Thursday, June 23, 2005

Big is the new Small

It's been interesting to see how technologies have been shifting from the very small (i.e. pixel & vertex shaders, dynamic lighting, self-shadowed models, etc.) to the very large (mapping entire worlds out, streaming cities and levels, building accurate terrain maps).

The CrystalSpace mailing list has been having an interesting discussion on the topic of how to create very large maps. This is of course a big concern for MMORPG's and RPG's, but it has become of increasing concern for anyone who wants vast, open-ended maps.

It's not quite as simple as it might seem. Not only do you have to worry about terrain maps seamlessly being stitched together, but you also have to worry about where you do your clipping, if you still use portals to decide what gets rendered and what doesn't, if you have entities and items still loaded without an actual mesh to sit in, if you'll use LOD (dynamic level of detail) to manage rendering far-away objects, how you'll quickly determine what sectors can be rendered, how to best stream data to the engine, blah de blah de blah.

I recall the same thing happening with shadows - except the emphasis was on polishing the small details. Here bumpmapping and shaders really came to be - new hardware conventions that allowed a greater level of detail than before. Now that we've figured out how to have eerily realistic lighting, shadows and mapping for the many details on today's high-poly models. Are we going to have to perform a similar re-invention for the very large as well?

It looks like the new Unreal 3 engine is. For example:

Artists can build terrain using a dynamically-deformable base height map extended by multiple layers of smoothly-blended materials including displacement maps, normal maps and arbitrarily complex materials, dynamic LOD-based tessellation, and vegetation layers with procedurally-placed meshes. Further, the terrain system supports artist-controlled layers of procedural weathering, for example, grass and vegetation on the flat areas of terrain, rock on high slopes, and snow at the peaks.

Neat stuff. Now artists can easily build large maps that have realistic environmental details - without having to model every nook and cranny by hand. Here the engine dynamically builds the "repetitive" stuff for you - so you can work more on layout than on building one hundred shrubs in the landscape. The UT3 engine still makes individual models look beautiful, just like everyone else's engine right now. But they're also spending the effort on making the BIG level models look just as immersive - without a million-person team of artists.

Patenting the E.U. and the U.S.

In 10 years' time we will only have half the small and medium sized companies that we have now,
- Evelin Lichtenberger on the European Parliment's bill on software patents

Stallman also made some excellent points on the EU's push towards software patents. One important point he made was that politicians are confusing patents with copyrights, which are two entirely different concepts. Again, this goes back to the distinctions made between "opening" creative content versus opening code.

The U.S. is also working on patent reforms that will push small business out and allow large businesses to eat them. The U.S. Patent Reform Act of 2005 is something I'm still trying to digest. While it seems like it might abate "submarine patents" that lie dormant until approval only to spring up as a reason for the owner to start suing for patent infringement, it might offer more problems for those who can't afford to pursue or defend their patents. From the article:

The issue is this: do the big players need more help? If it's harder to sue for patent infringement, and it's easier for big businesses to file for patents than it is for capital-starved little guys, is it fair to the little guy? For example, I can imagine the following scenario: I invent something and write a scholarly paper about it. I can't afford to patent it or it takes me a while to find a lawyer I can afford. So Microsoft reads my paper, runs to the Patent Office, patents what I wrote about, and then sues me for infringement of their patent. I haven't analyzed the bill enough to know if there is a way to block this scenario, but it's something to look for. You don't want the fix to be worse than the problem you are addressing.

One downside to the U.S. revisisions is the first-to-file provision pretty much kicks the little guy in the shorts. However, given how much patenting people do for existing processes/concepts, the post-grant submission of prior art by third parties is welcome.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

So... tired...

Can someone hold down a full time job and try to publish a title that's worth a crap? I don't know.

I got a somewhat lateral promotion at work recently, so I'm spending more time on work projects. I'm too tired at the end of the day anymore to do fruitful coding. So what's left?

I got some Starbucks DoubleShots in the fridge downstairs... mebbe I'll give them a try.

Installing SuSE 9.3 on my development box... wheee...

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Why Even Bother

With patents like this one, it's no wonder that the innovation, small businesses and independant game shops are dying out. No, it's not because of market conditions. No, it's not because the cost of development is too steep. It's because huge companies get to patent vague notions such as "keeping score in a game." The Patent Office obviously doesn't care about what's a valid patent anymore - they get paid if your patent is later litigated & revoked or not. Basically all the USPTO does is take gobs of money from large companies, stamp their patent form, file it away, then call it a day around 10 AM.

Since no one is reviewing patents before approving them anymore, it's up to challenges & lawsuits to decide if a patent is valid or not. And who has the money to challenge patents? You guessed it... big corporations! So the only way to be able to use a vague notion of a non-unique concept patented by a USPTO that just doesn't give a damn is to be another big company and be willing to fight it out in a court battle.

So... let's see... we kill off every small business, which employs the majority of the workforce, then scratch our butts and wonder why unemployment figures are so high. Here's the reason... small companies don't make sizable political contributions to lawmakers. So why do they give two craps about small business? They have a job, a quite comfortable one, thank you. Why would they waste their effort helping the thousands of companies that won't give any money back, when they could be catering to bigger interests that continually pull trucks of money to their back door?

You want employment? You want innovation? You want capitalism to work? Get rid of stupid patents. Make the USPTO work for a living. Kick out congressmen who would rather enjoy a nice, sizzly steak than think twice about Joe Sixpack.

Gamasutra wrote a pro-patent article, saying:

Patents, by their very nature, grant the right to exclude your competitors from stealing the fruits of your labor, and yet this powerful tool appears to be overlooked by the majority of the industry. In an effort to answer this question, we set out below to dispel what we see as the top myths surrounding patent protection of video games, and hope to encourage innovative game developers to take steps to protect their valuable innovations.

What the hell? Tell you what, let's replace the word "patent" with the words "machine gun" and see if it sounds any more convincing.

Machine guns, by their very nature, grant the right to exclude your competitors from stealing the fruits of your labor, and yet this powerful tool appears to be overlooked by the majority of the industry. In an effort to answer this question, we set out below to dispel what we see as the top myths surrounding machine gun protection of video games, and hope to encourage innovative game developers to take steps to protect their valuable innovations.

Same general gist. If dem der people try ter steel yer propertie, giv 'em a quik shot in the arse. Hell, it's my right to own a machine gun patent. Another quote from the Gamasutra article:

A classic argument among those who feel that the entire patent system should be abolished. You might want to make that argument to your representative in Congress, because unless the Constitution is amended to do away with patents, they're here to stay. In drafting the Constitution, our founding fathers recognized that the best way to promote progress in the "useful arts" was to reward inventors who come forward and share their inventions with the public by granting them a limited period of exclusivity in which they can exploit the fruits of their labor. In other words, discouraging slavish copying encourages innovation.

Wrong. This isn't what the founding fathers were talking about.

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from any body.
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson, 1813

We haven't evolved as a society by making ourselves grandiose versions of the Hatfield's and the McCoy's. We have grown by accepting and integrating a free exchange of ideas, concepts and principles that make us stronger. Firing warning shots at people close to your property and building a row of razor wire will only ensure that you become nothing but inbred and ignorant.