Digital Water

A revolutionary new way to render waves in video games

Tube Time circa 2003 in Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer for the Playstation 2.

Water is one of the most difficult things to model in a video game—especially if it’s dynamic and swell-driven. The processing power and coding required to convincingly simulate an ocean wave surging around a lighthouse, for example, has traditionally been considered too cost prohibitive and labor intensive for most video game developers. This is one of the main reasons why it has been ten years, seven months, and eighteen days since a decent surf video game was last released on a major console.

(To put Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer into its proper—and archaic—technological context, YouTube didn’t exist when the game was released in September of 2002, Friendster was considered “a social networking revolution” with 3-million users, and the iPhone was only a gray wrinkle in Steve Jobs’ mind.)

The good news is that two researchers working at Nvidia, a global graphics chips manufacturer, have come up with a solution. Miles Macklin and Mathias Müller-Fischer recently published a paper called Position Based Fluids, which outlines a new way for game developers to model waves. “Based on our understanding, this research is close to the cutting edge of programming techniques,” says Adam Biessener, a writer for Game Informer.

The paper itself is full of algorithms that are so complex the developers wrote their equations in mathematic symbols rather than actual numbers, but the visual product is pretty straightforward: it looks like their modeling system will emulate a pretty realistic barrel. On Macklin’s blog, the programmer assures us that they’re also still fine-tuning the process, focusing on things like spray, foam, and surface tension.

The only problem now is that the current generation of consoles cannot adequately support the software, but Biessener speculates that it could work on a PlayStation 4, which, according to rumor, is slated for release in time for the 2013 holiday season. And with it could come the next generation’s surf video game.