[In this Intel-sponsored feature article, the Austin-based independent developer Tandem Games explains the optimization and development support that they received from being part of the Intel Software Partner Program.]
Play with the Whole World
A philosophy of including the biggest possible audience led Tandem Games to optimize for Intel Graphics and server architectures with the aid of the Intel Software Partner Program. You can follow their lead.
Tandem Games, located in Austin Texas, specializes in making games that cater to the broadest audience possible.
In fact, Co-Founder Aaron Murray named the company for the idea of being able to play games with a one-year-old on his lap, an idea reflected in the company's logo, which he describes as "a little guy giving a big guy the high five."
At the 2008 Game Developers' conference in Austin, Tandem and Intel exchanged a figurative high five when Tandem's game Crunch Time won the Best Game on Intel Graphics award in the Intel Game Demo Contest.
Crunch Time is a freely downloadable game that enlists players to help root out and eliminate corrupt data and bugs from a fictional multiplayer online game, aided by the characters Pixel and Vega.
Another Tandem game, Domain of Heroes, is a browser-based MMORPG that lets you explore a fantasy world collecting loot while defending one of three warring factions trying to wrest control from the others.
To expand the user base of both these games, Tandem made excellent use of its membership in the Intel Software Partner Program, taking advantage of tips, tricks, and best practices, as well as marketing opportunities like being featured in the Intel booth at GDC.
Planning Games for Everybody
The idea of bringing games to everyone runs deep at Tandem Games. Aaron sums it up, saying, "We want our games to be playable by anyone, and we found in alpha testing that Crunch Time really needed a discrete graphics card to run. It just didn't make sense to release a game that many of our own friends and family couldn't play."
From a business perspective, they determined that it was a strategic imperative to support Intel Graphics, in order to reach the largest possible audience.
The development team dug deeply into the resources that they had available to them as members of the Intel Software Partner Program and quantified the specific challenges they faced in optimizing Crunch Time, setting out a strategy to address each of those challenges in turn:
- Texture size.
When they started the optimization process, the team discovered that some
of the game's textures were missing when the game was played under Intel
Graphics. It soon became clear that this issue was simply because the
textures were sized at 2048 x 2048 and needed to fit within the constraint
of 512 x 512.
They decided to address that issue by cutting the textures up and tiling them together so they could display properly.
quantity. Another initial issue was that, in many places, gameplay was
slowed down by the use of overlapping textures, including some that were
being displayed at less than full size.
Both those issues had arisen during the evolution of game development without anyone paying much attention to them. The resulting inefficiency was simple enough to remedy by a combination of merging multiple textures together and scaling source images appropriately, in order to save on video memory.
- Rendering efficiency. A
significant limitation to the game's frame rate when they began the
optimization process was an excessive amount of 3D rendering being done at
The load on video resources was significant, and the team quickly realized that they could significantly reduce this factor by pre-rendering some of the 3D graphics, simulating them using 2D images.
With this set of goals in mind, the Crunch Time development team had created a recipe for a far more efficient game than the one they had started with. Despite a bit of a tradeoff in terms of the resultant code size, they now had their goal in sight-a game that would produce excellent results on Intel Graphics-based platforms.
Automation for the Real World
Having decided to let the continuing development of Intel Graphics help drive their business model, and having identified the tasks before them, Tandem next needed to create an efficient methodology.
Looking at the work before them, they saw lots of repetitive tasks, and conspiring against tedium, their thoughts moved to batch processing. Torque Game Builder, their game engine of choice, provided much of the functionality they needed, but it didn't natively provide the automation they wanted.
In a matter of about three days, the team was able to write a series of C# tools that worked with Torque to batch process most of the operations described above, which relieved the team of boredom and let them get home at a reasonable hour most nights.
They completed the optimization in three or four weeks, and as a result, their audience is much larger than it would have been if they had not undertaken this part of the development process-all in all, a good deal.
"Since our business is based on a free-to-play model, we have a bigger user load [for Domain of Heroes] than subscription-based games, so scalability is vital, and we depend on Intel to help us with that."Aaron Murray
Co-Founder, Tandem Games
Tandem Games' Crunch Time exemplifies the notion of making games accessible to everyone by providing a world-class user experience on mainstream hardware. As one would guess from their status as the contest winner, a key element of that effort is the in-depth set of optimizations the company made to ensure best use of Intel Graphics.
As a result of those optimizations, Aaron says, "We got the biggest audience possible, and thanks to the Intel Partner Program, we were able to pull that off without making any real compromises in terms of image clarity or resolution. It runs faster now, too."
Preparing the Way for Heroes
As a member of the Intel Software Partner Program, Tandem relied on resources provided by Intel for guidance in many of its development and optimization activities, which enabled them to get maximum value out of the server hardware they use to host Domain of Heroes.
As Aaron puts it, "The program offers some excellent resources for its members. Since our business is based on a free-to-play model, we have a bigger user load than subscription-based games, so scalability is vital, and we depend on Intel to help us with that."
In order to meet that requirement, Tandem Games optimized Domain of Heroes in three primary areas:
- Processor utilization. In order to scale optimally across the eight cores on their two-way quad-core development server based on Intel Xeon processors e5310, Tandem developed a sophisticated threading model, scalable to a multi-tier or cloud architecture as the audience grows.
- Bandwidth use. An important cost consideration for an online, server-based game, optimizing bandwidth usage meant transferring the smallest amounts of data possible for battles, chats, and other interactions.
- Memory and hard-disk access. By carefully eliminating duplication of memory access on the server, they make best use of available system memory. They also optimized the game's operation to avoid hard-disk bottlenecks.
Best practices developed by the program through many years of interactions with other members helped Tandem Games not only to achieve excellent results, but to do so efficiently.
Saving company resources while fine-tuning a game is important for any company, but especially a small one like Tandem. The results seem to speak for themselves, as the company enjoys a rapid growth in the audience for Domain of Heroes and looks forward to continuing success.
"We got the biggest audience possible, and thanks to the Intel Partner Program, we were able to pull that off without making any real compromises in terms of image clarity or resolution. It runs faster now, too."Aaron Murray
Co-Founder, Tandem Games
As part of the prize the company won from the Intel Game Demo Contest at GDC, they now have the benefit of a range of Intel Software Development Products, including Intel VTune Performance Analyzer, Intel Thread Checker, Intel Thread Profiler, and Intel Threading Building Blocks.
Aaron reports that they plan to use those tools to optimize the game's threading model even further, getting ready for mobs of new players that they hope to attract in the coming years.
Growing the Partnership
Tandem Games sees tremendous opportunity in the future, and its status as a member of the Intel Software Partner Program plays a large role in realizing that opportunity. As Aaron said, "We get a lot of industry exposure from our relationship with Intel, and that really helps us grow our user base. The first benefit we were interested in was the development assistance and rebates on development machines, but the marketing help and the GDC opportunity have been fantastic. I think there's a lot more value available to us in the future, especially as we publicize Domain of Heroes and start work on new titles."
Membership in the program has influenced the entire product life cycle at Tandem Games, from the first planning stages of new games through their public releases. Knowing in advance what to expect from future generations of Intel Graphics sets the stage.
Using the expertise, system rebates, and tools they have received from Intel helps streamline the development process and create better results faster. Marketing help that ranges from industry exposure to using demonstration systems at conferences helps them get the word out once their games are ready to be played.
As a result, the little guy in their logo keeps giving the big guy a high five, and everybody gets to have more fun.
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