Anton's Research Ramblings

Animating the Frankenstein Monster:
"Working Around the Broken Bits of OpenGL"

Here follows the woeful Tale of my Adventure distributing OpenGL Software, and here find you lists of particular capricious and untrue OpenGL Features to avoid using.

The Multi-Platform Game

I've been making a game in OpenGL for several years. I want it to have some multi-platform support such that it runs on all my friends' desktops that support some sort of shader-based graphics; Windows, Apple, or Linux. I have the following builds:

I found the 32-bit Windows build works just as well on 64-bit Windows, so I don't bother with the mess of an additional build. All modern Apple desktops are 64-bit. The biggest problem here was actually Visual Studio - the redistributable packages just don't redistribute properly to different Windows systems. It was much less BS to just use MinGW with GCC - just a couple of library files to drop in. Apple and Linux have terrible native support for finding local dynamic libraries (for poorly thought-out security reasons apparently). You have to jump through some extra, and different, hoops to tell the binaries where to find any included dynamic libs - best best is to statically link anything that isn't a native windowing library or a licence-protected library.

OpenGL Versions Widely Supported

I found I can still do some version of modern shader-based OpenGL on all my target systems, even those using integrated Intel chips on laptops. However, there is a big problem here. There is no one single version of OpenGL that runs on all of them. I have:

Older Apple OS X stops shy of being able to support tessellation and the latest implementation doesn't support compute shaders - what a waste of rare earth minerals and slave labour on expensive GPU hardware components that never get used! This rules out using any really modern GL stuff at all - if you want that you'd have to give up Apple altogether, and 1/2 of my friends use these things.

I want the same game experience to run on all platforms - I don't want to build advanced features that only run on a few builds, so I'm happy to do as others have suggested and use a lowest-common denominator if possible. A min() of OpenGL functionality, if you will.

I find that there are many extensions (read "plug-ins") available to even OpenGL 2.1-only machines, that are very widely supported. I created my own extensions-test software that I got all my friends to try, so I have my own statistics. This means I can use OpenGL 2.1 and retro-fit many of the modern features from newer versions quite reliably.

However, Apple is a problem! It seems I need to support 3 different versions of OpenGL just to cover these systems. I tried - the newer systems simply will not run anything non-trivial with OpenGL 2.1. It turns out though, that if you ask to use OpenGL 3.2 (core forward-compat.) from the GLFW3 library, which I use, it will automatically get the newest of 4.1, 3.3, or 3.2 available on the machine. We can breathe a sigh of relief here, because I can just code to the 3.2 interface and it will work in the newer ones.

OpenGL 2.1 with Extensions and OpenGL 3.2

So, It seems I have to go with supporting 2 different versions of OpenGL: 2.1 with some extensions to bump it up to modern GL behaviour, and 3.2 core forward, which will generalise to 3.3 and 4.1 also. To get 2.1 to behave like 3.2 I need to have the following extensions:

Vertex array objects are a convenience for coding, and I decided to use them. All my friends' machines supported this. Framebuffer objects add additional post-processing features, and I use them for several special effects. All my friends' machines supported this. sRGB allows automatic colour and gamma-correction with FBOs, and I used this, but I have since heard terrible things about the implementations from a Unity3D person. Uniform buffer objects would add a huge performance boost to my biggest rendering bottleneck, but only some of my friends' machines supported this, so I didn't use it. It was too much of a hassle to code it as an optional feature - it would mean writing a different version of all the shaders - and the systems that didn't have it were the ones that actually needed it.

In-game graphics menu. They greyscale filter is a framebuffer effect. Point sprites are visible in the background, running properly on AMD's linux driver..

I default the Apple build to 3.2 and the Windows build to 2.1 in a settings file. The user can change the version in an in-game menu or in the settings file directly. This seems a very conservative choice, "What could go wrong?" you might wonder...

Multiple Shader Versions and Custom Tools

I have to support 2 different versions of GLSL shaders. It's a waste of time manually writing a #version 120 shader and a slightly different #version 150 shader for everything (although I did actually do this originally). I wrote a small parser tool that reads my whole folder of GLSL 1.2.x shaders for OpenGL 2.1 and makes a few small changes to spit out the set of GLSL 1.5.x shaders for OpenGL 3.2. Not a big deal in the end, but a very silly lack of foresight in the design of GLSL.

The upside is that I could have made a few custom additions to GLSL in my parser - I have one for WebGL that adds #include support and allows fragment and vertex shaders to sit in sections of the same file - easy enough. I do re-use my lighting code in about 8 shaders, so it would make sense to have it all in one include script. There is an OpenGL extension providing include support, but at 26% support it's safer to roll your own. It would be possible to do custom optimisations and fire custom warnings in such a tool, but would not be so useful for a small project.

List of Broken OpenGL Features to Avoid

Trial-by-fire has burped up a huge glut of broken, unreliable pieces of the core OpenGL that I had to avoid using. Usually a feature works on my development machine, but the wheels fall off on some other system (usually the Apple implementation of OpenGL). This might be useful for others - maybe we can trade lists? Some of these might be fix-able unintended use of the state machine.

Compute shadersNot widely supported on target systems.
Tessellation shadersNot widely supported on target systems.
Geometry shadersHad issues on Apple but might be interface confusion.
Integer vertex attributesI think you can't use variables as uniform array indices.
Instanced drawingGeometry visually explodes on Apple (may again be interface issue). Built-in GLSL integers break.
Newer VBO streamingNot widely supported on target systems.
"Attributeless" renderingNot widely supported on target systems. Broken on Apple.
Transform feedback shader modesNot widely supported on target systems.
Uniform buffer objectsNot widely supported on target systems.
Uniform structsI don't use them but others report problems on Apple.
2d array index of matrix uniformConvention different on Apple. Don't use.
Uniform location of matrix without indexBroken. Explicitly get index of first component; "my_matrix[0]".
Point renderingHad problems on some implementations (variable name conflict?) with varyings.
PointSize() with attenuationDeprecated - control this in shaders.
Enable(POINT_SPRITE)Enable this in 2.1 but not 3.2 for point sprites.
Point sprites texturesGenerateMipmap() and gl_PointCoord broken in Mesa.
LineWidth()Unofficially deprecated. Don't use line rendering.
S3 Texture CompressionExtension crashes / not detected properly on Apple.
Skeletal animation shadersInteger attributes for indexing arrays are unreliable. Cast from floats.
sRGB framebuffersI had no problems but they are reported to be unreliable by others - apparently sRGB textures are fine.
rand() etc. in GLSLWere never implemented properly. Don't use.
const variables in GLSLWere never implemented properly. Don't use.
Naming a shader variable degrees or radiansReserved names! Should produce an error. Linux/Windows drivers don't.

I'll update this list when I remember more issues that I had.

Additional Multi-Platform Complications

Of course there are some small issues with default states in the GL state machine differing between implementations. When developing you can assume you have things right, but have your point-sprite textures flip upside-down on Apple. You just have to be explicit with as many default states as you can - Apple's point textures are opposite-axis to the others. If I get a few more I'll make a list, but I usually specify them all out of fear so I probably won't catch them.

The new high-res "Retina" displays for Apple have been an unexpected problem. You have to do a few extra checks and balances to detect these and set up viewports etc. with the right size. The window treats the display area like a regular-sized window, and the desktop manager will automatically up-size itself. The in-app stuff needs to explicitly specify the higher resolution - you can't re-use the size you set the window to. In GLFW3 you can query glfwGetFramebufferSize() to get the real resolution. This presents a somewhat annoying problem for any in-game resolution-chooser to adjust to.

Techniques that index an array of uniforms will eventually run over the maximum number of uniform floats allowed on lower-end systems. Long lists of matrices may need to be moved into buffers.

By far the biggest problem with OpenGL distribution is that the shader compiler is unique to each implementation - they all have different problems. Worse, some of compilers will silently fix bugs without complaining, so you get many, many, many "It worked on my machine!" situations. Terrible design. A terribly expensive design for those looking to make money on their work! The official reference compiler sucks because it only tells you if you screwed up (which never happens, unless you get confused with the appalling design of the array literal spec.). Some shader compilers, for example, will allow C-style array literals. These definitely blow up on most shader compilers. You can print all the logs, and these are pretty good, but not great.