In a private hotel suite during the week of the Game Developers Conference, Blitz Games showed off its latest 3D technology, part of its wider Blitz Tech Tools, which the developer has recently started selling as middleware.
The first game to make use of the 3D tech is Invincible Tiger, a PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade title to be published by Namco. The game, a retro 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up, is going to be playable on any TV set, but with a simple menu screen selection is transformed, becoming one of the very first 3D games running on a home console.
Here, Blitz's chief technical officer Andrew Oliver, discusses the race to establish the company at the forefront of 3D gaming, how digital cinema's format wars will aid the evolution of games in 3D, and the challenges of marketing a new videogame concept.
Q: Can you give us a brief summary of 3D technology in the movie and TV industries, and how that will feed into games development?
Andrew Oliver: Well Hollywood is pretty much committed to making lots of 3D movies and there's a few reasons why. The main one is at the moment old cinemas still use old celluloid reels, we have to wait eight weeks for them to come over to Europe, and they're all scratched, they're rubbish. The studios want them all to go digital, and with new digital projectors they've built in 3D technology as well. They're pushing it like crazy, not only because it gives you extra immersion, but because they can drive all cinemas to go digital by consumers going to see 3D films. Film studios are committed to it, and you've got people like James Cameron working on live action 3D projects like Avatar.
So the TV manufacturers – Samsung and Mitsubishi in particular - they've started building 3D in the TVs because they know the films are coming out. But the films are taking a little bit longer because there's a bit of a format war and there's not that many films ready. There's about 21 releases in the next 18 months. So there's TVs on the market but no one knows they're 3D capable because there's no content for them.
Q: And how is that 3D technology different to the 3D tech we see in the PC market?
Andrew Oliver: So you can do 3D on PCs by buying specific hardware and graphics cards and retro fit things like Call of Duty for 3D screens and monitors. But it's a bit of a hack and the games aren't designed for it, it's just that games live in a 3D world. It possible, but they weren't really made for it.
Q: What about 3D games on console – is it at the early stages, how soon are we going to see 360 and PS3 games in 3D?
Andrew Oliver: People said you couldn't do it on console because they're not fast enough. And when I heard that, I just thought, why aren't they fast enough?All you're doing is driving graphics on 3D, it can't be that difficult.
But it is difficult because they're putting 3D on to high end TVs. So your game will only be 3D if it's 1080p. 3D also only works if you have a very smooth frame rate because it flips between the left and the right eye. You have to run the game at 60 frames per second, 1080p, and you have to render it from a left and a right view and send two pictures in the same frame and it kind of interlaces them together. It's difficult because there's not many games that run at that quality.
Q: Blitz has got more than a tech demo running – you've got a game in true 3D, and this is what you're showing off at GDC this year, right?
Andrew Oliver: We've got it working on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, so we're cross platform. We had a technology demo running last year and people were impressed by it, but people were saying “it's all very well showing a demo but you couldn't write a whole game with that kind of frame rate” Well we believe you can, we believe in our technology and we think it's up there with some of the best.
Q: You've started to sell your own technology – the Blitz Tech Tools – and these include the 3D technology...
Andrew Oliver: Yes, we were writing our own game, Invincible Tiger, for Xbox 360 and PSN and we put the 3D tech on to this as it's our own IP. We're working on other licenses but you can't go playing around with new tech on a big licence. As a normal game it's a nice retro fighting game. We were working on this as something that harks back to classic, side-scrolling fighters, but because it's also a full HD game we're able to put this into 3D. The idea is we sell the game, and if someone has the right technology, they can flip it on to 3D.
Q: There seems to be a resurgence in 3D every 20-odd years, so it must be a concept that's still appealing to content creators. How do you know this isn't another fad that will fade after a few years?
Andrew Oliver: Because this is digital so it now stands a chance. Whereas before it was always a slight hack, it was analogue, it was funny colours. The technology now is phenomenal. PC gaming does do this the same way that cinema is doing it, and we can do all the tricks that cinema does. And we render at pretty much the same resolution. We're actually rendering at a higher frame rate and quality than digital cinema, which makes it tough, but it can certainly be done. And I believe that if you're making a game of a 3D movie, the game needs to be in 3D too.
Q: Sales of 3D TVs are reasonable in the US, do you know what the figures are like in the UK and Europe?
Andrew Oliver: They're very, very small. It's technology that's just coming out. Pretty much at CES this year all consumer electronics manufacturers were saying they are going to have at least one 3D TV in their high end range.
Q: And have you spoken to the format holders – Microsoft and Sony – about the number of users that own a 3D TV and a Xbox 360 or PS3 console? Do they know those figures and so your potential audience?
Andrew Oliver: No, but there's a good chance that they are the same kind of users, the early adopters. It's not really up to them to find out. We've shown this technology to Microsoft and Sony and they were quite surprised by it, frankly. But that was some time ago and they're very aware of 3D now.
And if you had this in a store, people would see the reason to buy the TV.
Q: Have you spoken to any retailers about getting the game in stores and demoing the technology on 3D TVs?
Andrew Oliver: Not retailers, but we have talked to manufacturers.
Q: Which manufacturers?
Andrew Oliver: I'm not going to say.
Q: And is that still an ongoing discussion?
Andrew Oliver: Yes.
Q: So they are interested?
Andrew Oliver: They are extremely interested. To quote one manufacturer, he said, “Bloody hell, we'd sell a lot of TVs if we had that in store.” They could. We're trying to work out how this game will be marketed, we've got the game now, and it was just going to be an Xbox Live Arcade game, but that may not be the best way to sell it because it's unique.
Q: You said there's a format dispute holding up digital 3D – is that going to impact the development of 3D games?
Andrew Oliver: There's a format war for 3D digital films. It will mean that once the format wars are sorted, all the films will come out and Hollywood will be promoting this like crazy, and the TVs will start selling like crazy. We can't worry about that, we have to just go for it. It will be a bit slow because we don't have the marketing muscle of Hollywood, but that doesn't mean it's not going to happen. For me, this feels like next-gen. We've got a big user base out there, 3D is possible, so rather than be thinking about your next-gen purchases and your next-gen console, you want to buy a new TV.
Q: As far as I'm aware, there's only Blitz and a handful of others working on 3D technology.
Andrew Oliver: It would be interesting to see it, because I'm not aware of any others showing their technology.
Q: So it's important to Blitz that the business is at the forefront of this?
Andrew Oliver: We believe we're the first, by quite a long stretch.
Q: Have you got other games running on this technology?
Andrew Oliver: I couldn't possibly comment. But clearly we're working on what can work in 3D and what can't.
Q: So the 2D version of the game is going to be out on PSN and XBLA, and published by Namco. But it won't necessarily have the 3D option on the day of release – you patch that later on?
Andrew Oliver: I'm absolutely confident we could do something along those lines. The thing is, because of the marketing and sales of 3D TVs, it could be that we cut some deal with a TV manufacturer so that when you buy the TV you're given the game. We could have a demo pod in the shop and you buy the TV and get it together with the game. That seems to make so much more sense. Otherwise, everyone's going to rave about this 3D game, and 97 per cent of people who buy it won't see it in 3D. The game just shows off the TV. And it's running on a regular PlayStation or a regular Xbox 360. It runs identically.
Q: I have to admit I was cynical about how a 3D game would look and play. But I'm really impressed by this technology.
Andrew Oliver: Everyone is a bit cynical with 3D because it's had such a funny history of gimmicky stuff and horrible colours. There were these comebacks with movies, from Jaws 3D to Spy Kids 3D and it's all a bit naff. We appreciate our game is a small game, but it can be applied to much bigger titles and it just adds so many levels of depth to a game. We haven't even thought about the gameplay side of things. You've got depth perception there that can open up so many design ideas.
Q: Do you think you'll be waiting on Hollywood before 3D TV takes off, and then 3D console games?
Andrew Oliver: It just takes time for people to buy the TVs but there's no doubt there's a market as Hollywood is making loads of films. But we're going to try and beat them, it's a race. We'll get our games out before the movies. I first saw proper high-definition through the Xbox, because there wasn't Sky HD and services like that, but on the Xbox 360 it was so crisp. I think the same will happen again, it's like with 3D TVs, people are going to experience their first content via games. Film company's think they're going to be getting their films out but format wars will delay them. And we'll be there on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Q: How do you manage the different 3D TV standards? Different TV manufacturers are working to different specifications aren't they, there's no standardisation?
Andrew Oliver: We'll just write drivers for them all. It's a pain in the arse because we have to do it for each display, but we can do it. There's going to be the odd TV that will come out that isn't supported, but we'll push a driver out later. That's not something you can do with a DVD player.
Andrew Oliver is chief technical officer of Blitz Games. Interview by Matt Martin.