The Inner Product, May 2004
Jonathan Blow (
Last updated 23 July 2004

Miscellaneous Rants


As I sit down to write this article, the Game Developers Conference is rapidly approaching.  (It’ll be past by the time this column sees print.)  For me the conference tends to be a big milestone marking a yearly cycle of game development thoughts and happenings.  I always come away from the conference with new ideas about what I ought to be doing.

This year, to prepare the way for new thoughts, I’m attempting to flush out some of the old thoughts by getting them down on paper.  What follows is a series of short bits that I think are interesting, but which are too small to merit their own individual columns. 

Networked Game Quality-of-Service

Fast-paced networked games are sensitive to network conditions – if you get a lot of latency or packet loss, the game can feel unplayable.  The degree of robustness amid adverse networking conditions depends on the game’s network architecture – some systems feel much more solid than others.  Peer-to-peer lockstep games are the worst; every player is waiting for input from every other player in order for the simulation to progress, so if any player has poor network conditions, everyone suffers.

Client/server games can be made very robust, so that a player’s experience depends on network quality at his client and at the server, but not at the other clients.  The server can be run from a controlled location with effort spent to ensure that the network quality is high.  So the quality of the player’s experience depends mainly on his own connection.

When first-person shooters first became viable to play across the Internet, they used this model.  (You could place this at about the timeframe of Quake; Doom used peer-to-peer and was painful to play over a wide-area network).  But there were lots of modem players back then, who tended to have poor play experiences due to their slow connections (they had to aim ahead of moving targets, would see enemies late and so have less time to react before being killed, etc).  Around the year 2000 an Unreal Tournament mod called Zeroping was released.  Zeroping aimed to improve the play experience by allowing a lot of computation to happen client-side: you always hit what you aim at (the server believes your client when you say you hit someone).

Of course this opens up all sorts of cheating issues, but if you like the idea you can convince yourself that the cheats can be detected and worked around.  So this became an increasingly prevalent networking paradigm for first-person shooters.  A more sophisticated networking system, designed to eliminate most client-side cheats while retaining lag compensation, was designed by Yahn Bernier for Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2 (see the References).  It was patched into a post-release version of Half-Life as a test, annoying untold masses of dedicated Counter-Strike players around the world.

Yahn’s lag compensation system, and a few others since then, involves the server interpolating objects backward in time to compensate for clients’ latencies, in order to detect hits.  So as Yahn says, “you hit what you aim at” for instant-hit weapons (though applying his system to slower projectile weapons is very confusing and may be infeasible, so he didn’t do it); but at the same time the client can’t just lie about what it has hit, because hit-detection is decided by the server.

Lag compensation systems still have significant cheating problems (a client can lie about its latency), but even if they could be totally solved, there are strange issues with this kind of architecture that need to be discussed.  I have been hoping for some level of insightful and rational discussion about this subject, but such has not yet arrived.  I think it’s difficult to get a large body of people to think seriously about networking, at least compared to something like graphics, which is a lot more visual and openly appealing.

There are two basic issues that bother me about lag compensation systems (with the simple Zeroping-style architectures included in this category).  For one thing, a player is no longer in control of the quality of his game experience.  A player with a perfect connection will frequently experience low-quality events – for example, getting shot when he seems to be safely around a corner.  The worse the connection quality of the other players, the more often this will happen. 

But the thing that’s more subtle, and perhaps more troublesome, is that the learning curve of the game changes, such that it becomes much harder for players to understand what happened to them and thus improve their play.  In a vanilla client/server situation where you must lead your target when lagged, you can see clearly when you hit or missed and can learn to adjust your play accordingly.  You have a clear path you can take in order to improve.  But with lag compensation, the effect of latency is to cause you to be killed in confusing ways, wherein your client is displaying a version of events that can be quite different from what the server considers to have actually happened.  (And in fact the server is constantly juggling conflicting notions of the world state, so there is in fact no objective reality for you to key in on).  In such a situation, when you find yourself being killed but you don’t have a clear picture of why it’s happening, how can you improve your play?  You can’t see what direction to go in the skill space.

Certainly this end-result is upsetting to many expert players.  But I’m not even sure it’s a good play experience for beginners.     

Problems with Academic Research Pertaining to Game Technology                                                                                         

Back when I was new to game programming, I looked forward to attending conferences like SIGGRAPH because there was lots of high-end stuff there to learn from.  Nowadays, I am usually dismayed by conferences like these.  Yes, there are gems to be found in the proceedings and the sessions, but they are small and surrounded by mud.  We’re starting to see a bit of the same thing happen at the Game Developers Conference, but I hold the academics more strictly to task for this, because it is ostensibly the main thing they are doing in life, so they really ought to be better at it.  Here’s my laundry list of problems with the current research environment:

I believe the field really needs more simplifications and unifications, rather than new complications.  Every once in a while we see new work that goes in such a direction, and that’s refreshing – but it doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

Let’s go back for a moment to that frame coherence issue in my first bullet point.  I find this to be a subject with a lot of deep ramifications that are rarely explored.  At some level, our entire computational architecture is based on coherence of one kind or another (memory caches and the like).  Apparently when these coherence exploitations are fine-grained enough, they tend to average out and not cause much feedback.  But still there are exceptional cases due to pessimistic input patterns.  If we wanted to get rid of these, to make a game system that is truly real-time, we would have to throw away much of our current computing paradigm.  (This seems unlikely in the near term!)                                                                                          

Another interesting issue arises at the algorithmic high-level.  Some kinds of algorithms are insensitive to the frame time.  Non-time-antialiased rendering is one of these; its runtime tends to depend only on the scene complexity.  But there are other kinds of algorithms, which we very much need, that we don’t know how to make fast without resorting to heavy coherence exploitation.  Examples are physics and collision detection – as the frame time increases, they want to spend more CPU, increasing frame time further.  So we use coherence in these algorithms, but in doing so we create a situation that is somewhat unhappy. 

Simple Compression

This one is not a rant!

Sometimes you want to write an integer into a file or transmit it over the network, and you know the integer is usually going to be small, though it could in rare cases be larger.  To compress, we need an estimate of the probability for each value.  Suppose there’s a 50% chance of the value being 0; if it’s not 0, there’s a 50% chance of it being 1 (a 25% chance globally); if it’s not 1, there’s a 50% chance of it being 2 (a 12.5% chance globally), and so on.

The Huffman tree for this probability distribution looks like Figure 1.  To build the Huffman codes from a tree, you just navigate from the root to the number you want to encode, outputting a 1 for each rightward branch and a 0 for each leftward branch.  In this particular case, we see that a 0 always ends the sequence, and the number of 1s that come before that 0 is simply the number we’re encoding.

So if your probability distribution is anywhere near this ideal, you can get good compression on your numbers without actually understanding compression, or doing any of the arithmetic coding stuff I’ve talked about in the past (August – November 2003). 


Figure 1

A Huffman tree for encoding the nonnegative integers, where 0 is the most probable value and the probability halves for each step up the series of integers.  To help keep things clear, the edges have been labelled “l” and “r” rather than the 0 and 1 bits you might use to encode them.  To encode the number 2 using this tree, you would output rrl, that is, 110.  The ellipses indicate that the tree continues indefinitely.



Hexagonal Lattice Texture Maps

As I discussed in “Transmitting Vectors” (July 2002), hexagons provide a lower-error tiling of the plane than squares do.  With texture maps, we are trying to approximate a continuous surface of color (or some other quantity) with a lattice of samples, and usually we use a square lattice.  If we used hexagons instead, we could save memory (because we’d need fewer samples to achieve the same amount of resolution).  Furthermore, we would increase isotropy, which can be extra important when using texture maps to approximate pieces of functions and then multiplying them together or combining them in some other way.

This raises interesting questions, such as what coordinate system would be best to index the texture map.  It’d be an interesting area to experiment in, though low-level hardware support for hexagonal texture maps seems unlikely.  Nevertheless, I think one could do some wacky and fruitful experiments by projecting slices of a 3D cubic texture map down to 2D hexagonal maps.  (See Charles Fu’s posting in For More Information).

For rendering, this is likely to fall into the general category of “too hard to deal with to be worth the benefit”, so I’m not recommending you go out and stick this into our engine.  But when it comes to techniques as pervasive and fundamental to what we do as texture maps, I like to understand everything I can about the technique.  If we do something inefficiently, it should be out of choice, not ignorance.

For a use of hexagonal texture maps in computer vision, see Lee Middleton’s paper in For More Information.


Computer Vision

The state of computer vision research can be split pretty easily into two parts, the low level and the high level.  The low level is about looking at grids of pixels and extracting useful information from them (passing filters over the image, using signal processing to measure texture, phase congruency detection, the generalized Hough transform, and things like that).  The high level is about taking that low-level information and doing some AI to parse the image (recognize shapes in the scene, detect faces, or whatever).

In general the low-level research is well-founded.  Those guys know what they’re doing, and their work is based on solid concepts.  Sometimes when I read a good low-level computer vision paper, I feel like it was written by the Terminator.  On the other hand, high-level vision papers always seem like they were written in crayon.  The concepts involved are obviously total hacks, which clearly won’t work in the general case, or lead to any kind of substantial high-level vision paradigm.  To date, the best high-level vision research doesn’t seem to be anything you wouldn’t think of yourself if you sat down for a weekend and sketched out some ideas.  But the high-level papers seem to take themselves very seriously, for some reason. 



Yahn Bernier, “Lag Compensation”,

Lee Middleton, “Markov Random Fields for Square and Hexagonal Texture Maps”,

Charles Fu, “Which point is in the hex?”, post to, June 1994.  Message-ID <2sqchi$>.

Zeroping home page,