Tamriel Foundry Interview: Dan Dunham

Tamriel Foundry was given the opportunity to pose some questions to Dan Dunham, technical director at ZeniMax Online Studios. Dan was one of the founding members of the ZOS team, and his hard work on creating both the game engine and its megaserver technology are extremely important contributions to the development of The Elder Scrolls Online. I’d like to thank Dan for taking the time to answer some general questions about these two core features, and I hope you find his responses interesting.

TF:Dan, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us about some of ESO’s exciting tech features. You have a long history in the MMO genre, could you start off by telling us how you got into the business, and also what you do for ZeniMax Online?

DD:I originally started out in the console side of the game industry, but my entry into the world of MMOs was joining Mythic Entertainment and working on Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online.  I left in 2007 to join ZeniMax.  I worked briefly on Fallout 3, and then came over to found ZeniMax Online Studios as the Technical Director.

Mournhold OrdinatorTF:The megaserver is a very impressive technical innovation; can you give the fans a brief synopsis of the key features the megaserver is designed to provide, and perhaps your own perspective on the networking challenge of realizing that vision?

DD:I love the concept of server identity.  Some of my greatest MMO memories were of being on an underdog struggling realm (Hib Palo!), or fighting to be just the 2nd best raiding guild on our server (and still months behind anyone doing real progression raiding!).  On the other hand, the player experience of being on an under-populated server sucks most of the time.

The world has changed a lot in the last decade of MMOs.  Faction transfers, under- and over-populated realms, cross-realm chat, dungeon finders, cross-realm raids/battlegrounds – they have all changed that old-school concept of server culture.  Those features have themselves revolutionized the MMO industry, and there is no going back.

So we took a hard look at what we were doing, what the rest of the industry was doing, and most importantly, what would be best for the players.  You could have slapped on “just one big realm!” as a purely technical feature, but that isn’t how we approached it.  How do you bring in communities to the new single-server reality?  How do you meet new people and not just have a stream of anonymous faces?  How do you still have a group identity in a game this big?

As a player, those are the interesting questions, and I can’t wait for you to play with some of our solutions.  I’m most excited to get larger and larger communities into our game so we can extend and tweak those answers over the coming years.  We’re focused on helping you strengthen your own communities and make new friends in this world.

Don’t get me wrong – as an engineer, the implementation is pretty awesome.  Building a massively scaling service, especially software as unique as an MMO server, is terrifying and exciting.  There has been a ton of great innovation in scaling and reliability all over the software industry in the last 5 years, and it has been great to take inspiration from those projects and apply them to my favorite type of game.

A group of Ebonheart playersTF:You guys made the call early on in the development process to develop an entirely new game engine for ESO. What were some of the shortcomings of existing licensable engines that inspired this decision? Can you mention any features that became cornerstone objectives in terms of functionality for the new engine? Also, have you named it yet?

DD:Creating an MMO engine is different than many games: the lifespan of code we write is measured in decades.  We did license portions as building blocks, but to make sure we could grow and support the game on that time scale, our engineering team built the essence of the engine together over the last few years, and we’ll continue to grow it in response to players for many years to come.

On the client, our core objective was to build an engine that would run great from exploring a dungeon solo, all the way to a battle with hundreds of characters on screen at the same time.  On the server, we set out to build a massively scalable MegaServer infrastructure.

For a name… well, we just call it ESO.  It grows and changes as the game needs, every day.

Dwemer Centurion SpidersTF:We have heard from several developers that ESO is designed to run smoothly on most PCs and Macs purchased within the last 4-5 years. That’s a pretty broad range of specifications to hit. Can you give any details about how the engine scales to compensate for lower (or higher) performance settings?

DD:It was important to us from the beginning that it played on almost all reasonable machines.  As expected, it doesn’t look exactly the same as it does on higher-end machines, but you can play it smoothly and have fun.  We want everyone to be able to experience the game, even if you are on your laptop.  On older systems, we still support DX9 for Windows XP.

TF:For gaming enthusiasts who own cutting edge hardware, can you talk about what the ESO engine does to take advantage of multiple-core CPUs or linked graphics cards on Crossfire or SLI? Is it correct that ESO has full DirectX 11 support?

DD:On Windows Vista, 7, and 8, we have a full Direct X 11 renderer.  It was critical for us to have an engine that could grow and support the latest features, and that anyone with modern machines would get the best possible performance even on launch day.

Massive alliance war battles get a big boost from multiple cores – there is a ton of CPU work to deal with that much action.  On the graphics hardware front, we work very closely with both nVidia and ATI on supporting their high-end parts.

Battle SceneTF:There is a great deal of confusion within the community regarding the “200 players on-screen simultaneously” reference from E3 of last year. Many people have interpreted this as some sort of rigid cap on either campaign size or rendering capability, my interpretation was that it was more of an internal benchmark for engine performance. Could you clear this up for us, and demystify the issue a bit?

DD:You’re reading it correctly: it is just our benchmark/target for “runs at full FPS.”  We test every build with around 200 players having a massive fight to make sure that even in the thick of it, the frame-rate stays smooth and the experience is great.

There can and will be much larger battles than that, and the client will keep drawing, but our benchmark for running at optimal FPS is 200 characters on-screen at the same time. So while there is a cap on campaign size, it is beyond that “200 players on-screen simultaneously” number that has been referenced.

Once again, I’d like to thank Dan Dunham for volunteering to answer a couple questions about the technology powering The Elder Scrolls Online. We to have the chance to share more developer interviews in the future. As always, please share your thoughts and comments below!

63 responses to “Tamriel Foundry Interview: Dan Dunham”

  1. Profile Photo
    Byronyk

    Expert

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    Altmer

    Great interview! I’m glad that ESO is optimized for multi-core processors and takes advantage of SLI/Crossfire.

    You will learn… No king rules forever. Only death is eternal.

     

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    Aillorian

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    Imperial Nightblade

    This makes the wait even more unbearable, thanks for the info :)

  3. Profile Photo
    Cheesydoodle

    Master

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    Altmer Nightblade

    Good questions but I don’t think they got answered for the most part. Not that I am blaming you guys or Dan I know he cant really answer them; its just a shame.

     

    Either way it is nice to see TF getting some content.

    Regardless of Race. Regardless of Religion. Regardless of Politics.

    I will fight for the right to live, for gold in my hand and the good of the world.

    Tantum religio putuit suadere.

    Such are the heights of wickedness to which men are driven by superstition.

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    Ravin

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    Altmer Sorcerer

    So CPU comes into play with alliance wars and whatnot, good to know!  Good thing I’ll be getting a 3930k than.  :)

    Death is a guarantee;  Life is not.

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    Atropos

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    Imperial Sorcerer

    Entropy Rising

    Cheesydoodle said on March 4, 2013 :

    Good questions but I don’t think they got answered for the most part.

    There were also several questions which didn’t get answered at all ;)

    They have to be a bit cagey about what information they release at this stage I suppose.

    Founder, creator, and developer of Tamriel Foundry.

     

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    Hope

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    Redguard

    The world has changed a lot in the last decade of MMOs.  Faction transfers, under- and over-populated realms, cross-realm chat, dungeon finders, cross-realm raids/battlegrounds – they have all changed that old-school concept of server culture.  Those features have themselves revolutionized the MMO industry, and there is no going back.

    I really like this attitude!

    MMOs have definitely evolved and such features are simply expected from every mainstream major MMORPG, in order to attract a wide variety of players.

    The concept of “old school” has become a niche that will only work for smaller MMOs, definitely not AAA ones. Camelot Unchained‘s developers seem to understand that.

     

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    Lammy1915

    Scamp

    Total Posts: 7

    Bosmer

    My confusion got cleared up, thanks!

    Lammyboy

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    Tonsha

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    Orc Templar

    Thanks! Interesting interview.

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    Kleoni

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    Orc Nightblade

    Cross

    Great interview guys, thanx!! :)

     
     

     

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    Yevon

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    Breton Nightblade

    Loved it! This month may start slow on the info but by the end I’m sure we will have more than we can process.

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    Byronyk

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    Altmer

    Yevon said on March 4, 2013 :

    Loved it! This month may start slow on the info but by the end I’m sure we will have more than we can process.

    I’m looking forward to many sleepless hours writing it up, don’t worry! /cry

    You will learn… No king rules forever. Only death is eternal.

     

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    Rial

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    Ebonheart Templar

    Tamriel Foundry Community

    While it is certainly nice to get another life sign from ZOS, the answers don’t seem to tell us anything new :/

     

    Byronyk said on March 4, 2013 :

    I’m looking forward to many sleepless hours writing it up, don’t worry! /cry

    You could always just copy’n’paste. I won’t tell anyone ;)

    Relax, I’m only being serious.

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    Rogue

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    Khajiit

    Byronyk said on March 4, 2013 :

    Yevon said on March 4, 2013:

    Loved it! This month may start slow on the info but by the end I’m sure we will have more than we can process.

    I’m looking forward to many sleepless hours writing it up, don’t worry! /cry

    I’m looking forward to those many sleepless hours of dissecting game mechanics, rather than just speculating now.

    Overall, great interview.  Hopefully this will clear up a lot of the confusion people were having with the “200 players on-screen” cap.

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    Hestia

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    Imperial Dragonknight

    Alatreon

    Thanks for the teasing interview! Craving for the game even more now. :)

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    Redguard King

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    Imperial Dragonknight

    Shehai

    I really do hope ZOS is sincere about providing adequate support for those of us with high-end gaming PCs taking advantage of Crossfire or SLI. It pains me to no bounds how little support these systems get from developers (for understandable reasons) and how they often run poorly on games in comparison to those using one GPU or lower-end PCs. I look forward to pushing ESO’s graphical fidelity to its absolute maximum and fully immersing myself into all of Tamriel.

    Shehai Clydus

    Looking for a mature and experienced AvA guild? Click above and join the guild that led the charge in Cyrodiil and crowned an emperor three times! ~ Imperator Clydus

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    Byronyk

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    Altmer

    Rial said on March 4, 2013 :

    Byronyk said on March 4, 2013:

    I’m looking forward to many sleepless hours writing it up, don’t worry! /cry

    You could always just copy’n’paste. I won’t tell anyone

    Copy’n’paste my opinion and dissection? I must find this mind –> keyboard command STAT.

    You will learn… No king rules forever. Only death is eternal.

     

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    Shadow-Within-Shadows

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    Argonian

    “Greetings, marsh friends”

     

    Great news about DX11 and quad core support.

    The night my mistress, the darkness my home. The moon my working light  and the knife my tome. The blood my water  and the flesh my meat. crucified, sanctified the target’s death my heat. The wolf-howls my music and the owls my companions. The garotte my silent daggers and shadows my battalions. The task my god and the gold my priest, abandoned streets my church and silence my final feast. Thus goes by my night of which I ponder at day,  my spotless claws bloodied by ghosts that guide my way. Thus goes by the life of i who live to kill death has never stopped before with me it never will.

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    redguard83

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    Redguard Dragonknight

    Awesome interview!

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    Galinydd

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    Dunmer

    Now some things had been cleared for me. Thank and great interview

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    DanMonteiro

    Journeyman

    Total Posts: 72

    Interest interview!!! Thank you!

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