Q&A: Blitz CTO Oliver On Why 3D Gaming Is Inevitable

In a Gamasutra interview, Blitz Games CTO Andrew Oliver explains why we're on the cusp of a 3D revolution, and why Sony is one of the most important agents driving that change.
Blitz Games Studios has been preparing for 3D gaming for years, and with the increasing success of 3D films in Hollywood, company CTO Andrew Oliver thinks change is imminent in this industry as well. Last August, the UK-based developer's Blitz Arcade division released the downloadable Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao, one of very few console games to support both analglyphic and stereoscopic 3D. While Oliver admits there's currently "too small a base" of 3D-equipped users for the game to have seen significant commercial success, he believes the development experience gained from projects like that will leave the company well positioned to capitalize on upcoming trends. Sony in particular has planted its flag in the 3D space, treating it as a major across its global content library of games and films. In a recent Gamasutra interview, Oliver discussed the factors leading to increased 3D adoption, Sony's heavy focus on the technology, and the format's emerging standards. You were at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month. Did you get the sense 3D is ready to take off in the home market? Andrew Oliver: Well, Sony's whole concept was "enter our 3D world." Everything they had was 3D here, 3D there -- 3D movie cameras, 3D cinema projectors, Blu-ray, and everything else. It's brilliant. I've been saying for the last couple of years, "3D TV is coming." Obviously I went to the theme parks and saw Terminator 3D and stuff like that, but it always felt like a thing of theme parks. But then I went to IMAX. Polar Express isn't the best movie ever, but it was like, "Hey, hang on. Here's a CG movie that got 3D working the whole way through." I just thought, "This is the future of entertainment." IMAX is far and few between. But then there was the to RealD, taking that technology into all cinemas. You think, essentially, that when 3D becomes ubiquitous in theatres, it will naturally lead to broad consumer demand? AO: Yeah. And cinemas are really dated; they're just reel projectors. They want to go to digital modern technology. A few people realized, "Hang on, if we make some 3D movies that would only go out in digital, then it will force cinemas to  upgrade to digital." There are lots of reasons why people want to upgrade to digital. At the moment, when films go out, there are literally large reels of film being sent around. They're duplicated by people like Technicolor. But you've got 9,000 multiplexes in America. That's 9,000 reels of film going around. Costly. It's not very eco-friendly. And in Europe and Australia, when a film comes out we have to wait six to eight weeks because it's the same reels of film. We get second-hand films. That is your six to eight week window of piracy if you desperately want to watch a movie in Europe or Australia. You can find it on the net way before it's actually in the cinemas or theatres. That has caused a big problem. So there's been a big push. Hollywood will make 3D movies that will push digital projection. It's difficult and it's costly making 3D movies because people are learning news tricks of trade, but as you can see, when it's done right like in Avatar, it's bloody brilliant. So all of those factors will work together to create this expectation on the part of consumers. AO: Yeah. Now, the TV companies have been playing around with 3D TVs for a few years now, but there's been no real reason for it to take off. We proved that you can do 3D with a modern console, although it was kind of awkward. They weren't conventional formats, so each TV had different ways of doing it, which was a pain. But now it's all coming together. It's exactly the same as HDTV. In America, the first CES I went to in the early 90s, HDTV was talked about, but it never really took off. There wasn't really any reason. But as flat panels were announced, they said, "Hang on. Let's make sure all flat panels are HD." The consumers buying it can see it's nice and flat, and they eventually understood HD as well. People weren't prepared to upgrade to HD with CRT, because what's the point? You're saying every new major upgrade technology basically needs at least two angles. AO: Right. There's the business, and the experience, and when you put the two together, it works. It's definitely worked in the cinemas. All of Hollywood is pretty much resigned to the fact that all the films are going 3D. The only issue is the film directors out there [for] whom it's a whole new set of lessons to learn, and the expensive equipment. But with computers it's easy to do -- all CG movies are 3D. If you're making live action, then it's more difficult. What tech approach is becoming dominant? AO: You can get different types of glasses. You can get active glasses, which shutter at 120 hertz, or you can use polarized, which is the same as the cinema. We've got some TVs in our office that are based on [polarization], and they're really comfortable to watch, but polarizing a screen is very expensive. And by polarizing, you've reduced the brightness of the picture for normal 2D viewing. TV manufacturers know that most TV is 2D, so [polarized] just isn't practical at the moment. So, every TV manufacturer is going with active, which I wouldn't have guessed it a year ago. The commercial reality of it is there's not enough 3D content to make your TV more expensive. They want to sell the TV at the same cost. So that's exactly what's happening. The TVs have all been going 120 hertz in the last year or so anyway, so they can interpolate the image to get a smoother image. And if your TV is running 120, then you can do this trick where you're flipping [frames]. It makes 3D possible. Then the glasses are shutter glasses with batteries or charging. A pair of glasses is going to be in the $50 range, which is a little costly, but it's one of those investments. Once you've got them, you've got them for good. What's your sense of where 3D stands on the game side? AO: When it comes to the PlayStation, [Sony is] showing that they can do games. They have Gran Turismo 5, Super Stardust, Major League Baseball, Motorstorm, and Wipeout all running in 3D and looking really, really nice. They're fantastic to see. It's one of those things where you're going to write this on your website, and everyone is going to think, "Oh, I don't know. It's going to give me headaches and all this." You've just got to see it. They've done a really good job. Sony has demo booths, and they have their Sony centers, so this stuff will all be turning up soon, and people will see it for themselves. You won't want to go back once you've seen a game in 3D. People will be convinced. From a development standpoint, going down on this new standard has made it a lot easier technically to do the fill rate stuff, but we're all going to have to learn the lessons of what makes good 3D and what makes bad 3D. You can still cock it up. As in the cinema, there are films out there that do give you headaches, even though they use the new technology. They just don't have the cameras aligned properly, or whatever. Being CG, we have an advantage, and we should be able to tune it. I saw this stuff coming a couple years ago. I just thought, "This is going to be the future, so we need to break in and learn the lessons," so that's what we've been doing. In some ways, being early and first, it's been harder because we've had to learn the lessons for ourselves. We've gone in and supported outdated formats, which are clearly now obsolete. It's a shame because all the first adopters have gotten on board with 3D-compatible TVs. You can buy TVs right now that say "3D Ready." I don't think they'll work. They certainly won't work for games. You've got our game Invincible Tiger, and [James Cameron's] Avatar [The Game], and that's probably it. [laughs] What method is Sony going with? There's this new mode that they've created and put backwards into the PlayStation 3, allowing you to have pretty much any resolution or multiple resolutions -- the obvious one being 1280 and 720 doubled -- so you can get a game running at 60 frames per second with two frame buffers, so the TV will run it at 120 and alternate. It's now been agreed with the Blu-ray standard that all these movies will come out in 3D in June. I couldn't get a definite date, but everyone I talked to said June. There will be lots of content there, and it's brilliant that with the PlayStation 3 you can update it, and it will just work. It's a shame for people with a traditional Blu-ray player that can't update, but you're always going to get that a bit. In a way, it's a shame that Sony has said, "This is the new standard, and this is all we're going with." But it needed to happen. It needed someone to just clean it up and say, "It's one standard." It's really good. It makes sense for everyone. There are only a couple products out there that it will really affect. Have you heard anything from Microsoft about 3D? AO: They're completely focused on Natal at the moment. They're sensible people. I'm sure they're looking at it. They just haven't had the necessity to be so forward as Sony. Sony wants to make this their big thing. Everything's 3D, because they sell 3D.

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