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I once worked at THQ studio Relic Entertainment on The Outfit, which some may remember as one of the earlier games for the Xbox 360. We started with a PC engine (single-threaded), and we had to convert it to a complete game on a next-gen multi-core console in about 18 months. About three months before shipping, we were still running at about 5 FPS on the 360. Obviously this game needed some severe optimization.
When I did some performance measurements, it became clear that as much as the code was slow and very "PC," there were also lots of problems on the content side as well. Some models were too detailed, some shaders were too expensive, and some missions simply had too many guys running around.
It's hard to convince a team of 100 people that the programmers can't simply "fix" the performance of the engine, and that some of the ways people had gotten used to working to needed to be changed. People needed to understand that the performance of the game was everybody's problem, and I figured the best way to do this is with a bit of humor that had a bit of hidden truth behind it.
The solution took maybe an hour. A fellow programmer took four pictures of my face -- one really happy, one normal, one a bit angry, and one where I am pulling my hair out. I put this image in the corner of the screen, and it was linked to the frame rate. If the game ran at over 30fps, I was really happy, if it ran below 20, I was angry.
After this change, the whole FPS issue transformed from, "Ah, the programmers will fix it." to, "Hmm, if I put this model in, Nick is going to be angry! I'd better optimize this a little first." People could instantly see if a change they made had an impact on the frame rate, and we ended up shipping the game at 30fps.
- Nick Waanders
I was fresh out of college, still wet behind the ears, and about to enter the beta phase of my first professional game project -- a late-90s PC title. It had been an exciting rollercoaster ride, as projects often are. All the content was in and the game was looking good. There was one problem though: We were way over our memory budget.
Since most memory was taken up by models and textures, we worked with the artists to reduce the memory footprint of the game as much as possible. We scaled down images, decimated models, and compressed textures. Sometimes we did this with the support of the artists, and sometimes over their dead bodies.
We cut megabyte after megabyte, and after a few days of frantic activity, we reached a point where we felt there was nothing else we could do. Unless we cut some major content, there was no way we could free up any more memory. Exhausted, we evaluated our current memory usage. We were still 1.5 MB over the memory limit!
At this point one of the most experienced programmers in the team, one who had survived many years of development in the "good old days," decided to take matters into his own hands. He called me into his office, and we set out upon what I imagined would be another exhausting session of freeing up memory.
Instead, he brought up a source file and pointed to this line:
static char buffer[1024*1024*2];
"See this?" he said. And then deleted it with a single keystroke. Done!
He probably saw the horror in my eyes, so he explained to me that he had put aside those two megabytes of memory early in the development cycle. He knew from experience that it was always impossible to cut content down to memory budgets, and that many projects had come close to failing because of it. So now, as a regular practice, he always put aside a nice block of memory to free up when it's really needed.
He walked out of the office and announced he had reduced the memory footprint to within budget constraints -- he was toasted as the hero of the project.
As horrified as I was back then about such a "barbaric" practice, I have to admit that I'm warming up to it. I haven't gotten into the frame of mind where I can put it to use yet, but I can see how sometimes, when you're up against the wall, having a bit of memory tucked away for a rainy day can really make a difference. Funny how time and experience changes everything.
- Noel Llopis