IGDA panel talks middleware

Techies from Activision, EA, Konami developers are reinventing the wheel--or stealing someone else's.

by

REDWOOD CITY, Calif.--Somewhere along the way from Pong to Peter Jackson's King Kong, game developers and publishers realized that creating games entirely from scratch with each new project was perhaps not the best allocation of time, money, and manpower. As the industry has evolved, it has grown more common for games to use assets, tools, and game engines lifted in whole or in part from other games.

These days such middleware is increasingly common. You can't swing a rag doll these days without hitting a game using the Havok physics engine, and the Unreal engine has been used on everything from Adventure Pinball: Forgotten Island to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to, well… Unreal.

But is an increasing reliance on middleware a good thing? Aren't better results achievable by working from the ground up instead of repurposing other software for the job, no matter how adaptable it might be? Is the popularity of middleware going to continue growing?

Yes, yes, and yes, according to a handful of industry tech experts invited to speak at an International Game Developers Association panel last night at Electronic Arts' Redwood City campus.

The panel consisted of Craig Alexander, general manager of Activision developer Z-Axis; Kurt Busch, vice president of product development for Konami Digital Entertainment; Brent Iverson, chief technology architect for Electronic Arts; and Matt Wilkinson, director of technology for Activision. With the help of GameSpot executive editor Greg Kasavin as moderator, the lineup of seasoned industry veterans discussed the issue of middleware in game development for an hour before opening the floor for a half hour of Q&A with the auditorium crowd.

One recurring theme of the night was that middleware was going to be an inevitable key to cost-effective success in the next generation of game development.

"We're not bumping up against hardware anymore; we're just bumping up against time and money and the realities of development," Alexander said. "So smart, innovative ways of maximizing creativity at a fraction of the cost is a way to success rather than throwing 30 million bucks at a movie game title."

Alexander was not alone in believing that reusing code was a way to maximize creativity.

"I think that technology and code you're given, design decisions you're given…aren't really limiters; they're actually enablers," Iverson said. "If someone said, 'Make a great game,' and that's all the instructions you had, it would be pretty darn difficult to get started. But if somebody said, 'Make a great game about his movie that's coming out, or about dinosaurs, or pirates, that's a turn-based strategy game,' now all of a sudden you've got a lot of stuff that's laid out for you, and you don't have to think about those things anymore. Now you can say, 'How can I innovate in that space?'"

"I think technology a lot of times has that same effect… Now you can stop worrying about that stuff and you can say, 'Well, what do I do that's really interesting to the customer on top of that framework?'"

Even if developers aren't told to use middleware, they may choose to simply because the specialized tool gets the job done better.

"This is one of the reasons that Havok has been so successful," Wilkinson said. "First of all, most people don't understand physics, and second of all, who wants to write a physics engine? It's not very interesting, it's not very sexy, but it's great when it's in your game.

This middleware-friendly attitude hasn't always existed among developers. As Iverson noted, attitudes toward using somebody else's code have greatly changed over the years.

"A long time ago, I think reusing something was seen as a sign of weakness so it would be akin to, 'You wrote your game in BASIC,'" Iverson noted. "Now it's kind of interesting that you see in ads people brag about the middleware they used. If they used the Quake engine, they brag about that. It's a mark of quality knowing you're going to get a similar kind of experience."

Of course, not all middleware is a surefire shortcut to a good game. One well-known piece of middleware that came up several times throughout the night, usually followed by a smattering of snickering, was RenderWare, created by now-EA-owned Criterion Software.

"RenderWare's greatest asset was its own worst enemy too," Busch said. "RenderWare allowed you to get something onscreen very quickly, and it allowed a lot of people with really bad ideas to get something onscreen quickly and go around pitching them to publishers… It was dreadful stuff, the majority of it, but RenderWare itself was not bad."

To which Iverson replied, "People also use C++ compilers for evil, too. We don't blame the compilers."

Even when middleware is used by talented developers, the benefits have their limits. Havok may add rag-doll physics to a game, but there's nothing to keep competing products from incorporating it into their games, and developers will still need something unique to set their games apart.

"When you pursue a middleware solution, you're never going to beat the competition," Alexander said. "You're just going to match them. To advertise that you have rag doll in your game doesn't do much because there's 50 other titles [with it], but at least you're enabling a secondary or tertiary feature that brings you up to the level of the competition. If you're going to innovate in your category, you're going to have to home-grow it."

Companies are beginning to recognize the benefits of middleware and offset some of its disadvantages. Busch said that earlier this year, Konami Digital Entertainment began the process of centralizing its technology, essentially creating a corporate pool of different adaptable middleware solutions that wouldn't need to come out of a development team's budget and wouldn't be accessible to competing products.

Busch was all in favor of seeing it happen, but he noted that the idea had failed before. Busch and Alexander both worked for Sierra Games in the early '90s, when the company mandated that every game use the same interface, the same animation system, and other such technology. The company was known for its 2D puzzle-adventure games, and the technology Sierra had did that genre very well. However, it was less than adaptive.

"By the late '90s, everyone was playing Command & Conquer, Warcraft, and Doom, and that pretty much spelled the end of that genre," Alexander said. "One of the problems with standardizing too much is you better hope your genre doesn't go away; otherwise you're in trouble."

There was little disagreement among the panel members throughout the night, leading to the impression that the turn to middleware is inevitable in the near future, at least as far as the big publishers are concerned. As is usually the case, smaller development houses will be at a disadvantage here because they don't have the money to afford the premier middleware products and likely don't have the resources in time and funding to write their own. But for the big boys of the industry, the EAs and Activisions and Konamis of the world, middleware is an efficient way of reducing the costs, time investments, and risks associated with game development.

One caveat is that it has to be smartly designed and well implemented to be worth doing. Iverson stressed the need for modular design in middleware that allows for adaptability, lest developers find themselves mentioned in the same cautionary tales as Sierra.

Discussion

24 comments
pungaboy
pungaboy

I think that there are some misconceptions about middleware and about the cost of next-gen games. Middleware is generally designed to be extremely open-ended and customizable. If developers want to add features to a game that the middleware doesn't support, it's a lot easier to adapt or modify the middleware to acheive this than it is to try to write a new engine everytime you want to add a new feature. Also, I think that the cost of games is being driven up more due to the art side of things than on the game engine side of things. Certainly AI is getting more robust and rendering software is getting more sophisticated, but these are more "long-term" investments for game companies. It's software that will be improved over generations of hardware. This is why launch titles look like crap compared to games that will come out 2-3 years post-launch. Its the sheer number of animations, textures, high detail models that really take more time, and more money to improve. Especially at the beginning of a console cycle when the majority of this stuff has to be done from scratch. Just my 2 cents.

death5ter
death5ter

"But is an increasing reliance on middleware a good thing? its a good thing. why? because we gamers like the animations they do... Aren't better results achievable by working from the ground up instead of repurposing other software for the job, no matter how adaptable it might be? hmmmm... Is the popularity of middleware going to continue growing?" As long as they don't create their homegrown middleware, equaled or much greater than the present middlewares, Havok and Unreal will be there for them.

Atarii
Atarii

There are certain things I like about middleware, and certain things I don't like about middleware. The good things are that it cuts cost on games, which should make games cheap (it doesn't always seem that way though) and it allows the develpoers time to create more for a game (i.e. story). The bad things about middleware are that many games do seem like a carbon copy of other titles. But I guess you gotta take the good with the bad....

madgamer2000
madgamer2000

I agree with the above. I'm all for useing loads of middleware as well as stuff like the UE3 engine or the source engine etc. Even stuff like basic models, shaders and textures could be reused. The more stuff the devs dont have to spend making from scratch while developing the game means the more completely new content rich stuff they get to put into it. Maby instead of spending 4 months coding an engine just to get displacment mapped polys with HDR lighting to show up or something, they could spend that 4 months designing and creating levels with tons of objects etc.

KamaKase
KamaKase

As things become re-used more. Then the financial benefits of sequals, as supposed to innovative game ideas/styles, will increase many fold. The individual nuances of the game will still be able to be kept though, as the effectiveness, and breadth of the middleware (depending also on what it contains) is still completely limited to how the development team put it into place. It used to just be for people as they ragdoll down the stairs, but now more and more of the environment is being included in this. Shaders can be used and reused too. Once there's a 99% realistic set (when computational power can keep up with photographic detail), why make new ones? The games industry is gonna be even more specialist.

Bunnyslippers
Bunnyslippers

Games don't look alike, because of the middle-ware, but because of the design of the games. Humans and chimpansees have >90% the same DNA sequence. But we don't look like them and chimps don't look like us. I see a lot of streetracing games which look a lot like eachother. Lots of these racers use motion-blur. My point is games made with different tools still can look a lot like eachother. It's just the developers imagination that fails. Games that look alike and are created with the same tools are of course: Jak and Daxter series and Ratchet and Clank series. Both are platform-games and both share the same engine. I hope games in the future wont be like these to games. Don't get me wrong I love the series but they just look a lot like eachother. I have a lot of respect for developers creating their own tools and not use middle-ware. But I think only first-party developers can have this luxery, like the awesome Ico-team and Naughty Dog. Also publishers (and developers) want to make a game multi-platform. And in this case middle-ware is the only solution. Because otherwise you have to create your own tools for every console out there. I think with the next-gen, crossplatform games won't be so profitable anymore as with the current gen-consoles. A good reason to use middle-ware is your not the only one facing a particular problem. Other developers are maybe facing the same problem or already have solved this problem. With your own engine and tools, you must solve the problem yourself and nobody can help you. If developers try something else then a photo-realistic graphics, only then will games look different from eachother. Alfred Molina will look like Alfred Molina in all his non-animated movies. But an abstract Alfred Molina drawn by an cartoonist, will always look different.

privatepainsack
privatepainsack

All I have to say is if games start to look all the same not many of them are going to be bought by me. I refuse to become a "fanboy" of a series (besides Star wars games... And even there I've abandoned many titles because of lameness) and would prefer to buy the titles that have some inovation. Why buy "generic shooter 44" or "same as the the last RTS". when there are so many options available. Havok to me is fine, but for Unreal games I find all too simular, and many feel more like mods.

NinjaMeh
NinjaMeh

forever_blank, just because your company wrote the code doesn't mean that you'll have any easier of a time debugging than if you were using a licensed engine. If anything, you'll probably spend _more_ time debugging, as commercially licensed engines have already gone through many passes on the code-test-debug cycle, whereas you'd be doing all that yourself. Sure you'll use some time learning the engine and tools if you haven't worked with it before, and possibly reporting bugs to the engine's developers and waiting for a patch if your team can't write and submit their own patch, but that's likely to be a fraction of the time you'd spend writing a new engine from scratch, unless your game is particularly simple. As for the market stagnating... I wouldn't worry so much about that. First of all, for the past 10 years or so (basically since the release of Doom) there have been a handful of dominant FPS engines on the market at any given time, and while you could say that this led to lots of similar, awful first person shooters (which I'd say is just because it became easy and cheap for talentless developers to throw together a quick game to try and cash in) I don't think it's really had any kind of negative effect on the development of new technologies. Some of the non-major players will continue to write their own engine (look at Monolith, CroTeam, CryTek, for example) and the major players will have to keep improving their engines both for the benefit of their first party games, and to compete with eachother. Just look at iD: they haven't used the same engine in two first-party games since Doom and Doom 2.

theRunninGamer
theRunninGamer

I agree that developers should try and make their own game engines when possible. I also think that middleware like Havok is extremely useful, as you don't have to have a physicist on all your development teams to get the result you want. I think too many developers are relying on the Unreal engine to make their games, and though the games themselves might look and feel different, I believe that the evolution of programming technology is being stunted because so few people ever push the programming envelope. Sure, maybe the gameplay is unique, but sonner or later, everything needs to evolve for it to retain the consumers' interest. The ever-evolving electronic community would not exist if no one ever wrote any new code.

forever_blank
forever_blank

You would think that company's would occasionally try and be unique, by creating there on engines, yes you may save money by using middle ware, but you lost programmability. If something goes wrong, you are likely not going to know what it was, cause you will go 'He bob this thing just happened, what was it, oh, yeah the creator is dead, we will have to go exhume his body' If you use your own code, it allows for more innovative approaches at games, lessening its glitches, because when something happens, you are very much likely to find out what it was, because you wrote the damn thing! I think developers should make an effort to make there own engines and make more types of games, that way you can look at two FPS shooters and they wont look the same, because at the moment half of them, if not all of them use the same engine.

SnowFarmer
SnowFarmer

I think there is huge value to using a proven system rather than reinventing the wheel for every game. But like anything when you are using "off the shelf" parts, you need to pay extra attention to how you combine them so that your product doesn't end up looking like everything else. It's like customizing cars, just because the parts are the same doen't mean the end result will be.

linkdarkside
linkdarkside

well all the 3d zelda games have the OoT engine,TWW egine is the same as OoT but modified.

snarple_basic
snarple_basic

I have use reactor and there is a lot of different physics you can chose to use in your game. The fact is that not all games use all of the physics, they use what they need, so your always going to get a different combination of tools used on a game that is going to make it feel different. it is away to speed up everything is a smart way.

SilentSno
SilentSno

A game engine isn't considered Middleware. Middleware could be a rendering engine, sound engine, or most popular, a physics engine. Middleware is a small piece of tech to a larger puzzle. Unreal is a entire engine only needing gameplay tweaks and assets to become a game. Granted more coding is needed to tweak the engine to behave and look how a company may want it. Havok is middleware as it can be used with any software or game engine. But resuing code is what good software design is about. It will save time and costs. But using the same engine doesn't always mean 30 games have to look the same. Take the Q3 engine, many games, but didn't look the same. Now take the Doom3 engine and Quake4. Very similar dark look, but that was the developers intentions with Q4. It could have looked very different if they choose to.

Hellisunreal
Hellisunreal

I totally agree with u guyz, BUT I hope these fools keep the tools open ended, so that the same software can be used in different ways, with a HELL-OF-A-LOT of flexibility thrown in for good measure. After that we jus gotta hope that the devs make goos use of this.

ALLoY1717
ALLoY1717

yeah i have had this thought ever since the trouble of next gen development cost was rasied at E3. It just makes sense that you would want to use tools that are already in existence rather than writing your own for every game you make. I think that this extra free time on developers hands will result in better games and for the devs less stress

dcoope3
dcoope3

I agree with LiliShake about the Unreal Engine. The engine is really flexible and seems to be the most popular. In addition to the announced Unreal Engine 3 games, Frame City Killer (which has seemed to drop off of the Xbox 360 radar) uses Unreal Engine 3 and looks nothing like GOW and Mass Effect. It comes down to art design and lighting.

LiliShake
LiliShake

CyphenX, well put. BTW, I've noticed that a number of the upcoming games for the 360 which use the new Unreal engine at least look quite different. Look at Mass Effect and GoW. Both use the same engine, but both look to have thier own feel. I think in the graphics, it's really just all in the way things are lit and the complexities which are possible. The actual look is up to the artist. As for gameplay... so long as it's flexible, I can't argue. It will probably be more up to the developer to just take the foundation and the tools they are given so that they can go wild. "the Unreal engine has been used on everything from Adventure Pinball: Forgotten Island to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to, well

CyphenX
CyphenX

dan_birkett, I'd say you have nothing to worry about because the gaming industry (like the movie industry) adapts and evolves very well. If we get 30 new games that all play the same, there will be a brief depression and then the industry will figure out what 's wrong and correct itself. The gaming industry (again, like the movie industry) is run by people and ideas. You make your idea, and then you simply hit copy and paste to get it to as many people as possible (putting your game on a CD or your movie into theatres / on DVD). This means that the industry can change as fast as the ideas change. In the aoutomotive industry, once you've got a car design, you don't just copy it to a 25 cent CD a thousand times. You have to build each a car each time. This process has been streamlined through factories, but they still have to order thousands of parts and make a new assembly for each car design. This makes the automotive industry much less flexible, hence "there are only 5 automotive platforms that are shared with over 30 cars." Thanks to the fact that the games of the industry are the transfer of ideas, the software will evolve and adapt to what the consumer needs.

dan_birkett
dan_birkett

Wait a minute... just recently the game industry was crying that game development was becoming too expensive and that we would see an increase in game prices. I understand that reusing code is a great way to save development costs, but unlike the movie industry, the video game market is seeing huge profits. I'm just scared that the industry will become like the automotive industry where there are only 5 automotive platforms that are shared with over 30 cars. Are we going to see the same thing? Are there only going to be 2 game engines and 30 games that all have the same look and feel, with only small differences between them? God I hope not.

davahsa
davahsa

Did anyone tell veratronator that Killzone's PS3 demo was CG. That would be sweet if everything did look like that though. The Unreal engine just might do that....We'll have to wait and see if Gears of War will run as smooth as butter. If so than we all win with middleware!

mutenpika
mutenpika

Exaspenite, Sam and Max has popped up recently (Thank Goodness). But no word of a GF2 or another Monkey Island...

veratronator
veratronator

Duh companys are going to do what ever to make a buck i hope they dont use this so every game has the same look but if the game looks like killzone are something iam fine with it i hope they dont make all the games look like they came from the bargain bin.

Exaspenite
Exaspenite

Sadly, not just Sierra suffered a miserable death, but all of Lucasarts' original properties (i.e., everything without Star Wars in the title) vanished without a trace as well.