Immersed in Game Play

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Tom Kenny

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Splashy game ads were all over TV this past holiday season, complete with photo-realistic graphics, huge explosions and 180 bpm music. The best of the spots even resembled Hollywood action-movie trailers, and it was no accident. Games have grown up. Games are big business.

Technology has moved so fast in the consumer electronics world that an entire generation knows nothing about Atari, Nintendo 64 or Sega Dreamcast, let alone Pong, Asteroids or Pac-Man. For the current generation of gamers, PlayStation 2 is already feeling outdated, even though its introduction four short years ago started the revolution in gaming — both for graphics and sound.

“PlayStation 2 was the first game console to be released with a built-in DVD player,” says Jack Buser, manager, game developer relations, at Dolby Laboratories. “A lot of gamers were playing DVDs for the first time on the same box they were playing games on. Consumers started to say, ‘Hey, if I fire up my home theater and these DVDs sound so good in Dolby Digital, what gives with my games? My Dolby Digital light isn't even lighting up!’ It was a wake-up call for the entire industry.”

At the same time PlayStation consumers were calling Dolby with questions, Dolby met with Microsoft and began to discuss the feasibility of implementing true 5.1-channel Dolby Digital surround into its top-secret game console, Xbox. Having the luxury of designing a console for Dolby Digital from the ground up, the Xbox was able to deliver games with 5.1-channel audio on the day it launched.

“It was an entirely different problem we faced than when we originally developed Dolby Digital,” Buser explains. “For games, we realized we would have to do an encode essentially in real time, meaning that if the Dolby Digital encoder saw PCM from the game, it would have to turn the crank extremely fast and get a Dolby Digital bitstream out to the decoder fast enough so that the game player, when he pressed a button, could hear the sound happen at the exact same time. Latency was absolutely critical.”

It is also crucial that the audio never touch the host processor, as there isn't a publisher in the world who will allow audio to compromise graphics or game play. To that end, Xbox includes a separate DSP chip to handle the real-time encoding. The first big game to take advantage of 5.1 capability was Halo, which Dolby would use for demonstrations with developers to let the technology sell itself.

Meanwhile, Dolby started looking at the market leader, PlayStation 2, and began working on a 5.1 solution. Dolby Surround had been on games for years, but it didn't allow for a sub or split surrounds. At the very least, the company knew that it needed to provide a stepping stone to Dolby Digital, so engineers worked up the backward-compatible Dolby Pro Logic II.

“If you want game developers to think about these issues, you have to give them a solution on the platform where they make the most money, meaning PlayStation 2,” Buser says candidly. “At the time, we had released Pro Logic II decoding into the consumer market, but we never really intended to have a new content program. We already had one! Dolby Surround. But then we knew that we needed to get the game experience as close to a true 5.1 environment as possible. Pro Logic II is not dissimilar to the original surround encoder, except it doesn't band-limit the surrounds and you have stereo panning in the rear. Most importantly, it doesn't touch the host processor.”

The first game to really take advantage of Pro Logic II was Rogue Leader for GameCube, developed by Factor Five in Marin County, Calif. It's a Star Wars game that takes the extra step of providing a channel test by having a Tai fighter fly overhead and around the sound field. “GameCube is a very powerful console for audio,” Buser notes. “The chips they are using, the audio horsepower, the tools available to developers. But there's no way to get digital audio out of the back, and that's unfortunate. Still, it allows us to demonstrate that no matter whether you're using analog or digital cable, Pro Logic II would work, and it's very cool.”

Because Xbox has the encoder built in, content creators simply place sounds in the game as they normally would, with whatever provided or third-party tool they desire. For PlayStation 2 and GameCube, Dolby provides developers with an interactive Pro Logic II encoder for effects or anything firing out of RAM. For the music and ambiences that stream off of the disc, many audio folks are using Minnetonka's SurCode or Dolby's DP563 to “pre-encode” those elements and mix into the game for a seamless experience.

“Pro Logic II streams will mix together just fine,” Buser says. “If you plug your PlayStation 2 or GameCube development system into the TV, you can hear the mix on the fly. A lot of game developers are still doing confidence monitoring on consumer equipment. The ultimate, of course, would be to get one of our DP564s, which allows you to do Pro Logic II monitoring, Dolby Digital, headphones…it's a fantastic piece of gear for game development.”

And it's a good time to be a game developer.


Tom Kenny is the editor of Mix.






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