GIS performance vs. Video game performance

I posed this question to the Reddit GIS forum a few months ago after a discussion with my nephew who programs video games.  It led to an interesting discussion for a few days and then I promptly forgot all about it. Today I learned it one the award for “Best post of 2017” so I thought I’d share it here for a wider audience. Enjoy!


A few weeks ago I had a discussion with my nephew who is a video game developer. I haven’t played a video game in decades but I found it fascinating and eye-opening to discover that we were dealing with many of the same issues spatially.

Many, if not most, video games deal with things like does this point or polygon (maybe a bullet, or a pinball) intersect or at least come within close proximity to another polygon (a monster or a pinball flipper). Everything is mapped out spatially with coordinates, often in three dimensions.

What is stunning is how fast video games are able to perform spatial operations that seem to take GIS software much longer. I’ve been thinking about some of the reasons that this might be and this is what I’ve come up with.

  1.  GIS systems have to be rigorous and accurate and can’t cut any corners that video game developers might take for the sake of performance.
  2. There is a much larger market for video games and more interest among young developers who are familiar with the latest technology
  3. Related to #2, there is more profit and much, much more competition among video game developers than among GIS developers, which is almost a monopoly.
  4. A full fledged GIS is a massive, complicated, suite of software and very difficult to re-write from scratch to take advantage of new technology. When ArcGIS was released in 2000 on Microsoft’s COM technology it was the largest implementation of COM ever. Larger even then Microsoft office. And its only gotten bigger. There have really only been 4 major changes/additions in ESRI software architecture in 40 years (Arc/INFO, ArcView 1-3.x, ArcMap, and now ArcGIS Pro).
  5. Video game developers take advantage of the latest hardware and software architectures, such as hardware graphics acceleration, massive parallel processing, etc.
  6. Video games are largely memory based and don’t need to store all their data on disk and disk access is much slower than RAM access.

So for those who are more familiar with all of this than I am, I pose the following questions. Would it be possible for someone to hire a team of hot young video game developers who knew how to leverage all the latest and greatest technology to write a new GIS from scratch that would blow the doors off current GIS software? Is that what Manifold GIS has actually done and is it gaining traction in the GIS world? Will GIS always be decades behind the times due to its massive size and need for absolute data integrity or could we do better with some competition? Will recent trends in mainstreaming geospatial analysis lead to more competition and improvements?

I don’t know the answers but I’m curious what you all think.

Link to the original post on reddit so you can read the very interesting discussion.

If your interested, check out my best selling courses on Web Programming for GIS, QGIS, and Spatial databases available on Udemy for $20 each.

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