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Game Companies Get Down To Business

Being a genius with a great idea isn't enough; gaming companies are following the lead of corporate IT and adopting third-party middleware to make their products winners.

At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Jose, Calif. last week, middleware was everywhere. There were companies selling graphics engines, network engines, systems for generating crowd behavior, physics, and foliage, for measuring player usage metrics, and for managing in-game advertising.

The rapid pace of Internet-related software development recently has made corporate information technology seem backward and stodgy by comparison. But developers of tomorrow's cutting-edge consumer games are taking a page from enterprise developers as the complexity of game development drives adoption of middleware.

"Middleware is almost like a democratization of the technology that guys like [Doom creator John] Carmack pioneer," says Michael Arrington, an analyst with entertainment technology market research firm The Acacia Research Group.

Though the game industry still reveres its technical visionaries like Carmack, programming genius matters a lot less when competently crafted code can be bought by the box.

Or by the company. In July 2004, Electronic Arts, among the largest video game publishers in the U.S., acquired Criterion Software Ltd., a UK-based game developer and maker of a popular middleware package called RenderWare. At the time the company said, "EA places a strategic priority on creating games with a set of tools and libraries that are shared among its studios. RenderWare and RenderWare4--currently under development for next generation consoles--will be combined with EA’s technology to create a common framework for development."

Company spokesperson Tammy Schachter says EA does not normally discuss its internal technology, but acknowledges that EA's development efforts are aimed not just at building games, but at building technology platforms.

"These games are getting so big and complicated that the lone visionary doesn't do it anymore," says John Austin, COO of game middleware maker Emergent Game Technologies.

Not coincidentally, Emergent has an answer to this problem: Emergent Elements, new modular game development software for the creation of 3D graphics with realistic physics, the analysis of live game data metrics, and automated management of development processes.

There are several reasons such tools are finding favor: the introduction of new multicore, multithreaded processors, which are more complicated to program; the growing number of gaming platforms, particularly mobile phones; the additional complexity created by efforts to integrate advertising into gaming; the popularity of massively multiplayer virtual worlds that require massive server infrastructure; and the efforts to develop reusable gaming architectures that can deliver multiple related titles and more predictable profits.

Gaming companies are discovering that the ability to build software effectively impacts their endurance in the marketplace, says IBM Fellow Grady Booch. "It used to be that in the gaming market that you'd hire great people, get some great ideas, get some great artists, launch a game, and you could make some real money and some real impact," he says. "These days the entry costs of building a game are much higher."

That essentially was Microsoft's point when, at GDC, it introduced a pre-release version of its XNA Studio tools and debuted the XNA Framework -- development tools for its Xbox 360 -- "[i]n the face of escalating game development costs, expanding teams and ever more complex hardware technologies," Microsoft says.

According to Geoffrey Selzer, Emergent's CEO, computer games are ten times more complicated and costly to produce than they were in 1994. To better manage dollars and details, he suggests that middleware can save game developers 20% to 40% in labor costs.

Forrester analyst Paul Jackson observes that top titles can take up to three years in development and have budgets around $20 to $25 million and may still bomb in retail. "So anything which mitigates risk, reduces turnaround time, and raises quality has to be good," he writes via E-mail.

There is a downside, however. Echoing a constant theme at GDC in recent years, Jackson says, "For developers, using middleware may mean that their game doesn’t look or feel as unique as it could." He pointed to the sameness of games based on the Unreal graphics engine. "And there may be a performance hit."

Booch counters that such arguments were heard when programming shifted from assembly language to higher-level programming languages. "There's no doubt that hand-crafted systems are always going to be superior in performance to what I can do via compiler if, and this is a big if, I'm willing to spend the resources necessary to do that hand crafting," he says. "But when I start reaching a point of scale where I'm talking about hundreds of thousands, if not a few million lines of code potentially, then the ability to even build the software in the first place becomes the primary barrier toward advancement."

Such sprawling development projects are where Arrington sees enterprise IT methods having the most impact.

IBM knows something about that. At the GDC, the longtime standard bearer for enterprise computing said that it had reached agreements with several gaming and animation companies to provide software and services "to help game companies manage their games environment, reduce expenses, increase efficiency and generate more revenue." IBM has been involved with the game industry for about the past five years.

Hoplon Infotainment, based in Brazil, turned to IBM to provide mainframe-based hosting for its upcoming game TaikoDom. It's also using IBM Rational Software Development Platform to better manage the game's development process with workflow management options, automated code testing tools, and asset tracking, to name a few features.

Building a server farm that can scale with demand and handle bursts of gaming traffic, Booch observes, is a challenge not unlike what any systems administrator at a large company might have to face in rolling out a new online marketing effort.

Jackson suggests that middleware has migrated from the business world because the problems faced by online game companies aren't significantly different from general e-commerce concerns like security, real-time transactions, network communication, and database access. "Although many of the able middleware products like physics and graphics engines are unique to games, several others are merely addressing issues similar to business applications," he argues.

That being the case, Jackson sees further opportunity for traditional enterprise players to the gaming industry. "Given compatible hardware and adequate performance -- even a half-second delay in a game can prove fatal -- there is no reason why established middleware providers can't expand into the game development space," he explains. "This is why IBM does so well using its e-commerce platforms for online games."

Last August, The Acacia Research Group issued a report that predicted the game middleware industry would triple from $149 million to around $430 million by 2010. The firm suggests the growth of mobile phones as a gaming platform, along with interactive TV and IPTV, will make middleware more appealing to developers as a means to port their games to different environments.

This is not a trend that has arisen overnight. Arrington recalls hosting session at the 1999 Game Developers Conference at which he suggested the industry would move to off-the-shelf middleware, which drew audible gasps of disbelief. The following year, he notes, there were several games in development that used Criterion's RenderWare middleware. Now, it's commonplace.

While development tools have made it easier to make games, Arrington still believes there's a place for industry visionaries. People like Carmack "give the middleware makers something to shoot for," he says.

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