It may be hard for younger IT professionals to believe, but computers were once incapable of rendering 3D graphics. Even if their rudimentary processors and minimal quantities of RAM had been able to process these complex visual commands, the monochrome CRT displays of early PCs and monitors were effectively unsuitable for 3D displays.
Early examples of multidimensional game engines involved black and white wireframe graphics, for example with the 1980s game Wolfenstein 3D proudly declaring its texture-mapping credentials in its title.
A Brief History of 3D Game Engines
A key breakthrough for 3D game engines can be traced back to the development of C++ and the ability to create polygon-modeled objects that automatically resized depending on distance. As hardware manufacturers attempted to anticipate consumer demand, the mid-1990s saw over 20 different companies producing 3D GPUs to undertake a role formerly delegated to a computer’s CPU. Today, only three companies still produce 3D rendering cards, including the embedded graphics provided by market leader Intel.
Those early 3D cards were powerful for their time, despite their typical specifications (64MB of video memory and 200 MHz speed) lacking enough processing power to handle tessellation or complex shading. However, they were perfectly adequate for 1992’s Ultima Underworld (the first fully texture-mapped 3D game) and 1994’s Descent, which was the first game to offer six degrees of movement. The various iterations of Quake demonstrated the growing sophistication of game engines and rendering software either side of the Millennium, as well as heralding a gradual split between conventional programming and 3D development.
3D Games: Programming, Art Tools and Hardware in a Box
Today, 3D games programming is acknowledged as a standalone market sector. Programmers are expected to be as fluent in APIs and scripting languages as they are in 3D art tools, and the ever-increasing complexity of proprietary platforms requires dedicated specialists for particular consoles or devices – each with its own unique hardware limitations and challenges. There are increasing opportunities for people to specialize in multiplayer networking, with online gaming now worth an estimated $31 billion each year, a figure that increases by an average of ten per cent each year.
Portable Devices to Show Off Gaming World
This explosion in online gaming has been driven by the parallel growth in portable devices, and manufacturers are falling over themselves to integrate graphics capabilities into tablets that can approximate the technical prowess of games consoles. It’s increasingly difficult to tell whether a screenshot is taken from a PS4 or an iPad, helping to standardize the gaming experience and potentially create a scenario where a consumer can seamlessly transfer gameplay between domestic hardware and portable devices. Cloud-hosted programs like these may represent the biggest area of expansion for 3D graphics in the years ahead, and startup companies should factor this into their business models.
Superfast Internet Opens Doors to New Opportunities
With improving connection speeds expected to herald new opportunities for mobile online gaming, cloud-hosted platforms will certainly become ever more central to tomorrow’s gaming experience. As an industry we’re still some way from the visual fidelity of motion pictures, but the continual blurring of boundaries between live action and CGI is likely to impact on game engines as character mapping and virtual environments become more and more realistic. Those wireframe polygons and monochromatic backgrounds are becoming increasingly distant memories.