Sunday, April 15, 2007

DX10: Why I'm Not an Early Adopter

Before I begin, X-Plane uses OpenGL as its interface to 3-d hardware, not Direct3D. So when I talk about "X-Plane doesn't utilize DX10", isn't that meaningless? I mean, X-Plane has never supported any version of Direct3D.

But I like to use the term "DX9" and "DX10" anyway for this reason:
  • For all practical purposes, within the "games space", most advances to the Direct3D and OpenGL APIs that I care about are created for the purpose of exposing new hardware capabilities to applications. That is, the point of DX10 (including the new Direct3D) is to allow games to use the newest video cards more efficiently.
  • OpenGL is revised by adding "extensions", that is, independent features that can be mixed and matched. DirectX tends to have whole-API revisions. So I prefer DirectX because it puts a nice "number" on an entire set of technology. Since the graphics cards are revised in generations as new GPUs are designed, these generations match up reasonably well with the hardware.
So in this context, when I say "DX10" I really mean the very newest set of super-programmable cards, of which the GeForce 8800 is the first, and by use them I mean take advantage of some of these really great new features:
  • Instancing (the ability to draw a lot of objects with only one command to the card, which could relieve the CPU cost of huge numbers of objects).
  • Geometry shaders (the ability to do per-triangle and not just per-vertex calculations on the graphics card) which could move some of the logic for terrain generation to the graphics card. (We precompute this and save it in the DSF in X-Plane, so we use DVD space and RAM, while I believe MSFS does this kind of thing on the CPU.)
  • Better management of state changes (good for unloading the CPU).
  • A bunch of really interesting ways to work with data strictly on the card (don't know what it's good for yet, but it unlocks a lot of cool possibilities).
So why doesn't X-Plane utilize all of these new features? Or rather, when will we?

Well, my goal in working on X-Plane's rendering engine is to know these things are coming but not be an early adopter. The way I look at the economics of software development is: the amount of labor we can put into a release is somewhat constrained. If we put in more months between releases, we have fewer releases. If we have more programmers, we have to pay them more, and we have to charge more money. There's a lot of things you can say (or people have told us) about our business model. But I tend to view these as the invariant conditions we have to work with.

So what I worry about is efficiency: if we are limited to exactly X man-months of work per release, how can we make the best of them? Is being an early adopter the most efficient use of limited programmer resources when developing X-Plane? (We have to consider opportunity cost: what features won't be implemented because we spent time on early adoption of new graphics technologies.)

I think there are a few things going against early adoption, particularly for a small company like us where labor is at a premium. (Our list of things we can be doing is very long, so any new feature takes away from a lot of other good ideas.)
  • New graphics hardware isn't widely distributed among our user base. If we adopt DirectX-10 style features, this work helps a very small numer of our users. Eventually everyone will have hardware like this, but we can cover a case by adapting the new technology later.
  • When new features come out, there is often vendor disagreement on how to code for them. It takes time to come up with cross-vendor standards. Consider that ATI hasn't come out with their DX10 hardware, and the OpenGL extensions to use these are all nVidia proposals. My guess is that ATI will have their own extensions, and the real ones that get used will be a mix of each. If we adopt now, we'll be "betting on the wrong horse" a few times -- code that will have to be rewritten, for a total loss of efficiency.
  • New drivers can be buggy. It takes a while for support for new features to be both universal and reliable. The earlier we jump in, the buggier the environment we develop in, and thus the more difficult it is for us to develop.
Of course, there's definitely a cost. The 8800 is capable of doing some amazing things, and X-Plane does not yet fully take advantage of it. But I do believe that in the long term we end up delivering more value to X-Plane users by taking a slower wait-and-see approach to new hardware.

(To GeForce 8800 users I can only say that the code we write now while waiting for the right environment may do some cool things too, so we're not just taking a vacation! And the GeForce 8800 also delivers an overall speed boost to the entire system.)

EDIT: the same logic applies to operating systems like Vista and OS X 10.5 to some extent, but I hesitate to bring this up because: a number of users are having problems with X-Plane and Vista, and it is not because we have delayed support for Vista. The real problem is that the graphics card drivers for Vista are still new and have some problems. I believe that the various Vista problems we're seeing will be addressed by code changes by ATI and nVidia.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I don't know if it is related, but your rendering engine use a planar projection. Why not using a spherical projection ? It will be very usefull with more than one screen. And OpenGL support spherical projection.
Dan