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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

There are only two kinds of ship...

D-Perisher96.jpg ID I EVER MENTION that I'm a sucker for computer games? I'm sure I must have?

It was, I maintain, a purely professional interest that led me to purchase a first graphics card, and with it Zork Nemesis, for my crappy old P-155 back in '96?

I had, ironically, just quit my job of twelve years, grinding-out simulators for the same miserable defence company, the last four spent designing visuals - computer generated imagery, CGI - for a range of naval simulators, my specialty, including three or four attack periscopes and a majestic ships bridge, magnum opus, which projected ten overlapping, perfectly synchronized displays onto a mammoth 240o screen; all around a complete ships bridge sat on a motion platform. I loved that work, "graphics", and had the kind of job many software engineers would slit their granny's throat to land. But I hated the company, and eventually had to escape it.

It was the kind of company that kept our salaries low throughout the Thatcher recession with phoney bleats of imminent redundancy, all the while taking the government to the cleaners and raking-in huge profits. Lucky to have a job, we were, and nowhere else to go. I learned one time they were charging the RAF £3000 per-day for my services on-site, while barfing my [legitimate] expense claims because they were 30p over the £20 limit for dinner. That kind of cheapskate bureauntosaur.

I quit graphics and simulators for the world of communications. Not nearly so glamorous, or showey, but the companies I've since worked for have been fivefold better, in every other respect.

That was, ten, twelve years ago? [Thrasher was one of my last...] Just around the time that 3D graphics cards were beginning to be developed for PC's. We never used PC's for anything important: our visuals ran on SGI Reality Engines - Power, Onyx, Crimson - hugely expensive and state-of-the-art way back then. The simulators featured mock periscopes with optics that looked straight-up into a high-res display that rotated with the viewer, the image "rotating" in the horizontal.

So: buy the card, buy a game, check out PC graphics, see how they compare to the expensive gear.


Hundreds of games and many years later, I finally find one that compares; and I've been enjoying it immensely for the past couple of weeks, reliving past glories through the lens of a WW-II era U-Boat sim called Silent Hunter III.

I'd swear they'd seen my stuff?

My attack periscopes train submariners, and are usually part of larger Ops Room or Control Room simulators. One of my scopes tests prospective submarine commanders as part of the Royal Navy's notorious and fiendish "perishers" course, where it is written:

There are only two kinds of ship: submarines, and targets.

The walls there are draped in Jolly Rogers - flown by tradition on Royal Navy submarines on return to port after a kill. Most of these date from WW-II, and each is hand-made and tagged with kills, like those old fighter planes.

Most of the features are there in the game, remarkably similar in execution but slightly better looking: I'd bet they read the same Pixar paper I did to contrive the sea model, for the waves move and swirl very much as mine did? But they're better textured and are wonderfully reflective - something I never achieved. Bow waves, stern wakes, drain-down - where sheets of water slide down the lens as it breaks the surface or as waves flow into it - all these necessary effects are there. The drain-down is especially good. The bow waves are not correctly modelled, though: they're supposed to grow and move down the length of the ship as its speed increases, and a second wave, an aft wave, should erupt beyond a certain point and progress towards the stern? Important visual cues for a real sub commander. My sim had a more realistic stadimeter - a ghost image is supposed to move up or down with the range dial - and my explosions and fires were better I say, Hah. No buoyage though, an important part of real sims - but it's WW-II.

The coastline, the terrain, is utterly dreadful and devoid of feature: but then, it's a game, and teaching coastal navigation is not one of its aims. Sad really - because being able to handle an accurately-modelled coastline thousands of miles long, that is the killer challenge in naval simulators. That's the thing that'll break a coder's back and tear out a modeller's goldie locks.

But for fifty bucks, and you like that sort of thing? The game's a steal.

Along with happy-glow memories come some of the baaad: visuals in a simulator, let me tell you, are a horrorshow of panic magnified, x6 like the scope, by having to look pretty and pass the subjective filters of their purchasers? To draw - to render - an evolving and intricately-detailed scene from scratch, twenty-four times per second, with limited polygon drawing power; that is a technical challenge worth fearing. Thousands of polygons - by which they mean triangles - you could be drawing to be clipped to those that ought to be seen, then optimized for efficient delivery to the rendering engines. Nightmare. So-called "procedural" models of things that meld with time - the sea, the clouds, foam and spray, propellers, vortices, buoy lights, smoke and flames and explosions and fog - for which every vertex has to be computed anew in every frame, colored and shaded and textured, these mix with the "static" models whose shape does not change but whose quality must be exceptional - ships, coastline, aircraft, shops and piers even - a world to be drawn and shaded on a blank piece of paper twenty-four times every second. Makes your head spin, it does.

And it has to look good.

And it has to look right!

Some officer walks in of a morning, complains that the sea is not green enough? You change it. His superior arrives in the afternoon, tells you to make the sea bluer, greyer? You do. Next morning repeat and rinse, but add an angry I asked for the sea to be greener ad nauseum.

But you learn things; little things; odd things. You learn how to take your bearings from landmarks; how to triangulate your position; how a "cocked-hat" reveals your error? You learn that, to submariners, torpedoes are strictly incoming - that if anyone shouts Torpedoe! you're all gonna die? You learn that weapons are yours, that you shoot them or launch them but never Fire them, not even guns! "Fire" means FIRE!!!, as in a crowded theater. You learn that submarine commanders stand on tip-toes when peering through a periscope. You learn that they sneak right under enemy ships in friendly times, taking pictures as they go. Count the blades; check-out the domes; hull needs a good scraping.

You learn to appreciate that it's just a simulation, just a game, and that you'll always head home to the kiddies at night.

Would I go back to that?

Yes. Yes I would.


Anonymous stephenesque said...

Perhaps you could create a new seafarin' game. Sort of Grand Theft Auto at Sea.... with pirates. Now that would be entertaining

9:47 AM  
Blogger F.C. Bearded said...

Passed through the pirate phase with the ships bridge sim, which had ten networked image generators that had to be named discretely so we could tell them apart. "Trelawney is goosed", type thing.

Never made a game, sadly: they have sound and things, which I've never had the pleasure of coding? Silence! was our watchword.

10:25 AM  

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