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Stardock’s Derek Paxton explains how a new 64-bit engine can revitalize strategy gaming

Stardock Fallen Enchantress map

When Stardock announced Galactic Civilization 3 would be built on a dedicated 64-bit strategy-engine, the first and most obvious questions was: why?

Strategy games aren’t known for being on the cutting-edge of gaming graphics, and even games like Rome 2: Total War or Civilization V don’t always seem as spectacular as the Battlefields and Skyrims of the world. But that’s misleading, Stardock vice president Derek Paxton says. In many ways, strategy games have a very different, and more difficult, task than even the most impressive of shooters or RPGs.

“An individual soldier in Civilization V or in Fallen Enchantress doesn’t have the level of detail of a soldier in Battlefield 4, [but] there are hundreds of those objects that are placed around the map. …They’re all individually animated, they’re all keeping track of by the computer — where they are and what lighting effects are playing on them, where their shadow is being cast – and that all has to be remembered by the computer at every moment.”

But when Stardock looked around to see what platform might work, there was no middleware engine that really met the needs of a sprawling 4X strategy game. So they linked up with Oxide Games to see about building one.

Paxton speculates that some of the issues that have cropped up in the last year of strategy gaming are, in part, due to the problems of marrying high-fidelity art and effects with giant, unpredictable maps.

“There are a lot of great engines out there, but generally they’re all optimised for making very high detailed environments that are fixed field of view,” he explains. “So you’re looking from the character, and the computer can predict what’s going to come up next. So you have all that very detailed content that you’re going through it in a way that the computer can know and cache up that next thing that’s going to happen.”

Paxton draws a parallel to Skyrim. Skyrim has a huge world that player can explore at will… but loading screens only pop up when you fast-travel. That’s because it only fills in the world around the player; those sudden jumps discard all those predictions about what the player will see next and require an entirely new area to load. But that would be an intolerable state of affairs in a strategy game.

“In a strategy game, when you were jumping from one place to another, if there was a fifteen or thirty second loading screen there every time that happened, it would drive you nuts.”

Consider the gruesome performance of Rome 2’s strategic map at launch. This is a problem that is still being solved, and increasingly strategy games are butting up against it. Paxton points to a blog post from Maxis’ Patrick Buechner about larger city sizes in SimCity.

“After months of testing, I confirm that we will not be providing bigger city sizes. The system performance challenges we encountered would mean that the vast majority of our players wouldn’t be able to load, much less play with bigger cities. We’ve tried a number of different approaches to bring performance into an acceptable range, but we just couldn’t achieve it within the confines of the engine,” Buechner wrote.

“It isn’t that the SimCity devs aren’t good at their jobs,” Paxton says. “They are probably some of the best in their field.” But fidelity and performance are approaching a crisis point for strategy games that aspire to high production values.

With their investment inOxide Games, comprised of developers who have spent their careers designing and building strategy games and engines, Stardock believe they are on the right track for solving this problem using Oxide’s Nitrous engine. While part of the solution is building the engine specifically for the kind of demands strategy games place on systems, the other part is committing to the 64-bit standard and leaving 32-bit behind.

“If I know that my game is going to support 32-bit, some people are going to play my game in 32-bit mode. I know that I can’t design more stuff in my world, no more can be accessed at once than what fits on a 32-bit amount of memory, which is about two gigs. ….You can never go outside of those boundaries,” Paxton says.

The issue is that 32-bit systems are out of memory addresses. In order to use physical memory, a program needs to be able refer to different slots on the RAM. A 32-bit system only has 2^32 addresses that it can use, which translates to roughly 4GB of memory.

“A simple analogy would be phone numbers,” writes Soren Johnson, whose new Mohawk Games studio is working with Oxide. His game, codenamed Mars, will be the first studio outside Stardock to license the engine for use.

“With seven digits, only 10 million phones numbers are possible. Add three more digits with area codes and now 10 billion numbers are possible. 32- vs 64-bit is similar, but more extreme. …With 64 bits, it’s so much higher, I can’t do the math in my head. If your game needs more than 4GB of active memory, 64-bit is the only option without paging to your hard drive or some other (slow) caching method.”

Even though PC games have been running on 64-bit systems for years, the 32-bit limit of older systems and, more importantly, the consoles, put a brake on how games were being developed. But with Galactic Civilizations 3 Stardock and Paxton felt they could no longer do without the additional memory.

“Now being able to say ‘Listen, we’re not running on 32-bit anymore at all’ means that I can design a game that uses more than 2 gigs of memory. Suddenly …we don’t have to worry about universe size because we may go above the 2GB limit. We don’t have to worry about modders creating new ships, we don’t have to worry about the amount of detail on all the ships, and all of the planets and all those assets that we have in the game, because we can go beyond those boundaries. We can design for the game we want, rather than trying to fit inside a box that feels like its shrinking year on year.”

Update 7-11-2013:A previous version of this article implied that Galactic Civilizations 3 would actually be using the Nitrous engine from Oxide Games. This is untrue; GalCiv 3’s engine development started independently of Oxide and will have its own engine. It is possible that future games from Stardock will employ Nitrous, but GalCiv 3 will not be one of them. We apologize for the error.