When you look at the importance of weather effects in games such as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Battlefield 4, it’s easy to see the important of weather effects software in next-gen games. One of those packages Simul Software is currently working on the forefront for simulating real-time weather in games such as ARMA and working with developers such as Gaijin and Ubisoft. GamingBolt spoke to Simul Software founder Roderick Kennedy about his take on the next generation of gaming and whether Simul would be able to take advantage of the added power of the PS4 and Xbox One. We also asked which of the consoles was better suited to handle real-time weather effects. Find out the answer below.
"The atmosphere is a double threat for games developers. It’s a complex system, and the end user is intimately familiar with what it really ought to look like."
Ravi Sinha: Tell us about Simul and the first games that utilized it. What was the goal back then for the software and how have priorities evolved over time?
Roderick Kennedy: We originally wrote CloudWright, a tool to generate static skyboxes for games. While it produced some good results, it seemed that the technology we’d developed would actually work in realtime with good framerates, so we decided to make the jump, creating Simul Weather (later called trueSKY). Our first customers were in the simulation field – companies like Boeing and CueSim. Later on we had great games companies like Bohemia Interactive with the ARMA series, Gaijin with their awesome flight sims, and Ubisoft.
Ravi Sinha: Given the next generation of gaming, which is nearly upon us with the PS4 and Xbox One, where does Simul come in with its ability to accurately model weather?
Roderick Kennedy: The atmosphere is a double threat for games developers. It’s a complex system, and the end user is intimately familiar with what it really ought to look like. If you’re shooting for visual realism, hyper-realism, or detail – as opposed to abstract or cartoon-style graphics – the days of static skies or rotating skyboxes are past. Developers want to show that they are fully on board with the next generation, and we can do that for them – at least where the sky is concerned.
Ravi Sinha: We’ve heard about how both consoles are powerful to handle dynamic worlds, detailed animation and the latest engines. But of the two consoles, the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, which one is more equipped to handle realistic weather effects?
Roderick Kennedy: There’s little difference really. TrueSky works very well for both, and most of the underlying code is the same. The real difference is between this generation and the last, and that’s reflected in the level of demand we’re seeing for trueSKY now.
"he challenge for developers is always to fit everything in – leaving enough power for solid rendering, effects, post-processing and environment rendering. It’s our job to make ours as lightweight as possible, so we’re always looking for new optimizations."
Ravi Sinha: Along with many other features, Simul supports DirectX 11. With more games looking to be geared towards DirectX 11 (and 11.1) in the coming years, how will they be able to take advantage of Simul in comparison to games in this generation?
Roderick Kennedy: One area with huge potential is volumetric rendering. In the DX9 era we were able to effectively simulate raytracing for volumetric clouds, and got great results. But the shaders were too limited to do some of the more advanced volumetric effects we wanted. Now those restrictions are removed, we’re able to really go to down – our new crepuscular rays was not feasible on DX9, but on DX11 it’s not only possible, but super-fast.
Ravi Sinha: Given the abundance of RAM with next generation consoles, how will the super-low memory footprint of Simul come into play?
Roderick Kennedy: The challenge is more about bandwidth than RAM. Because we do most of the work on the GPU, trueSKY initializes very quickly. I’d like to see games do much more procedurally, and take loading times back down to how they were in the cartridge era. We’re doing our bit!
Ravi Sinha: With the PS4 and Xbox One, is it possible to let the hardware handle every single environmental effect without any fear of running low on memory?
Roderick Kennedy: Yes. At least, every one of ours. The challenge for developers is always to fit everything in – leaving enough power for solid rendering, effects, post-processing and environment rendering. It’s our job to make ours as lightweight as possible, so we’re always looking for new optimizations.
"We were computing clouds before cloud computing was cool! But for big online worlds we envisage a situation where continental-scale weather systems are computed in the cloud and shared across all the players in a zone…"
Ravi Sinha: We’ve heard Infinity Ward talking about how they would only add such features like environmental effects, including realistic fog that the player can walk through, if their games require it (case in point, Call of Duty: Ghosts). But from your perspective, how will the next generation of gaming benefit from more realistic weather effects?
Roderick Kennedy: It’s interactive. We provide clouds you can fly through, walk or drive through. On holiday last year I was driving up a mountain through 5-metre fog, it was pretty spooky, and we weren’t sure that we’d reach the top or have to turn back. Then we came out of the top of the clouds and it was a beautiful sunny day, with clouds below us in the valleys. With trueSKY we can reproduce that kind of experience in-game. There are many opportunities for a realistic environment to change your game experience.
Ravi Sinha: Sky Sequencer promises a “production-quality toolset”. We’re going to assume film production here, but as the next generation rounds the corner, how much more possible is it now than before for Simul to be used to create weather effects that rival major motion pictures?
Roderick Kennedy: I’ve seen some dodgy-looking clouds in big-budget movies, presumably because the tools are not yet available in offline rendering software to make realistic ones – or at least it’s very much dependent on the artist’s skill. We provide a very specific toolset based on the science of light scattering and the atmosphere. And we’re looking into what’s needed for offline rendering, but real-time is our main preoccupation.
Ravi Sinha: The PS4 and Xbox One emphasize Cloud computing as much as games and hardware. Can Simul take advantage of the Cloud in order to better games? Is it possible for different combinations of effects to be handled by the Cloud while the console hardware is freed up for other tasks?
Roderick Kennedy: We were computing clouds before cloud computing was cool! But for big online worlds we envisage a situation where continental-scale weather systems are computed in the cloud and shared across all the players in a zone…
"We’ve been waiting seven years for consoles to take a step forward, and now we’re full-speed ahead. For us, the new generation is a playground!"
Ravi Sinha: Can you please talk a bit about trueSky and how it is being used to create realistic skies on next gen consoles?
Roderick Kennedy: Our customers work in tandem – artists and level designers use the Sky Sequencer to create effects, while the programmers work on integration. Now that our next-gen libraries are mature, the latter process is quite straightforward. But AAA developers are always ambitious – looking for new effects and new ways to exploit our system for gameplay. So we provide a lot of support, either remotely or on-site.
Ravi Sinha: Is there still a massive gap between the capabilities of next gen consoles in creating realistic weather compared to high end PCs or is the gap between them and PCs even smaller than with the previous generation?
Roderick Kennedy: The gap is small now. But PC’s will inch ahead incrementally, while the consoles are fixed for a generation. And there’s a lot of exciting things happening on other platforms too, such as mobile.
Ravi Sinha: Are you guys working on any improvements to Simul? Any new features planned for the technology?
Roderick Kennedy: We’ve got a shocking new lightning effect coming soon. We also have some really exciting next-gen features that we’ll be launching next March… We’ll be previewing these on our website at www.simul.co.
Ravi Sinha: Technology is improving at a rapid pace and as such do you see a saturation point for this technology (Simul) anytime soon?
Roderick Kennedy: No! We’ve been waiting seven years for consoles to take a step forward, and now we’re full-speed ahead. For us, the new generation is a playground!