The Technology Pipedream

The Shape of Things to Come

I wasn’t going to bother writing another blog of mine until Deus Ex: Human Revolution came out later this month, but, the last week or so has been interesting. Interesting for 3 reasons: Brisbane Euclidean’s Infinite Detail tech video, rumours of Team Bondi merging with Sydney KMM Games, and, the US and Europe financial meltdowns.

The title of this blog is taken from a talk I originally gave back at the first Freeplay indie game developer conference back in 2003 based on my experiences working on Far Cry for German Crytek. It’s one of the web resources I list via sELFiNDUCEDcOMA, where you can find it expanded into obsessive detail. I could have made it an easier read, but honestly, nothing is for free and I like to make people work somewhat for a “free” lunch. But to sum up a theme of it: technology is a means to an end, not, the end.

I know what you’re thinking, Crytek are well known for the series of CryEngine middleware solutions, aren’t they? Yes, they are, however the first CryEngine was not a commercial success even with a title like Far Cry to prove that the technology could very well be utilised to create a quality title – misgivings about the story and sci-fi themes that many have, aside. It was only licensed by a handful of developers, and, on the cheap. It took I think Crysis for their middleware to finally take off, how well so, I don’t know and quite frankly don’t care.

Something I think Crytek still haven’t quite learnt, is the theme I mention, in that their aim has always been to create interactive entertainment engines, rather than, interactive entertainment titles. Technology has always been their driver, and I think their obsession with it and being the best at it and at the forefront of technology for game applications, has actually hurt them. No matter how many studios they grow to due to their technology, their games have paled in comparison in way of sales numbers compared to other developers (Bioware) using far less impressive technology. And any growth, is probably more due to the Yerli brother’s ability in attracting and securing investment due to their technology in order to fuel business growth, rather than, revenue generated via technology licensing itself.

Regardless, technology generally has a long wait when it comes to a return on investment. If you really want to do tech, and have a more immediate success. Then you are better off creating tech and tools that focus on something that others haven’t or haven’t done very well. And more importantly, compliments every other middleware engine out there by not trying to compete directly with it. Like the Scaleform videogame UI solution.

And the problem with technology, is that there is always someone willing to shake things up and take a risk. There is always that upstart to come out of nowhere that threatens to undermine the attractiveness of your technology by doing things radically differently. If not that, then the industry can radically change so as to make other options far more attractive to your own due to the business climate – UDK and Unity 3D are quite accessible for indie game developers and only represent two examples of a wide range of free or low cost solutions out there.

Take Id’s middleware, the last I heard was that they are no longer in the middleware licensing business, and this has more to it than just being acquired by Bethesda. The business case is just not that strong anymore for them to do so, and really, they tended to license their engine to studios that they were effectively collaborating with. This now being other Bethesda first-party development studios.

In Euclidean’s case, what they are developing is perhaps something along the lines of what Id developed with their Doom engine. The beginnings of 3D gaming – ignoring the likes of Wolfenstein 3D. The approach is a radical one – voxel “atoms” not polygons – a shift that implies that this has the potential to be the scalable tech to power 3D gaming into the future. That is if they can prove that it can be effectively utilised via animation and physics to create a comprehensive 3D gaming interactive experience and development solution that not only can match the level of graphical fidelity and performance existing techniques can, but also, has the potential for much more.

More importantly, I think that any “solution” really needs to work with physics and procedural generation and modification of materials. I won’t go into exactly what I mean, as finding the words to clearly communicate what I mean is more effort that I want to expend at the moment. What I will do, is mention other technologies like Allegorithmic’s Substance – now available for Unity 3D. And how such (procedural) technologies that can be modified real-time – aging a material for example – could not only be used to creating not just richer graphical experiences, but, interactive ones as well that work hand-in-hand with emergent systems like physics – think Red Faction. Of course, that is really ignoring the most obvious part of game technology, that being being able to model more rich behaviour in way of AI; the powerhouse of all interactivity (gameplay).

But hey, maybe it’s all a “scam” as some claim it to be, a means of getting funding from gullible government funding body types that don’t really know our industry all that well – perhaps I’m missing something (compression), but I think the storage needed to store the model data may be more over a polygonal one, and this may also impact memory. That don’t seem to appreciate that technology that powers pretty graphics, as far as games are concerned – and ignoring the other possible markets for the technology – is simply not enough. You need interactivity as well.

However, one thing about tech, is that it is much easier to sell it to investors and paint a healthy business model picture, than it is for a game. It’s easier to measure technology, graphics, than it is to actually measure a concept, measure its design. Unfortunately any tech aimed at game development, is going to have to prove itself via an actual game. Prove, that it is robust enough to work within this demanding limitations of a real-time context rather than pre-rendered and controlled tech videos – and really prove it via a high profile and rated title. Otherwise to license unproven tech, even on the cheap, would be a risk, potentially a big one. Another theme from my old talk.

I guess time will tell.

Serendipitous Sydney… For Some

Talking about technology kind of segues into Team Bondi and the rumours of a merger with KMM Games. Even if I do it rather clumsily.

It’s also rumoured that KMM are closing down the Brisbane studio in that they’ve finished up work on a Happy Feet 2 game – well “rumoured” is weak, and it’s been reported that they’ve all been told that their contracts won’t be picked up. I can see the reasoning for doing this, in that the studio is made up of the leftovers of Krome. A studio, that is not well known for the high-quality of their titles; not that Happy Feet 2 probably demands it.

As unpopular as the idea and thought of another studio closing in Brisbane is – perhaps they can find work with Euclidean in turning their tech demo into a showcase playable demo; though, that doesn’t seem likely as they claim to just be a “technology” company – if quality is a continuing problem, no matter what you do to correct the situation, then closing a studio may be the best option. Though, there are probably other reasons KMM have for doing so and focusing more on their Sydney studio, the Krome track record is just the one that comes prominently to mind.

But the real surprise, to an extent, is the possible merger between KMM and TB. From what I understand, KMM Sydney is made up of a number of ex-Team Bondi employees. Employees that left after having had enough of the working conditions there. Employees, who are not over the moon at the prospect of having to deal with their old Moloch of a boss again.

Apparently, director George Miller was impressed with Brendan McNamara’s tenacity to sticking to his vision in the face of worsening milestones. Though part of me wants to think twice before commenting on this, but if that is the case, then it only increases my dislike of film directors getting into the game development space – as it is NOT something they ultimately understand, as it is an active experience, not a passive one.

But, I can’t help but feel that the motivation for any merger with TB is due to technology foremost, not, due to their “prowess” at developing original IP – or their ability to “stick” to their vision, no matter what the cost or how idiotic their goals are. They do have a mutli-platform engine, GTA open-world capable; despite the many limitations of it as seen via LA Noire. Though there are conflicting claims as to how much of the code is 100% Team Bondi’s – my guess is that certain aspects benefited from the expertise provided by the Rockstar RAGE development team; and without it, it would be simply be an expensive tech demo. Then there is Motion Scan. Any filmmaker wouldn’t be able to get past the supposed “power” of that in telling interactive stories.

I just wonder what the cost of a merger will be considering the ex-TB employees at KMM / Dr D. That said, this comes as no surprise to me as far as Team Bondi is concerned. It seems by all reports that their options passed LA Noire’s release would be rather limited, with it being made clear that Rockstar is not keen in working with them any more, and the extended development of LA Noire, and the costs involved, not exactly a palatable prospect for most publishers.

But hey, there is always someone willing to flip the bill just as there are always new grads willing to put up with all manner of things to get a credit to their name, even if their employer decides to punish them if they don’t last the distance. Then there are those working in the industry, who seem to have no issue with how things are done.

And in this case, perhaps it is KMM who are willing to give Team Bondi another chance by merging with them. Perhaps the technology is too good a chance to pass up… Mad Max 4 as an open-world (almost) sandbox / simulation game with incredibly life-like mo-cap performances for game characters – even if they look like Thunderbird puppets.

Too good an opportunity to pass up, no matter the cost, perhaps?

Back to the Future

Boy, I bet you thought that all that GFC fuss was old news, huh? All in the past. Unfortunately it wasn’t properly resolved, and this is an echo – if you will – of it. But hey, you’re an indie, not an economist, you develop games. How can it possibly affect you?

This new global instability, isn’t going to help you. It’s something that I alluded to with my previous post – Heart of Darkness – and I think that the economic / debt problems in the US and EU have only begun. With the worst I see transpiring is the US heading into another recession along with the EU unable to stop the spread of its debt crisis to the rest of Europe, starting with Italy. And perhaps if both these things happen and worsen enough, China’s property bubble – along with other factors – will finally implode from having to carry too much of the global economy to make the situation even worse. Of course, that’s all speculative and from a part-time armchair economist. But I think that even without things getting worse, these recent “meltdowns” in the US and EU will have a long-term effect for indie and independent (third-party) development studios.

Consumers will tighten their belts and cut their spending. They’ll still buy games, but, they’ll expect more from the money they spend on them – higher quality and more content; bang for their buck. Then there are sources of funding that these titles will need to source in order to meet the larger budgets that these titles will demand. These sources of funding will become more risk averse, and therefore, harder to secure – and competition for it will also increase. More studio closures, and not just the big boys. And more consolidations, as smaller studios, perhaps independents, become larger independent studios courting publisher funding.

The problem with games, is the problem with all forms of entertainment. It doesn’t take much to get something half-arsed and even enjoyable out the door. I liken it to a band, in order to form a band, write some songs, and then perform them at a live gig. Actually doesn’t take much, in that all you need is people who can play their instruments well enough and work together competently enough in order to make something that isn’t just noise. Finding other bands to play at the gig, and the gig venue itself, ain’t that hard either. Of course, it doesn’t mean that it will be any good, or good enough so that you’ll get lots of people coming to the event – that aren’t just your family and friends – that you’ll be able to finally put together an EP in order to sell and to secure a recording deal. And having done all that, actually, be a real success.

Just being able to put on a reasonably entertaining performance, simply takes a 6/10 to achieve. In order to put together an EP – or to tour from state to state pretending your big shot rockstars – takes a 7/10. To get a record deal, and tour overseas, takes an 8/10. To actually be a success at it, you need to achieve a 9/10. Of course to be utterly brilliant, you need to be a 10/10 – though there is a “timing” factor to this as well.

It’s a gross simplification, as there are a lot of factors in simply getting a 6/10, but what I want to make clear, is that each level of quality, each extra 1/10 is exponentially harder than the last was to get. So getting to 5 – playing in your garage practicing with your band – is actually easy enough. Putting on a gig, a 6/10, is tougher but still attainable even if you’re not that good as all you need to be is good enough to entertain a drunken crowd. But 7 onwards, well… Each one becomes far harder than the last requiring more talent, more ability, more motivation, more experience, more funding, more support, more marketing, more everything to get to the next level, the next class leading to the top of your field.

It’s the same for games, even indie games, especially factoring how the digital marketplaces have evolved. With Apple’s iPhone, you could initially release a 5 and have it sell and sell well. These days, you need to start thinking and aiming for an 8 at the least, with being able to get away with a 7 being ever more slimmer a possibility. Though, it does depend upon the “context.” And these new global affecting economic developments, is going to make this all so much harder as many projects will simply not be feasible without considerable funding in order to develop these titles and also to market them – even if you are adept at social-media (guerrilla) marketing strategies.

So, welcome to the future, welcome to the start of your brave new world, indie.

One thought on “The Technology Pipedream”

  1. UPDATE:

    Develop says: It seems that Team Bondi has sold off its assets and IP — not LA Noire, it’s owned by Rockstar — to KMM Games in Sydney. Staff being given the option to make the move on over. The deal doesn’t include Depth Analysis (Motion Scan).

    Gamasutra says: THQ has or is in the process of shutting down its Australian development studios — one in Brisbane and another (Blue Tongue) in Melbourne. A pretty quick turn around considering the recent economic problems, though, it’s probably just bad timing.

    Rumor say: that the new DMI funding program for NSW is on the chopping block by the new Liberal (conservative) NSW state government.

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