Monday, November 10, 2008

We've Moved!

Just a quick - and final - entry to say that the Digital Foundry blog has now been relocated. You can find it here. It's a nicer-looking, more feature-rich environment that I'm looking to exploit more fully in the future, but in the meantime, all the existing content, plus more, is mirrored there.
There's a few bugs and minor formatting issues to resolve, but everything's functional.
Adjust your bookmarks now!

Monday, November 3, 2008

PS3/360 Cross-Platform Video Update

Yup, it's that time again, where Eurogamer is due to publish the latest in my cross-platform development features. It seems a waste to compile 720p60 HD videos and only use a fraction of the data in the actual pieces, so blog readers can download the full high definition renders, optimised for playback on dual core PCs, Xbox 360 and PS3. The line-up this time is...

BioShock: click here
Dead Space: click here
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: click here
Pure: click here
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows: click here
Midnight Club: Los Angeles click here

Similar videos for Soul Calibur IV, Mercenaries 2, Beijing 2008, FaceBreaker, Madden 09, Tiger Woods 09 and NHL 09 are available here.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

New Xbox Experience: The Last Word

I was privileged to get a sneak peek at the latest revision of the Xbox dashboard, dramatically entitled ‘New Xbox Experience’. The old Xbox 360 blade system has served the system well over the last few years, but you can’t help but get the feeling that the massive jumps in functionality since the 360 launched have crowded the existing front-end, leading to an unsatisfactory, cluttered user-experience.
The new dash backs away from the clean, premium-look of the PlayStation 3’s XMB and instead focuses in an unashamedly Apple-style interface, perked up with Nintendo-style use of clean, bright colours and cuddly, casual-friendly (dare I say child-friendly?) imagery.

Loading up the dash update is only the first phase of the procedure. Once it’s installed, you have an Avatar-less experience. You can still access all your games and demos, but before connecting to Live you need to download the Avatar creation tool – Live downloads have been cripplingly slow for me of late; I'd expect you to be downloading the secondary update a lot more swiftly than I did.

By the way, if you get blank boxes here instead of video players, press F5 on your browser to reload the page...

This cheery intro movie kicks off the proceedings. Yup, chances are that most of that download consisted of this HD introduction...

First things first. It’s time to kick off Avatar creation. It’s Mii-HD to all intents and purposes. Even the backing music has that Nintendo feel. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the inclusion of Avatars can only really be judged once software starts to take advantage of it. Note that gamerpics are still retained; they’re just not as prominent as once they were.

In the meantime, the Friends List certainly looks a great deal more attractive than it used to… a party function has been added, which I couldn’t use as nobody else on my Friends List has NXE...

My Xbox is the hub of the new interface. It’s basically the vast majority of the old dashboard built into one user-friendly system. Note the game artwork for Oblivion (the disc in the drive). That’s being downloaded from Microsoft HQ, iTunes-style.

The welcome panel is a new addition that spells out all the new feature of NXE so even the most mentally challenged will be encouraged to check them out. You can turn this off if you get bored of it.

The somewhat decrepit in-game OS feature has been substantially revamped and is far, far more responsive than it was.

Aha, so here’s the feature that everyone’s been waiting for: the hard disk installation. Yes it works, and yes it’s excellent. Yes I have edited the video as I'm not sure any one could stomach watching 11 minutes of progress bar action.

You all know the score by now – the game disc needs to be kept in the drive, but it’s only accessed once – everything else is accessed from the hard disk. The result is that the Xbox 360 is much, much quieter during gameplay. Play a demo from the Live Marketplace and that’s exactly the same level of noise you’ll be getting. The question is, what other benefits are there? Most Xbox 360 games are already optimised to cache to the hard disk – it’s the main reason why there’s only 12GB available on the original 20GB hard disk.
Although I’ll need to look at this a bit more scientifically (ie checking in stuff like pop-in on Gears of War or GTAIV), there’s no doubt that spooling to hard disk results in a welcome speed bump. Here are a few games I checked out:

And Finally...
Media. As far as I can tell, nothing has been changed in this regard from the last revision of the dashboard. It’ll still play WMV files (even Blu-ray and HD-DVD rips, with all the VC-1 codec extensions in use), it’ll handle XviD files just fine and its h264 playback is the same as it was too. PS3 has upped the bar when it comes to HD playback with its unofficial support for 1080p60, and it would’ve been nice for the 360 to least be able to handle HD h264 content over 12mbps in throughput levels, but clearly that’s just not going to happen. Those looking for support for the Matroska container (.mkv) are also shit out of luck.
On the plus side, Microsoft’s association with NetFlix yields instant dividends in NXE. If you’re in the US, you’re able to stream both SD and HD content. HD content is 5mbps 720p – basically the same as most of the 720p Blu-ray rips seen out and about, but encoded into WMV instead. Great quality, and it’s all legal. You’ll just need to have a whopping great pipe to the internet to enjoy the HD content.
What is disappointing though is that the picture viewer is still rubbish. It takes quite a lot of effort to make a bad JPEG viewer, but Microsoft has done just that with the 360. It’s always been awful, but you’d have thought it would’ve been improved this time around. Support for TIFF, BMPs and other uncompressed formats would’ve been useful too...

On the left is a Digital Foundry HD screenshot from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. The picture on the right shows the shot being displayed with the JPEG viewer in the 360. I’m curious as to how you can decompress a JPEG and actually add blur.

Overall, the New Xbox Experience is a welcome lick of paint with a very nice range of functionality. There’s something for everyone here, with just those using their 360s as media players let down a touch by the lack of innovation in this area (though you have to admit that the Netflix tie-in is excellent – if you can get it). The install-to-hard disk feature is certainly a worthy addition in its own right, and my tests were done with a heavily used 20GB launch drive. The newer 120GB drive is most likely faster (being a newer variation) and obviously allows you to cache more of your games. I somehow doubt that it’s going to yield any additional performance over and above better loading times and quieter gameplay, but that in itself is a major boon.
Also worthy of note is the inclusion of 1440x900 and 1650x1080 resolutions for users of VGA and DVI displays. Content here is letterboxed to avoid the annoying stretching seen on most 16:10 displays.

Update: The Verdict
As a core gamer, I like NXE and what it does for me, and I can see that the iTunes-style interface is going to make the system initially more attractive and sophisticated-looking than the old-style blades. The only problem I have with it concerns who the interface is actually targeted at. Practically all this new functionality is clearly geared towards the enthusiast user, and yet the Avatar system is obviously aimed at the Wii market and I'm struggling to understand how it will be accepted or used by the 360's established userbase.
As it is, the new interface is initially quite daunting - not casual friendly at all, despite looking a lot nicer than it did. More than that, if Microsoft is looking to branch out and attract the Wii audience, it's going to need to do more. It's all about the games. Virtually all of Nintendo's output is geared towards a different user. Even its core games like Mario Galaxy include wand-waving bits so the non-gamer can join in while the enthusiast gets his Mazzer fix.
Releases like Viva Pinata are completely the wrong direction in my opinion. Nintendo's genius has been in getting back to basics and supplying software that everyone can identify with - titles like Pinata don't do that. More than a new dashboard, Microsoft Games Studios basically needs to completely change its focus, and I'm not sure I see this happening...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

WipEout HD's 1080p Sleight of Hand

Namco's Ridge Racer 7 has been the standard bearer for true 1920x1080p on PlayStation 3 since the system launched, and to this day nothing gets close to what this game is achieving at full raster 1080p. Sure, GT5 has a tangibly superior look overall but its mixture of 1280x1080 (in-game) and 1440x1080 (replay) resolutions precludes it from the discussion.
Sony Liverpool's WipEout HD is the first big game for a while to be touting true 1080p credentials and regardless of its technical prowess, it's stupidly good value at $19.99/£11.99. It's also a superb technical effort, great to play and accessible to a level that recent releases in the series have failed to achieve.
And 1080p? True 1080p? Well yes. And no. OK, most of the time, it is. I mean look at these shots... scrutinised and measured by the ever-reliable 'Quaz51' who cast his expert eye over a number of Digital Foundry TrueHD 1080p captures:

There's still something about Ridge Racer 7 that makes it a phenomenal 1080p game, but there's no doubt that WipEout HD is the better-looking 1920x1080 effort with some beautiful shader effects and excellent art direction. But what's going on the two shots below?

They're not 1080p in the sense that the resolution is no longer 1920x1080. WipEout HD is now rendering at 1280x1080 (with some screen tear to boot), which I'm fairly sure is the game's lowest resolution - but still a 50% resolution increase over 720p. So what's happening? Basically WipEout HD is the first game I've come across that seems to be operating with a dynamic framebuffer. Resolution can alter on a frame-by-frame basis. Rather than introduce dropped frames, slow down or other unsavoury effects, the number of pixels being rendered drops and the PS3's horizontal hardware scaler is invoked to make up the difference. It's an intriguing solution that works with limited impact on the overall look of the game (the tearing has far more of an impact on image quality - I'm assuming that kicks in when the framebuffer can't scale any lower).

The actual amount of horizontal resolution being dropped can change on a frame by frame basis: 1728x1080, 1645x1080, 1600x1080, 1440x1080. All have been seen in the Digital Foundry TrueHD captures. The shots above appear to be 1500x1080.
The dynamic framebuffer is really quite an innovative solution to the perennial 1080p problem. Even though we're seeing major differences in resolution, the human eye really will have trouble realising the difference when the detail level is changing so rapidly in such a fast moving game.
In short, it's making an advanced-looking game like WipEout HD work at 1080p60 and that's pretty damn awesome.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

720p Zero Compromise Console Comparison Videos

It's been bugging me for some time that the Eurogamer comparison videos I produce are horrendously over-engineered in relation to the actual end result, so I decided to make more use of the HD captures and produce download-only files that show the full resolution and frame rate of each game, running in realtime.
The first one I produced, Soul Calibur IV, was beautiful enough to convince me to carry on with all the others and incorporate the whole process into the existing workflow. Enough bandwidth has been thrown at these videos to make them look almost passable for the actual game running on the console itself.
The edited files are encoded into VC-1 using Microsoft Expression Encoder 2, and the resultant WMVs are playable on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and fast PCs (any dual core unit should work fine).
So, here are the links required to get your hands on the downloadable goodies:

Soul Calibur IV: click here
Mercenaries II: World in Flames: click here
Beijing 2008: click here
FaceBreaker: click here
EA Sports Compilation (Tiger Woods 09/Madden 09/NHL 09): click here

Don't expect scintillating gameplay here, nor expertly mixed audio. The clips are specifically captured to be synced for technical comparison. As it is, in all of the releases above, the actual gameplay is identical cross-platform any way.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Digital Foundry on the Big, Bright Screen

Question: how do you go about displaying real time PlayStation 3 gameplay on a screen the size of a wall? That's the intriguing question posed by my new friends at Belgium big-screen specialists Brightboard. The obvious answer would be to use projection, but in daylight conditions, obviously this would be a complete waste of time.
Brightboard specialise in the use of LED screens - similar to the kind of displays used in football pitch ad hoardings, and also for displaying advertising in city centres. Such screens are absolutely enormous and require dedicated PCs to control the image. That being the case, direct connection from console to screen is not the solution - a capture card, interfaced with the LED screen's controller is. Enter Digital Foundry TrueHD Express.
This was a great case to work on. Brightboard sent me a copy of their controller software and with just a couple of registry tweaks to the TrueHD driver I was able to get realtime PS3 gameplay working with no problem whatsoever. However, without an actual screen to work with, positive results could not be guaranteed, so it was with some trepidation that the TrueHD Express card was sent to Belgium...

Success! Click on the pics for some idea of just how massive that LED screen actually is. Multiple screens can be daisy-chained together for an even more colossal image.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

PS3 Media Playback Update

First of all, kudos to Sony for producing what I think must be the first 1080p60 AVC file to playback on PlayStation 3. Posters on the AVSForum tipped me off to the 1080p download available at WipEout HD website. Encoded at 20mbps with peaks at 49mbps, it's a worthy workout for the PS3 - but it's a shame that the gameplay footage has so much v-lock screen tear.
The video is also noteworthy in that I could not match this performance initially whatsoever, despite matching its encoding profile as closely as I could using x264. It turns out that the video divides the image into 'slices' which PS3's Cell CPU decode in parallel... and x264 doesn't support slices.
However, the Mainconcept Reference encoder does and while it's horrible to use compared to x264, I quickly had 1080p60 material playing back nicely. I'll have to consider updating the Devil May Cry demo on to replace the existing VC-1 encode as I get the same quality at a lower bitrate and AVC is clearly more suited to the PS3's media playback capabilities. That's if I can find someone with the full version to do the encode for me, as the demo version watermarks output and I'm not paying $1,999 for an encoder that is inferior to x264 in just about every way.

PlayStation 3 WipEout HD supports 1080p60 (with one or two interesting technical tricks I might go into at a later date) and the AVC video Sony produced for it is well worth downloading and checking out on your own PS3...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Website Revamp Now Live

Well, after lots of behind-the-scenes mucking about, the new Digital Foundry website is now live. Contained therein is a stronger focus on the hardware offerings we've developed, including a pretty remarkable 1080p60 demo of Devil May Cry 4's superb intro sequence, running from PC. Encoded into the VC-1 codec and optimised for playback on PS3, it's well worth a download as an example of the quality of final deliverable asset Digital Foundry TrueHD provides. There's a good-looking 1080p30 AVC file based on Gran Turismo 5 that should playback nicely on both PS3 and Xbox 360 too.
Also revealed is the first work on the notebook version of Digital Foundry TrueHD that'll allow for 720p60 and 1080p30 HD capture 'on the go'.
While putting the website together, checking the logs also revealed that many of the shots posted on this blog are being hotlinked from elsewhere - and with it, the astonishing statistic that 5GB (!!) in JPEGs were downloaded at my expense last month, mostly from MySpace mouth-breathers stealing the Kasabian images from a previous blog posting. The shots have been moved and if they're stolen again, they'll be replaced with far more 'colourful' images I'm not sure your mother would appreciate seeing plastered over your profile!
Not too much else to report otherwise - my personal time has been vacuumed up preparing video material for the Leipzig GC games event currently taking place in East Germany. I've visited the event in the past, and while I'm never too keen on shows like this, the conference centre's surrounding area is truly beautiful - away from the city centres, Germany is a lovely place to visit; like rural England, but with space to breathe...

Friday, August 8, 2008

1080p60 Video Playback: PS3 Supreme

It's all very well having hardware capable of 1080p60 capture; the only problem is that once you have created your wondrous edit, the only playback mechanism available is a quad core PC running the CineForm NEO Player software. Great (incredible, actually) for event usage on a huge display, not so great for final asset delivery to the masses.
Sure, 1080p30 can be played back with much aplomb on both Xbox 360 and PS3, but all my previous efforts in getting demanding video working at full fat 1080p60 have failed miserably, with only mediocre 1440x1080 performance possible via the Xbox 360's dashboard WMV player.
PlayStation 3 recently had VC1 decoding added to its media playback arsenal and it's outperforming my 3.0GHz Core 2 Quad system, and indeed the Xbox 360. Easily. My previous 1440x1080 anamorphic edits which gave 360 'pause' play back beautifully on PS3. Handle the encode carefully and the PS3 will even stream 40mbps VC1 without a hitch!
Sure, there are limitations with Sony's console, as you might expect from a consumer-level piece of hardware bent over and molested at gunpoint into doing things it really doesn't want to do. In an ideal world, you'd want to use all of the encoding power of VC1 - in-loop and overlap filters, dequant, true chroma motion estimation, B frames, the works. But in dealing with 60 frames, the poor old PS3 simply can't cope. The answer is to turn off varying amounts of this stuff and compensate with sheer bandwidth. The amount you'll need will vary with your source material but for 1080p60 you're looking at the top end.
So... what's the catch? Weirdly, PS3 supports VC1, but support is patchy for the Microsoft audio codecs. Plus you need to 'Enable WMA audio' on the XMB, which nobody ever bothers doing any way. The answer is to demux the WMV, transcode audio into ac3 then plonk everything into a transport stream (.ts) container.
As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. My whole objective here is to get some semblance of the magnificence of TrueHD 1080p60 captures but playable on everyday hardware; getting that level of quality is going to take some time, so no downloadable goodies for now, but at least now I know it's actually possible...

Kudos to Microsoft for Expression Encoder 2 and its 30 day trial period I'm ruthlessly exploiting as we speak. It's based on the same code that produced spectacular VC1 encodes for HD DVD and Blu-ray, but it ain't cheap at $199. However, encoding quality seems to leaps beyond Microsoft's previous Windows Media Encoder offering

Sunday, August 3, 2008

PC Gaming Renaissance

I'm currently in the process of revamping the woefully out of date website. There'll be new pages detailing all our HD offerings and streaming video rather than cumbersome HD downloads. Tomorrow one TrueHD unit will be capturing the other in order to create videos showing the new system in action.
I can't be using Ridge Racer 7 to showcase 1080p capture for the rest of my life, so I knocked together a basic PC out of spare parts lurking in corners of the Digital Foundry lair, then bought a brand new 512MB nVidia 8800GT for a mere £90.
The results were spectacular and the revelation clear: for much the same price as a PlayStation 3, you can have a gaming machine that massively outperforms any current console. Devil May Cry 4 with 2x MSAA at 1080p60 is spectacular - an inordinate leap visually over the console versions. So-called system killer Crysis? Performance a touch choppy at 1080p with all settings on 'high', but still perfectly playable. Scale back to 720p and once again we have 60fps gameplay. Unreal Tournament 3 ran without a hitch at the full fat 1080p60 and predictably, blew the console versions out of the water graphically: over twice as much detail and double the frame rate.
The irony is that as pundits confidently predict the end of PC gaming, we've finally reached a point where basic PC technology is sufficient enough to feed consumer level HDTVs with a graphical experience far beyond what the set-in-stone, unupgradable consoles can achieve. In my view, there's never been a better time to get into PC gaming, and it needn't cost the earth...

A quartet of images derived from TrueHD 1080p60 captures using the CineForm encoder. Clockwise: Crysis (PC), Devil May Cry 4 (PC), Gran Turismo 5 Prologue (PS3) and finally Virtua Tennis 3 (PS3). Click on the thumbnails for full images.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pushing Back The Boundaries

An exhausting week with over 800 miles covered across the UK, but plenty to get excited about. First of all, I recently upgraded to CineForm's Prospect HD editing solution; loaded up Adobe Premiere Pro CS3, and imported a few 1080p60 captures into the timeline. Lo and behold, not only is Digital Foundry TrueHD the only high definition capture system on the market capable of the most extreme resolutions and frame rates, it's also capable of doubling up as a realtime HD workstation.
Yup, 1080p60 streams on the timeline, playing back in realtime.... while conforming the audio at the same time. Bearing in mind that Prospect HD gives you change from $1,000, this is a pretty staggering state of affairs - especially as I believe that an overclocked Q6600 based system running in the region of 3GHz, combined with RAM running at 1066MHz will also do the job. It's a theory I'll put to the test sometime next week, but with Intel's new Nehalem hardware coming along, I'm all but certain that mid-range consumer level kit will soon be outperforming the current top-end server-based technology. And that's fantastic for HD, while posing interesting questions to those of us  in the HD hardware market.
Secondly, a brilliant meeting yesterday with the engineers behind the TrueHD hardware. I went in with a wishlist of stuff that can make the best HD capture solution bar none better yet, and I was amazed at the response. Plans are afoot to include the analogue component support currently absent from the hardware, improve precision 24-bit RGB performance, introduce hardware scaling, and finally, I'm very confident that an iteration of TrueHD will soon be available for notebook users. Bandwidth and CPU limitations prevent full-on 1080p60, but 720p60... 1080p30... some level of support for precision, lossless RGB capture, all the CineForm bells and whistles. It'll all be there in a package you can fit in a travel bag.
And lastly, in a sleep-deprieved, non-stop week of action, I spent a fantastic day at Criterion Games this week installing their new TrueHD station, demoing its capabilities and helping out with their video encoding on the Crash TV podcast they regularly produce.
If you don't know, these are the guys behind the Burnout and Black videogame series, pushing back technical boundaries themselves with each new game they release. Any way, check out that podcast on iTunes if you're in any way interested in games development (search for Crash TV). In an industry increasingly obsessed with PR spin, it's refreshing to see a bunch of talented developers letting the customer into their world, withholding very little and having some fun at the same time. Having spent a fair amount of time with these guys, a lot of the content is almost back like being in the room with them.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Streaming Video Comes of Age

A long break between blogs, but with so much going on behind the scenes, time really is at a premium. For the time being though, it's back once again to my Eurogamer contributions.
I was recently asked by new editor Tom Bramwell to introduce video to the Xbox 360/PS3 comparison features I put together for them. In theory, it should be easy: Digital Foundry TrueHD already provides lossless dumps of the HDMI ports of the respective consoles, so I already have the videos, it's just a case of formatting them courtesy of Adobe After Effects.
Well, no it's not. Matching up specific screenshots takes time enough, but synchronising entire feeds of video at 60fps is exponentially more difficult. And working with uncompressed video as I do all the way up to the h.264 encoding stage also takes a long time, but is important for features where the user really has to have faith in the workflow used. It's worth pursuing as nobody else appears capable of achieving 24-bit precision with games capture and more than that, they're often working with some pretty awful compression methods, compromising the quality right from the initial capture phase.
Bearing in mind the large audience these features attract, I think it's worth pursuing the highest quality results.
The video linked below basically took around 4-5 days of work (including time taken to play both versions of the game up until the end of Chapter One), producing two versions: one at 728x544 for the video Eurogamer site, and one at 632x400 to embed into the feature itself.

Click through to see all eight minutes of the original Grand Theft Auto IV comparison piece, including a fair few clips that were never seen in the actual article. Thanks to Eurogamer for hosting.

I've just spent the last few days working on the latest feature, five games (four with video) and you can see that here.
Introducing video at all was a tall order. Up until that point I thought that video comparisons were a complete waste of time; streaming video just isn't up to the job. However, Eurogamer's video player is state-of-the-art - as far as Flash goes - and definitely the best on the market if given decent enough material to work with. x264's HQ-Insane profile is used for the very best possible results and to ensure minimal macroblocking or picture break-up, I slow the video down to 50% or 25% speed. It sounds far from ideal, but as you can see from the link above, it works in that it gives you more time to analyse the video differences. The video is cropped so that one HD pixel is one pixel in the player. Another advantage of slowing the video down is that typically, streaming video online runs at 30fps. Usual form is to dump every other frame, but some games do not update at an even frame rate - so in many cases, video information is being thrown away. Using the slo-mo method, every frame is retained.
The more experience I have making these videos, the more I learn about streamlining the process. The GTA footage was done clip by clip, with both the embedded and versions individually rendered. Now I have a process whereby all clips are joined together, rendered as one file, with that file then used as the basis for the smaller embedded version. A quick Premiere Pro edit can then be used on both renders to make both videos in quick succession.