the title, the argument here is not that rendering research in videogames is a waste of time, or beyond diminishing returns. Au contraire! It's more vital than ever, in our times of enormous asset pressure. But we have to think hard about what is useful to the end product. 
To make a stupid example. A very smart system to automatically generate rendering meshes from artist data (LODs, materials, instances etc) is probably orders of magnitude more important than say, a post-effect...

01 March, 2019

What I learned at Activision.

Today is my last day at Activision.

Not quite the end of an era, but my six-year stint at Activision|Blizzard|King has been by far the longest I’ve so far worked for a given company, and I wanted to write something about it.

I don’t usually do things like this, but long gone are the times where I pretended this blog could stay anonymous. Also, I do think that we should really talk more about our experiences with teams and companies, be more open. I’ve never done that on this blog (albeit I’ve always been happy to chat about anything in person), so let me quickly fix that.

This has been my, to be honest quite lucky, video-game career trajectory:

- Milestone (Italy, racing games). The indie company. Here, we were a family. And as most families, often loud and dysfunctional, sometimes fighting, but in the end, for me, it was always fair and always fun. We were pioneers, not because we were necessarily doing state-of-the-art things, but because nobody around us knew better, we had to figure out everything on our own. Eventually, that became a limiting factor for my own growth, but it was great to start there.

- Electronic Arts (Canada, Fight Night team). My team at EAC was probably the best example of a well-organized game studio. Everything was neat, productions went smoothly, and we created some quite kick-ass graphics as well. EA, and probably even more so EA Sports is truly a game developer. And by that I mean that it takes part in the game development, we had shared guidelines, procedures, technologies, resources. Of course, each team could still have plenty of degrees of freedom to custom-fit the EA way to their specific reality, but you always felt part of a bigger ecosystem and had access to this gigantic wealth of knowledge and people across the globe. Fun times!

- Relic (Space Marines, mostly). Relic had much more of the “indie” feel of my Milestone days. Not quite the same, we were a big team in an even bigger studio, part of a publicly traded company, but we were also exploring uncharted territory (for us), with very smart people and lots of last-minute hacking. I’m proud of what we achieved, it was fun and I loved the spirit we had in our rendering/optimization corner of the office. We did perhaps chew a bit more than we could though, doing something unprecedented for the studio. THQ was also failing fast, which didn’t help.

- Capcom (Vancouver). This studio is now closed. It was an unlucky choice for me, our project was riddled with all kinds of problems, in all possible dimensions. Eventually, I was laid off, then the project was canceled, and a few years later, the studio went down. It was a very stressful time, day after day I was quite unhappy. Still, I have to say I met some excellent people and I’m glad that I now know them!

- And now, Activision.

It’s the people.

One of the company mottos is “it’s the people”. I didn’t particularly think that these “values”, that all companies put forward, were particularly received in Activision’s case, at least when it came to Central Technology I always felt we didn’t pay much attention. But for me, it was the people, first and foremost.

Activision is the place where I found the smartest people around me, by far. And I’ve worked with very smart people, in great companies, but nothing touches this.

Now, I have to say, I have also a unique, very biased vantage point. Being a technical director in central technology means to interface mostly with the most senior technical people and the studio leadership. I was not in production and not working with a single studio. A different ballgame.

But still, I can’t even make list here! Ok, to give you a picture. ACME: Michael, Wade, Paul, Aki, I don’t think I can in a few words express the brilliance of these individuals. Paul’s technical abilities are unbeatable. He knows everything and can do anything. Wade is worse, infuriatingly smart, and any time I find the tiniest flaw in Michael’s life I have a sigh of relief (my girlfriend says he’s my work husband, even if I do have several man crushes to be honest, yes, there is a list). Aki started as an intern and was recently hired full time. I think he is already a better programmer than I am, and I definitely do not suffer from impostor’s syndrome...

Peter-Pike Sloan’s research team is the best R&D team I’ve ever seen, with people like Michal Iwanicki, Josiah Manson, Ari... But then again, I literally can’t make a list and I’m talking only about the rendering people, no actually, the rendering people I know best, even! My home team at Radical, which was a great studio in its own right, has been fantastic, Josh, Ryan, Tom, Peter, Andrew. CTN and that shadertoy genius of Paul Malin. And then the game teams. I mean, you can’t beat Drobot, can you? Jorge Jimenez! Dimitar Lazarov, Danny Chan, these are people who every project decide to completely change how Call of Duty renders things. Because why not, right? And of course, the people above me, Christer, whom I admired way before he landed at Activision but also Dave Cowling who hired me, and Andy our CTO who came to speak to us a year before he got hired, and even back then I thought he was an incredibly smart guy. And that's to speak just of the people in the Call of Duty orbit...

Truth is, if you know, you already know. If you don’t, it’s hard for me to tell you, so let’s just cut it short. Amazing people.

Not just smart.

Ok, so we have smart people, blah blah. What gives, are you just showing off or is there a point to this? There is actually.

And the lesson is not even “how to hire smart people” or that you should hire smart people. To be honest, I don’t think we have a way, even if Christer (and myself even) did put a lot of time and effort thinking about the process, you can only affect some multipliers I think. Mostly, teams seem to me to build up from the gravitational pull, around a given company culture. Once you have a given number of people that value given things, they tend to grab other people who also share the same core values, even if you want to have different points of view.

No, what Activision really taught me is that smart people don’t really matter, per se. Brilliance alone doesn’t mean that good things will happen to your products, actually, it can be dangerous because it can correlate with ego, especially if you haven’t reached the highest level of enlightenment yet.

What’s interesting about this particular bunch of smart people, is that they are also what actors call “grounded”. There is little bullshit going around. Tech is not made for tech’s sake. We don’t even have an engine, in a time where even if you really just have a game, one game, one codebase, you would call silly codenames each library and each little bit of tech, and maybe put some big splash screens before your main titles. Made with.. xyz.

This is actually a lesson that originates from the early days of Call of Duty at IW. From what I’m told, IW never named their engine, because any time you name something it becomes a bit more of a thing, and you start working for it. And they were a studio making games, the game is the thing. Nothing else.

This meshes just so well with the Activision way. So many people taught me so many lessons here, but the kind of fil rouge I found is this attention to what matters, when especially for us, rendering people, is so annoyingly easy to get distracted, quite literally, by the cool shiny thing that’s in the hype at the moment.

You might even call it ROI, I sometimes do even if perhaps I should not, it sounds “bad”. But you have to be aware of what matters, what are the trade-offs, what should you spend your time on. Which doesn’t mean you are a drone doing complex math in Excel, quite the contrary, there is definitely space for doing things because you want to, and you like to. 

Thing is, we cannot really compute the ROI of our tech stuff, especially for a thing that is so far from the product sales as rendering code is. But, we can be aware of these things. Even just thinking about them a bit makes a big difference.

Peter-Pike could be another example. I said I’ve never seen a better R&D team. Does it mean that there aren’t other teams that do research as good, or maybe even “better” sometimes? Of course, there are! The difference though is impact. Not only almost all our R&D work shipped on the given year’s title, but it’s also focused on what matters. Either help ship the title, technology that is needed to do what they want to do, or help the teams work better, technology to help productivity. Often both.

And this then again reflects also in the people. Yes, Peter-Pike is an accomplished academic, and his team does real research, meaning, things we don’t know how or even if we will solve. But he’s also incredibly pragmatic. He is hands-on coding all the times. More than I am. Better than I am!

Activision and Electronic Arts...

...couldn’t be more different, contrary to the popular belief that lumps all the three-four big publishers into the same AAA bucket.

And that is also what was interesting and life-changing. You see, I truly love them both. They are great in their own right and the results speak for themselves. They both have great people, I don’t even need to tell you that.

But they work so differently.

EA as I said, feels like a big game developer, a community. Sharing is one of the key values, finding the best ways of doing things, leveraging their size. It sounds very reasonable, and it is.

But Activision is almost the opposite. It feels like a publisher, who owns a number of internal studios. The studios, of course, are accountable to the publisher, but they are independent, that is key, core value. Central technology is not there to tell people how to do things, but as a publisher-side resource to help if possible. The teams are incredibly strong on their own, even in terms of R&D. And, at least from my vantage point, they get to call all their own shots. Which is again very reasonable, if you tell people they are accountable they should definitely have the freedom of choice too.

And yet again. Valuing independence versus valuing a shared community, the opposite viewpoints end up in practice creating results that are not that dissimilar. How comes?

If you’ve been doing this for a while, it won’t be even surprising. The key is that we don’t really know what’s best. Companies and teams even technologies and products organize around given values, a cultural environment that was created probably when there were almost a handful of employees. And once you have these the truth is you can most often structure everything else around in a way that makes sense, that works. 

We see this so often in code too. A handful of key decisions are made because of legacy or opinions. We’re going to be a deferred renderer. Well, now certain things are harder, others are easier. Certain stuff needs to happen early in the frame, other late, and you have certain bottlenecks and idle times, and you work from there, find smart ways to put work where the GPU is free, and shift techniques to remove bottlenecks and so on.

Which doesn't mean everything is ever perfect, mind you. We always have pain points and room for improvement, and different strategies yield different issues. To a degree, this is even lucky!  I don't make games, I help people and technology. The day Unity will solve all technical and organizational problems for game making is the day I'll be out of a job. At least in this industry...

Ok, then why?

If you love all these companies. Why leave? What are you not telling...
Well. I’m not too bright. And instead of keeping my great job, sometimes I venture into the unknown. But that’s a tale for another day...