Interview: Blizzard's Michael Hardison on SIGGRAPH 2015, indie games, and the PC vs. console divide

SIGGRAPH is an annual conference focusing on the latest in the worlds of computer graphics and interactive techniques, and gathers together some of the tech industry's biggest players alongside emerging technologies, entrepreneurs, and inventors. 

At SIGGRAPH 2015, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, I had a chance to speak to Michael Hardison of Blizzard Entertainment. Michael works in visual effects for Blizzard Entertainment, and served this year as the Games Focus Chair for SIGGRAPH, overseeing the presence of games at the conference. 

GameCrate: What does it mean to be the Games Focus Chair for SIGGRAPH?

Michael Hardison: Well, the Games Focus is a little bit different than the other programs here at SIGGRAPH, in that we traditionally don't have our own venue. Rather we're like SIGGRAPH's ambassadors to the games industry. What that means is what connect the content from the games industry and games technology professionals with the rest of the other venues here that are present at SIGGRAPH. 

GC: How long have games been a major part of SIGGRAPH? 

MH: Games have been a part of SIGGRAPH for a while, even before SIGGRAPH was aware of it. But it really came into the mainstream in about 2009. 2009 it became the Games Focus, and from then on it's been progressing and growing quite steadily. 

GC: Looking at the panels and talks at SIGGRAPH this year, it looks like the overlap between games and other forms of media is a popular topic. What are your thoughts on that? 

MH: Well we have this excellent panel that's coming up that's on the convergence of gaming and film technology. A lot of the film and games leaders in the industry are coming together to talk about the convergence of film and game pipelines, and the techniques and processes that overlap between each one. Right now there's a lot more of a collaboration and a sharing of technology and ideas between both film and games. And you're seeing a lot of film people translate over into the games arena, and vice versa as well.

It's a great time, it's great synergy between the two. You have companies like Weta and Digital Domain start to adopt real-time rendering techniques that have been borrowed from the games industry, as well as you're seeing the games industry start to adopt rendering techniques into their games from film, and etcetera. 

GC: What do you do when you're not doing work for SIGGRAPH?

MH: When I'm not working for SIGGRAPH it's usually being busy with work, or managing kids, my two kids.

GC: What's your day-to-day job?

MH: I'm senior lighter/compositor at Blizzard Entertainment. 

GC: What does that involve?

MH: We do the trailers and the pre-rendered cutscenes, and also some of the in-game cutscenes for the various IPs and games for Blizzard. 

GC: What's something that you've recently worked on that gaming fans would know?

MH: The most recent thing that we released was the Overwatch cinematic, which was a four-minute cinematic on our new IP.

GC: What do you think are the highlights of SIGGRAPH this year?

MH: There are a lot of highlights, there are a lot of things that we're really excited about. One I mentioned was the convergence of films and games panel, we also have a really great, a darling game called Lumino City, and they have a fantastic presentation. They're really an indie game that's using physical miniatures as the backscape for their own digital game. They're from England and they have a wonderful presentation.

And if you have a chance to go and see it, you can go play Lumino City in our MIX, which is also in the studio area, and that is our indie games venue, where game developers have come together and as attendees you get to go play on the games and then also have a chance to talk to the game developers one on one. 

We also have some fantastic courses. One of the great things about SIGGRAPH is that you have the ability to sort of level-up your training with some of the training materials we've structured within SIGGRAPH. For example at the studio courses and the general submission courses, and there's even stuff on the exhibit floor as well. There's the Advances in Real-Time Rendering, and the Open Problems in Real-Time Rendering, these are more advanced courses for some of the graphics professionals in the industry.

We have representations from a lot major games companies as well, from EA DICE and their talk on Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, we have Avalanche Studios here, we have Guerilla Games here, we have CD Projekt Red that came over to talk about The Witcher 3, and some great, great, fantastic stuff.

GC: Who is SIGGRAPH for? Who should come to the show?

MH: SIGGRAPH's focus is computer graphics technology, so if you are into computer graphics, if you're interested in it, this is definitely the place to be. 

GC: You mentioned indie games earlier. When we talk about the latest graphics in the games industry we don't often think of indie games. They're often low-fi, they don't have the same photorealism as a triple-A title. What is the role of graphics in indie games?

MH: That's a really good question. This is one of the questions that was proposed to me at the very beginning of my term here. And it was a back and forth as to whether or not independent games have a place at SIGGRAPH. And the answer was, after some research, a resounding yes. And I'm glad that we decided to go with that. Lumino City is a great example, Lunar is another great example.

Not only are we looking at the technical innovations in computer graphics here at SIGGRAPH, we're also looking at creativity, the creative innovations, the artistic innovations, and the production process innovations. And there are a lot of things to be learned from independent games. They've done some remarkable things, some very creative things, out-of-the-box things, for a fraction of the budget at times. And these are things that the other industries should pay attention to and be aware of. And you can't fully represent games without representing the full scope of what games are about, and that can be from the big triple-A companies all the way down to the independent games. 

GC: What are your thoughts on virtual reality? Is it here to stay this time?

MH: I think that VR is going to be constantly growing from here on out. I think also augmented reality is too. Those two are going to be growing quite significantly over the next few years. I think we're close, I think we're really close.

What's interesting, to tie it back to games, is that games are being used as a catalyst to introduce these new technologies into the users' homes. So what's really fun and interesting is that this new technology combined with games is going to make for some really fascinating user experiences. So that's why it's really exciting to be in the games industry right now and to be on top of this stuff.

GC: How does the console vs. PC divide play into things from the developer, computer graphics professional perspective? 

MH: At SIGGRAPH we don't really make that distinction very much. Because the game companies, they either develop for the consoles or for the PC box, but they're generally along the same threads, along the same lines. The ability to translate  between the two is getting easier and easier. There's new technolgy that's coming along that's making that less and less of a factor. The big question is the algorithms under it, the techniques and the processes to get the graphics that you want, to get the details that you need in your game. So while it is something from a consumer standpoint, it's less so from a graphics professional's perspective.

GC: What do you think we'll be talking about at SIGGRAPH 2016?

MH: Oh wow. I think VR will be making even more of an impact, I think we'll be seeing a lot more virtual reality and augmented reality actually coming into commercial use. Right now there's still a lot of experimentation and still a lot of that development going on, they're still developing that hardware and the structure of it. There's a lot of games and uses that are just on the cutting edge of coming out. And you'll be seeing a lot more interesting user experiences coming out with that as well. You'll also be seeing a focus on further education here at SIGGRAPH again. 

Next July, SIGGRAPH will be held in Anaheim, California. Visit the official SIGGRAPH website for more information about the conference.