Computer Tech Intensifying Strategy Games
By Kevin Ohannessian
Game developers are harnessing cutting-edge processors and software to create irresistibly immersive and challenging worlds.
Imagine commanding an interplanetary battlefield sprawled across an entire continent, with swarms of tanks, fighter planes, and supply chains leaving a path of mass destruction in its wake. Zooming out, the map shows increasing waves of these enemy squadrons, all lining up complex battle strategies that dynamically respond to player tactics in real-time.
The game is Ashes of the Singularity, and it’s pioneering an epic industry shift toward new possibilities in gameplay.
Ashes is one of the first PC games to leverage the leap in multicore processor performance made possible by DirectX 12, Microsoft’s collection of application programming interfaces (APIs) for multimedia and gaming applications. Microsoft worked with Intel to enhance the latest version of DirectX to work even better with hyperthreading and parallel computing.
Hyperthreading is a feature on Intel® Core™ processors that makes each single physical core of the central processing unit (CPU) appear as two logical cores. Parallel computing is where many calculations occur and are executed simultaneously, so heavy compute needs can be divided into smaller ones then solved at the same time.
These advancements help game developers create richer experiences that require more and faster processing power.
“Ashes of the Singularity is one of those games that comes along every few years and slaps us in the face to remind us what the word ‘strategy’ means,” said IGN reviewer TJ Shafer, praising its emphasis on high-level thinking.
“It is a challenging, engrossing, and cerebral exercise in strategy that has me mentally iterating on army compositions, build timings and board deployment schemes even when I am not playing it.”
To bring other new game features and interactive experiences, developers rely on the brains of the computer, the CPU. CPU cores are great at handling realistic physics — like cloud movement or a flag blowing in the wind — and artificial intelligence, where the game adapts to player moves. Having a balanced PC platform with a fast multicore CPU and great graphics is essential for getting the most of immersive games, like Ashes.
Today, most modern PC processors have more than one core, essentially giving developers a chance to harness the computational power of multiple CPUs in a system.
The 2015 release of DirectX 12 made it even easier for game developers to use more than one core at a time to implement smart, reactive, and adaptive elements to games. It allows developers use multiple cores simultaneously and helps the GPU more efficiently handle all the graphical tasks.
Ashes of the Singularity shows what this means for gameplay: It features armies that rival the size of the U.S. military. With the ability to put larger numbers of adaptive AI on the battlefield, an artificially intelligent team could challenge a human player’s tactics on a macro scale.
The Benefits for Real-Time Strategy Games
Game designers believe real-time strategy (RTS) games like Ashes of the Singularity are poised to reap the most benefits from the new generation of microprocessors.
“RTS games have always been closely tied to the capabilities of the hardware,” explained Brad Wardell, who has 22 years of experience in producing and designing fan-favorite RTS games like Galactic Civilizations and Sins of a Solar Empire. Today, he’s CEO of Stardock and lead designer on Ashes of the Singularity.
To achieve their desired complexity and realism, RTS designers place as many units (or characters and objects) on the battlefield as the hardware permits. Some designers attributed the limitations of single and dual-core processors to the long period of stagnation that followed the RTS after its golden years in the ’90s and early 2000s.
“In the past, when you played an RTS, you would get to a big battle and all of a sudden the CPU was overloaded, so the game started to slow down,” said Dan Baker, co-founder of Oxide Games and co-developer of Ashes of the Singularity.
“There’s only so much a single CPU can do.”
According to Baker, gamers in the RTS genre have low tolerance for dimwitted AI and scenes that bog down smooth performance. And when new titles come out, they expect them to be like nothing they’ve ever seen before.
The Future of Real-Time Strategy
Wardell believes multicore technology will usher in the next generation of RTS games led by smarter AI to bring new in-game experiences.
In Ashes of the Singularity, for example, enemies think and move faster, so there can be more of them on screen at any given time, dynamically attacking and scheming in real time.
If it detects six or more cores, the game unlocks the ability for gamers to run the huge map size which isn’t viable on lesser powered systems. Playing against the hordes of AI units at this level takes enormous CPU resources to compute the simulation and AI — in fact, the CPU becomes the bottleneck.
As CPU innovation continues, even more game developers can harness six or even 10-core processors like the recently released Intel® Core™ i7-6950X Broadwell-E Extreme Edition. The real winners of these advancements are the gamers looking for new challenges and smarter enemies on the battlefield.
“Eventually, we want to see players enjoying worldwide conquests, where a human player takes on 140 computer players,” Wardell said. “But simulating that many AI players would be rough without an eight-core CPU. So for now, we wait and evolve.”