Articles

A collection of things I’ve written.

Spotlight - 5 Indie Games Developers

5 min read

The phrase ‘indie games’ often refers to games made by small independent developers, who fund the game themselves and release it out into the wild but self-publishing. After all, they’re not bound to a publisher and therefore independent.

I would also like to remind our readers that the vast majority of games you buy are made by indie developers but they rarely get the credit they deserve as their publishers mask their existence in the name of promoting their own brand.

Here’s a list of 5 indie game developers, in no particular order, that you may have missed on your travels around the world through the likes of the XNA Creator community or PC developers in general. It’s hard to discover PS3 indies as they’re often hidden behind closed doors but I try.

ThatGameCompany

Journey

ThatGameCompany are making the transition from a small indie game developer and are in limbo as they only focus on PS3 titles at the moment. This is a hard path to tread but they appear to be staying true to their indie roots and delivering emotion and passion in a small bundle.

The pioneers that brought you the award-winning PlayStation®Network titles flOw & Flower® are back with another title that challenges traditional gaming conventions. With Journey, thatgamecompany (TGC) continues its tradition of delivering simple gameplay and accessible controls in a rich interactive environment that invites players to explore and experience emotional chords that are still uncommon in video games.

An exotic adventure with a more serious tone, Journey presents TGC’s unique vision of an online adventure experience. Awakening in an unknown world, the player walks, glides, and flies through a vast and awe-inspiring landscape, while discovering the history of an ancient, mysterious civilization along the way.

Journey’s innovative approach to online play encourages players to explore this environment with strangers who cross their path from time to time. By traveling together, they can re-shape the experience – creating authentic moments they will remember and discuss with others.

Holographic Dreams

Raptor

I came across these Polish indie guys recently and they really struck a cord with me as they’re showing the core indie traits: passion, commitment and a desire for success. I believe currently have this running as a XNA game (a.k.a. XBox Independent Games), which shows they’re commitment to delivering something beyond a simple browser game. Here’s an early video of a game they’re working on right now, take a look and don’t forget to give them feedback!

Strawdog Studios

Space Ark

Strawdog Studios are an indie game developer that I’ve known for many years, they’re particularly interesting because they have a fantastic art style that runs through all of their games and they have the creativity to come up with something new and exciting. I hold them in high regard and relish an opportunity to work with these talented indie developers.

Here’s their current offering for XBox Live Arcade - Space Ark

What is Space Ark? It’s is a fun arcade/puzzle game with a hint of retro arcade flavour; inspired by classic arcade games of the late 80s, such as Rainbow Island, Bubble Bobble and Arkanoid.

A wandering black hole has damaged a number of planets, rendering them uninhabitable. The occupants of the Space Ark (the Arkonauts – a team of space traveling animals) are coming to repair the damaged worlds so that their refugee inhabitants can return.

Curve Studios

Explodemon

What can I say about the guys at Curve? Jason, Graeme, Jonathan and the guys (apologies if I’ve missed anyone) are all legends in their own time and I’ve had the great fortune to work with them recently.

Along with the other guys on this list, they epitomise what’s great about indie game developers and I’ve regularly referenced them as one of the best developers in the UK because they love games, love making games, are great to be with, always deliver great work and take me out to S&M or the Brazilian Meat Factory when I visit. :) Plus, they owe me a few dinners at PingPong. :P

Here’s a quick look at their latest title Explodemon:

Explodemon! is a 2.5D action platform game with an explosive main character. Mixing classic platforming action - from classics such as Mario and MegaMan - with the refined contemporary gameplay of Halo and Half-Life 2, it brings old-school gameplay bang up to date. Coming from Curve’s deep-seated love of video game culture and history, Explodemon! is wrapped up as a loving homage to SNES-era Japanese action games. Explodemon! will release on PlayStation 3 on the PlayStation Network in 2010.

Shadegrown Games

Planck

I hooked up with these guys on twitter recently and I really liked the potential of what they had on their web-site so I’ll be keeping a close eye on these guys. You should check out their blog as the IGF judges also think they’re great.

Planck is an upcoming music-based experiment which looks to play out in a similar fashion to Audiosurf, but with different core elements. Enemies litter your path, and destroying enough of them unlocks a new instrument for the current song.

The game doesn’t use your own music - rather, it pieces together a specifically-created soundtrack in a Auditorium-esque manner. You can also jump between sections of the track to mix different sounds and change the music how you see fit.

Looks mighty interesting. No release date or platform set as of yet.

Summary

Well, I’ve enjoyed this round up of indie game developers and all of their indie cuteness. I hope you show them some appreciation by dropping by to give them your feedback on their web-sites and ‘official’ youtube, or even in our comments as I’m sure they’ll be reading.

Is there someone you think should be in the spotlight? Let me know in the comments.

Further Reading

ThatGameCompany - http://thatgamecompany.com , twitter @thatgamecompany Holographic Dreams - http://holographicdreams.com , twitter @HoloDreams Strawdog Studios - http://www.strawdogstudios.com Curve Studios - http://curve-studios.com , twitter @curvestudios Shadegrown Games - http://www.shadegrowngames.com, twitter @shadegrowngames

Bonus: One Bit Beyond - Curve Studios Creative Director blog - http://www.onebitbeyond.com Twitter @xnacommunity Twitter #xblig

Comment - Full Analysis of iPhone Economics - it is bad news. And then it gets worse

2 min read

I recently re-tweeted this article and I commented on the post but wanted to bring the discussion here to see what you think.

Full Analysis of iPhone Economics - it is bad news. And then it gets worse

http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2010/06/full-analysis-of-iphone-economics-its-bad-news-and-then-it-gets-worse.html

The piece opens with

I promised to return with the full analysis of the iPhone App Store economics analysis, from every angle, with all data I have managed to find. This blog intends to paint the most accurate picture of the specifically Apple related iPhone App Store market economics - and lessons from here should apply to most other smart phone app stores as well. The one final piece of the puzzle that had been missing, that we desperately needed to ge the full, honest picture, was the Apple official revenue number, which we finally got a few days ago, at $1.43B total revenues generated over 2 years, and thus $1B paid to developer. Now we can do the full analysis. But first a few general comments.

Here’s what I wrote:

It does make for interesting reading and I think there’s a few factors that mean iPad will improve the changes of indie games and major publishers alike. iPad enables the game authors to have 2 target platforms now, which must broaden their reach and increase sales, maybe not now but in the longer term this should improve as both platforms increase in volume.

I really hope for game developers sake that the prices don’t drop too far as people race to the bottom and try to compete on price as it’s a one-way trip and dangerous long-term game. Sadly, since the barrier to development is so low we’re competing against cheap bedroom developers across the globe so this is always going to be a problem.

Market saturation is also a problem on iPhone, every new game/app is a drop in a massive ocean and it’s very difficult to gain awareness to get you promoted to peoples app store lists. It takes a concerted effort to make it out of the pool and I know that there’s a lot of great games that just get missed. After all, there’s a finite number of people buying games and a seemingly infinite choice of games.

So, I think iPad is a great opportunity for devs to make a bit more margin but it’s not going to last long. As always, the gold rush will soon run out of gold.

Devs need to think of new ways to make money, 59p isn’t too far off ‘free’ so it needs some thinking on how you’re going to make the leap. Godfinger is a good example (which is pretty much Mafia Wars biz model).

I think we can draw parallels with the GB->GBA->DS->DSi->3DS progression too, although the barrier to development is significantly higher than on iPhone.

All in all, new platforms increase our audience, which should increase sales & revenue for little increase in dev costs.

What do you think?

What’s your point of difference?

2 min read

Bear with me on this one…I’m currently sat watching a TV programme in the UK called ‘Mary Queen Of Shops’, which is of particular interest because they’re focusing on a business I know near my house.

The programme features Mary, who goes into a failing local business and revamp it into something much more successful.

Why am I writing about it? What on earth has it got to do with video game development? I felt compelled to write something while the programme is still on air

I can’t help but draw similes from this program when comparing small indie games (local shops) and AAA budget games (supermarkets). The message here is that it’s absolutely pointless for the indies to try to be the big guys, you’ll never win them at a game that they control. You don’t have the budgets and backing they do but it doesn’t mean you can’t be awesome.

Find Your Niche

What you have to do is find a niche, specialise, bring game players something truly unique and special that whole teams of marketeers, producers, legal, financial people and a whole myriad of other people won’t get behind because it’s not something they understand or doesn’t fit on an existing shelf.

I love games like Godfinger and God Of War, I actually have more time for the former but I enjoy the spectacle of the latter.

Indies - forget trying to emulate the big guys. Make something you’re passionate about as that always shows through in a game.

Don’t Be Blinkered

Do you have a narrow-minded view of how your game works? Can you open your eyes to criticism? Are you actually any good (I wrote about this recently)?

As I sit and watch these people on TV ignore the obvious truth and I can only think about game developers I’ve met who are adamant that their game is awesome despite everyone telling them different. There’s only 1 side that’s losing out here.

Have an X Statement

Interestingly, the programme has just show the tag line, by line, x statement for the business. It’s a short statement that really encapsulates what you’re doing with your game, your business or even if it’s what you as a person want to achieve.

Summary

I started watching this series of programmes with local interest and I honestly think there’s something we can all learn for game development by watching the pain someone else goes through on our behalf.

The trick is to think about what’s being said if applying it to your own world of game development.

As Mary would say - “What’s your point of difference?”

I would say, that we don’t need to end up naked covered in veg to be successful. :)

Further Reading

Blog Post - Are You Unique? Blog Post - Weakest Link – Be A Better Game Developer

jQuery heatmap

A jQuery heatmap – Link.

jQuery Formlabels plugin – Link.

In search of the one true layout – CSS based layouts – Link.

EJS TreeGrid is a DHTML component written in pure JavaScript to display and edit data in table, grid, tree view, tree grid or Gantt chart on HTML page – Link. Also see this MaxTreeGrid.

Generalist or Specialist game developer?

Whilst researching teams, I recently came across 2 similar concepts that describe the skills of people working in your beloved game development industry - “T-Shaped” people and “Generalising Specialist”.

I wanted to know more about them and how these types relate to my experience of people and if the idea gives me something for me to learn.

The shape of the letter is a nice way to visualise someones skill with the horizontal stroke ‘——– ‘ referring to the breadth of someones skills and the vertical ‘|’ referring to how skilled they are in that particular skill.

Therefore, “T-Shaped” people have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the ‘T’, they’re multi-player level designers, script writes, AI programmers or shader artist. However, they have a broad understanding of how things fit together and can branch out into other skills when required although this may not be their strongest area. They can also see  things from multiple perspectives and be inspired and diverse.

Generalising Specialist” is a term given to someone who has a broad set of skills that peak in one particular area *but* they can slide between similar roles when required. E.g., a level designer who can also script, a gameplay programmer who can also prepare UIs, an animator who can also sculpt.

I-Shaped’ people are highly skilled in a particular area, more so than is seen in people with broader skills, but they pay for this depth of knowledge with a much narrower skillset. This narrow, but deep, set of skills may not be required for a whole project and this may be where you consider outsourcing, freelancers or contract workers to hit the sweet spot without taking the hit of them having nothing to do outside of that one task.

When building a team it’s important to include various types of people in order to succeed. Generally smaller teams start out with all T-shapes and as the team grows and more specialists are needed then the ‘I-Shaped’ people start to appear to when the team and the game start to require more specialist knowledge.

What type of person are you? I think I’m ‘T’ shaped. :)

Further Reading

Javascript Treegrid Control


title: Javascript TreeGrid control date: 2010-06-20 14:39:24

type: post

JavaScript TreeGrid control aimed to organize and edit information in grid, tree, or treegrid modes.-Link.

10 things every good web developer should know – Link.

Web Design and development process chart – Link.

Web Design criticism – a how to – guidelines for constructive web design criticism from Smashing Mag – Link.

How to hire a great graphic designer – Business Insider War Room – Link.

jbgallery is a UI widget webpage written in javascript on top of the jQuery library. Its function is to show a single big image, multiple images, multiple galleries, slideshows, as a site’s background, in a “dialog” mode or as a common pop-up. – Link.

30 web based applications useful for web designers – Link.

A web designer needs a good method for delivering designs. Instead of using email attachments, PPTs and PDFs here is a fresh new way – Link.

jQuery news ticker – liScroll – liScroll is a jQuery plugin that transforms any given unordered list into a scrolling News Ticker Link.

Be a CSS Team Player: CSS Best Practices for Team-Based Development

By Emily P. Lewis. “How many times have you picked up a project that someone else started, only to discover that the creator’s original code is a mess?

Or you work with several team members, each of whom has their own way writing code? Or you revisit a project you created years ago, and you don’t remember what you were thinking?…”

http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/scriptjunkie/ff679957.aspx

Forrst: Microblogging for web designers and developers – share pieces of code, design ideas, prototypes and engage in feedback with the web design community – Link.

What Really Defines A Social Game?

8 min read

Social Games are a bit like a ball, they’re inert when they’re in the garage and not much fun on when your on your own*. The more people there are the better the ball does it’s job and the more people have fun. Then you’re at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010! It’s ultimately not about the ball but none of that fun would happen without it.

Sound familiar? This is your game so lets explore what really defines a social experience.

*unless you’re John Farnworth.

What I’ve learned

This is a question I often wonder about as I’ve been working with truly social games from a number of years now and it really takes some consideration to make sure you’re hitting a few fundamental points to be successful. Here’s what I think makes for a successful social game.

I’ve learned a lot these last few years whilst homing in one what makes a successful social game, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to meet with a wide variety of people who have all contributed to my world view. I know believe this is one of the contributing factors to way women now play more games as they are inherently more social than men and place a lot more value on those interactions. All of which have been missing until recently.

So, I’ve been for quite a few job interviews recently and I’ve been asked “What do you think makes a social game?”

Pillars of Social Games

I believe there are a few basic pillar measurements you can use to gauge where your game sits on the “social game” slider from, solo offline experience, to massively multi-player realtime action game.

Fundamentally, social games connect people with each other and enabled people to have an entertaining shared experience. These strengthen bonds and enable people to build relationshops.

There are 3 high level examples of social gameplay: 1) Solo Offline - I play in my own world, disconnected and nothing is shared - Red Dead Redemption 2) Realtime multi-player - We share a world, doing the same thing as each other - Call Of Duty 3) Async multi-player - We play the same game separately but our games are inter-twined - FarmVille

Two other principals that are compatible with all of the above: a) Competitive - we compete against each other, one of us is better than the other b) Co-operative - we share the same goal and share in the rewards along the way

As game developers, we’ve known about this for many years and it’s moving forwards well as we explore more ways of enabling people to play together. Most of which has been made possible with the advent of connected games consoles and fast broadband.

As with all game design, it’s not easy to get this right and getting that special something is hard work.

In order to do this, we need to explicitly connect and share but also implicitly have common ground.

Connection

This connection is more than just the physical connection between two consoles, PCs or phones. This is about the players, who need to be able to find each other and stick together. Thankfully most of this is taken care of with modern game systems such as Live, PSN and Steam but we’ve yet to see this happen on Apple’s iPhone and iPad. They’ll get there one day but they do have a tendency to take their time on anything other than beautiful industrial design (British Creativity!).

A key aspect of a social game is our constant re-connection with the game and each other. In part, it comes via the discussions we have about the game, the forums we patrol, the Facebook pages we trawl.

Clever designers incorporate a ‘call to action’ outside of the game to bring people back in and raise awareness of a game on their shelf, these can be friends gaining trophies and you just have to have them, new DLC packs (even free as they pay for themselves in other ways) that extend your  time enjoying the game. I would say the best example of these ‘calls to action’ are game items that expire, gifts or help requests.

Expiring items give you an impetus to come back to play the game to complete a delayed action or re-instate something before a timer expires. Good examples would be:

![](/assets/Animal-Crossing-Dog.jpg "Animal-Crossing-Dog")**Animal Crossing** - vendors at specific times of day or even day of month, seasons, fishing at night and fruit that goes bad. Special events on religious festivals.
![](/assets/hustle_kings_ps3.jpg "hustle_kings_ps3") **** **Hustle Kings** - a viral trophy that you can only get by playing against someone who already has it.
![](/assets/farmville1.jpg "farmville")**FarmVille** - crops that need tending in X hours or they perish, limited time offers for 'free' sheep that you must have, receiving a gift that I have to place in the world before it expires, your friends have fertilised your crops for you and got rid of pests.

Shared Experience

Whoah! This alone is a massive topic! Right, lets get stuck in with a big list of things we can share on a system such as Steam, XBox Live, Facebook, PlayStation Network. Each element binds us together and increases our enjoyment

  1. We can see each other as avatars
  2. We can see each others achievements
  3. We have common friends and unique friends
  4. We share games we’ve played
  5. We can challenge each other
  6. We can brag about our success
  7. We can sit next to each other and play
  8. We can talk to each other
  9. We can collaborate on making new worlds
  10. We can join together as a team against others
  11. We can invite each other into games
  12. We can explore virtual worlds together
  13. We can lead others as a group
  14. We can give each other gifts
  15. We can step in and take over when the other isn’t around
  16. We can meet new people through new interactions
  17. We can ask for help
  18. We can grief  people if they’re hurting our experience

Pretty much none of these things we’re around a few years ago and this list is evolving all the time as the weak elements are dropped, the strong ones survive and new things are tried.

Playing a game co-operatively on a 3D enabled TV is something to be amazed at. Clever people use the technology to only show the screen to 1 person at a time so we can both see a nice big picture but not have a clue what the other is doing!

Common Ground

The smart teams have understood this last point for quite a while and it’s something that no piece of tech can give you and it has multiple facets.

Skill

As people playing your game, we need to be able to have fair common ground to play on. The old fashioned ways are thankfully long gone such as the fact that it’s no fun dropping into a veteran multi-player match when I’ve only just taken the shrink wrap off the box. I’ll die and I’ll get frustrated and I’ll probably never play; but why should you care? You’ve got my money now but I’ll not buy anything you make. :P

The original Halo for XBox was the first game I experienced that made this work and I later went to one of their presentations at GD Conf where they explained about their skill matching systems. I believe this later went on to form the backbone of the likes of the TrueSkill system  on X360.

Ensuring people have compatible skills isn’t something that’s restricted to hard-core games were lightning fast reactions and dexterity are paramount to your success. You’ll need to understand tactics and about working in a team too.

Knowledge

This is a particular point that I focused a lot on when thinking about true social games. We need common knowledge too. In a similar point to above, even if I’m incredibly dexterous (which I’m not) there’s little point us competing if I don’t know where the weapon upgrades are, or how to play this new game round, the secret short-cut behind the town hall or to KEEP OUT OF THE FIRE in a boss fight (Yes, I’ve played WoW too).

Social games rely on less game specific knowledge and really enable people to use simple things that everyone knows about to interact and connect. We won’t have much of a good experience if there’s a massive gap between the people we’re playing with (not against) and it rapidly becomes a challenge, that we may not enjoy. We can all understand that plants need sunlight to grow, we know that a sheep will walk off if it’s not penned in, we know that an elephant is grey. We will get a whole different experience if we have to sing an obscure song from 1976, or know the population of Jakarta or know that you need 10,000 units of XP to be able to level up your mount.

It takes a great designer to spot these things and provide elegant design solutions to get around these gameplay problems but when it works, it’s a whole lot better for it and then we expect it as the norm.

Social Game = Inclusive Catalyst For Shared Fun {style=”text-align: center;”}

So there it is, a strapline, a byline, an X-Statement for a good social game. It should enable everyone to play by providing us with a common playing field that we all understand,  it should share our experience and enable us to share in the experience of others and of course have fun whilst doing it; and that may be away from the game when we’re talking about it online, down the pub, in the school playground or sharing time with our families.

Further Reading

Nudge Social Media - a top social media agency based in London. Toby is a stellar guy and knows his SM inside out. Game Design Framework for Social Networks - an interesting article on the fundamentals of social game design

Gratuitous footage of John ;)

How To Get The Most From Social Game Reviews

5 min read

In the second part of the series on Leveraging Social Media To Maximise Your Game Sales, I’ll expand on the previous article and cover the topic of useful easily getting Real Feedback, which already exists and you don’t need to do anything to make it happen!

This article started out with the intent of covering quite a lot of aspects but one particular point expanded out and warranted it’s own article in the series…scraping Amazon. The rest will have to wait for another article, read on…

Pro Reviews - a tiny voice

In recent years, review scores on metacritic have really driven game development as we chase a high score through compelling game design, amazing visuals and killer content. It’s quite common to find incentives for the team or business attached to reaching a certain metacritic score

Here’s an example from a game I worked on, notice the 107 reviews taken into account.

Does paying someone affect their opinion?

It’s worth remembering that these reviews are largely written by paid professional journalists who get the games for free and have people begging them for good scores. Launch parties, previews, gifts and other tricks can all influence the game. In the early days, I can remember having a reviewer come around within 1 week of us starting a game when there was no game to play. Our artist mocked up some screenshots of the game on the spot and the ‘reviewer’ disappeared with his floppy disk.

In the next months magazine we got a rave 3-page review for our game and a 90% rating (for 3 screenshots)! The review was entirely fictional and it’s coloured my opinion on reviews ever since.

Why did this happen? Well, review scores used to be influenced by how much advertising the publisher paid for in that particular magazine. The more ads, the better the reviews, the more the sales, the more ads……and around it went.

Hopefully this no longer happens but the most valuable feedback you can gain as a developer isn’t from reviewers, it’s from the people who want your game.

But, there’s a bigger, more important voice to listen to who may tell a different storey, noticed the 1,112 votes taken into account, over 10 times the amount of pro views:

Scraping Amazon - the BIG VOICE

Amazon is your friend if you want to discover what the world thinks about any product, people hopefully buy your game there and it’s not short of people wanting to share their views on how good and bad your game is. These are usually people who have paid money for your game and have a vested interested in it’s success, they want your game to be good because they handed over hard earned cash for you to entertain them and you’d better do it! This is a key difference between looking on Amazon and reading comments elsewhere, there aren’t many other places where people who bought it, review it.

#### Bonus: Cultural Game Expectations

It’s really hard to get a true feeling from pro reviews as they’re all so hard to find and come in different formats and they don’t allow you to discover regional variations either, e.g., what did the Spanish people think, what did the Polish people think, did the Germans love it?

Thankfully, Amazon is pretty much the same the world over and it’s common 5-star rating system is easy to discover and understand even if you can’t read the language.

Below are some examples for Heavy Rain (PS3), which I worked on recently and I chose it as an example as it is an easier title to understand because it’s single platform and came with some anticipated cultural issues depending on where it was released.

As you can see, we favoured very well and got excellent review scores and you can see subtle variations in the general acceptance by territory. I probably picked a subtle example but the principal is there. :)

France

Germany

United States

Japan

United Kingdom

You also get indirect feedback from people who don’t write comments as they will often click a button just to say if they like a review or not, where in most cases that review reflects their own opinion. Again, this is something unique to Amazon as the other review sites don’t allow you to promote someone else’s opinion if you don’t have the time to write your own.

These ‘promoted reviews’ are the ones to listen to and you should consider these as amplifiers of opinion. You may even want to contact with these rare reviewers for some inside information and work with the closely, at least you’ll have the opportunity to amplify your gain their connection with the audience as a trusted reviewer.

iTunes Feedback

I wanted this article to stay focused on Amazon / Metacritic for now but I thought it worth dropping a note in about iTunes as I think we all recognise that the built in 5 star ratings system is welcome and enables people to at least give some feedback.

However, the vast majority of iPad / iPhone users interact on the phone itself and here’s where it’s painfully limited, I can only give it 1 to 5 stars overall. No support for arbitrary text feedback, no support for giving some detail “Game play was great, graphics were bad”, “Graphics were great, gameplay was bad”, “Level 15 is lovely, Level 20 is just killer”.

On the iPad / iPhone it also has an inherent flaw in when people are encouraged to give feedback. An example:

  1. I buy the game on my iPhone (no ratings system)
  2. I play the game on my iPhone
  3. I’ve finished with it / bored of it / need the space, so I remove it.
  4. I’m prompted to rate the app/game out of 5

There’s the rub, I’m at the point where my relationship with the game has ended and I’m moving on and that’s the only time I get to give feedback. I can only guess that this affects some of the ratings.

I guess the flip-side is that if you’re still willing to give the game 5* at this point, then it must be good!

Summary

Right, back to the point. In the last few years game developers have been given direct access to our audience, to listen to them, react to them and share our feelings about the creative work we put into our games.

The bright, exciting people will take this up this and make a difference with this new opportunity to make more rewarding experiences and better games for everyone.

I’m always looking to learn new ways and opinions so fire away! Don’t be shy to drop in a comment. :)

Further Reading

Minimum Viable Product - an approach to the development loop of publish, listen, act - repeat

Why has multiformat games development become so problematic?

12 min read

With release dates slipping as titles need ‘further development time’ and louder groans from coders regarding the trials of contemporary CPUs, we look at how the increasingly contradictory nature of development – with studios asked to make one game for a variety of different machines – has impacted the industry…

…are the opening lines from an this old video game production article I contributed to a few years for Develop Mag about video game production issues.

“Mike Cook” is actually Game Production Legend “Mike Cox” as the author got his name wrong. :)

Read the full article below, including me waffling on about multi-platform video game development.

Posted: Thursday, 3rd January 2008 at 9:38 am

With release dates slipping as titles need ‘further development time’ and louder groans from coders regarding the trials of contemporary CPUs, we look at how the increasingly contradictory nature of development – with studios asked to make one game for a variety of different machines – has impacted the industry…

Looking at the current state of the game market, it’s clear that the development sector is having a serious problem with multiplatform development.

Staggered releases have become more common: it’s not unusual to see a PS3 version of a title ship a week or two after its 360 counterpart. But it can be even more severe than that – some titles are appearing on some formats months after they’ve appeared on another, with slippage as developers continually shift attentions between platforms impacting production schedules.

In addition, more and more developers are starting to speak out on the difficulties of being multiplatform developers in this latest generation – usually at the same time as they boast the large amount of work they’ve done on their own internal development frameworks to alleviate the situation.

There’s even a feeling amongst some in the industry that simultaneous multiplatform development isn’t possible with a single team any more.

CHANGING SCOPE

Going back to basics for a moment, development for multiple platforms has traditionally always been done because it spreads the cost and resulting risk of games development across the biggest audience. With games now costing more to create, it would seem that this would be needed more now than ever before. Similarly, though, with the large disparity between widely popular platforms such as the 360 and Wii, going cross-platform means more work, more ideas to exploit platform-specific quirks and similarly more money. But is it getting to a point where the benefit gained from going cross-platform is actually being outweighed by the cost – and is being a multiplatform developer really as hard as some say?

At first glance, it is clear that the very definition of ‘multiplatform’ is muddier than it ever was. While it could have previously been easily defined as the development of a similar-looking title on all of the ‘big three’s’ platforms, Nintendo’s decision to veer from the road of horsepower advancement and produce a largely last-generation specced machine has changed the playing field.

Similarly, with the PlayStation 2 enjoying a long tail in sales that none of its contemporaries managed, there’s much to be said for developing on last-generation machines. And let’s not forget the two wildly different handhelds while we’re at it, and the player interface differences that the Wii and DS bring to the table. Suddenly, ‘multiformat’ encompasses a set of vastly different standards of dizzying complexity. Or, as Eidos’ chief technology officer Julien Merceron thinks of it, possibilities.

“Actually, all these platforms are quite exiting to support,” he says. “You can generalise most games into two cases. The first case is that you’re making a ‘hardcore’ game, in which case the chances are you might only target PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, and that’s not hugely difficult.

“The other case is that, if you’re making a mainstream game, you’d ideally like to support the Wii as well. In that situation, developing for the Wii in addition to the other formats isn’t the easiest thing in the world – especially when each version needs to be cutting edge on their respective platform.”

One way of reducing the complexity of the latter case, says Merceron, is to actually open up to even more platforms. That way, “you could potentially develop three sets of titles: one for PC/PS3/360, one for Wii/PS2/PSP and one for DS and mobile,” he says.

CAUGHT IN THE NET

When taking a birds-eye view of the different ‘this generation’ consoles, it’s tempting to generalise the differences based solely on

performance: the Wii is weak, the PS3 is strong but the Cell poses architectural difficulties, and the Xbox 360 is powerful and less of an alien layout. But to do so would miss some of the other large issues, especially one such as online gameplay.

Kuju Sheffield rebranded itself as Chemistry earlier this year, and with it decided on Unreal Engine 3 exclusivity. And while that’s certainly insulated the team from some of the pain of multiplatform development – “We’ve got Epic worrying about the technology, so we can be worrying about other things,” says managing director Mike Cook – as studio manager Simeon Pashley explains, there are still significant issues to be worked around.

“The very big issue, we feel, is networking. There’s no commonality on any of the platforms, even to the end-user, on what the experience is like,” he says. “There are very obvious differences between Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and GameSpy or whatever other PC service you use.”

As such, part of the network implementation focuses on just getting the same core experience right across all of the platforms, and working to create uniformity in the face of vastly different attitudes in the structures of the various networks. And that’s before differentiating to take advantage of some of the other functionality provided by, say, Xbox Live. It’s a another major point that has impacted the bottom line for next-gen game production.

Cook is keen to add that it’s not just the developers that underestimate the cost per platform of implementing network play – the publishers are just as guilty of overlooking the complexity involved. “It’s a massive cost, and it will trip people up,” he says. “It’s not an easy thing to do by any means.”

But isn’t it a problem alleviated by the studio’s use of Unreal Engine 3, though? “Sure, making maps is fine – that does come free with Unreal, so to speak. But things like lobbies, the matchmaking, the leader boards – it’s a big job. The reality of using UE3 is that you’re still developing for multiple platforms, and you have to play to those platforms’ strengths and weaknesses.”

REAL PROBLEMS

Interestingly, Unreal Engine 3 has in some ways become the poster child for both the ups and downs of multiplatform development. Which is understandable, given that it’s often seen as a flexible, catch-all engine and has been epitomised by creator Epic’s own Gears of War but also questioned by a lawsuit from licensee Silicon Knights. And then there’s the chatter that, despite UE3’s performance on Xbox 360, its PS3 showing struggled. At E3, Sony even pledged to work with Epic to get the engine working on PS3 with all guns blazing. Six months on, and how is the engine faring?

“Epic have done a lot of work on PS3 version of Unreal,” explains Cook. “The engine was obviously PC and Xbox-lead, by a long way, but I think the effort both internally and with Sony has got the PS3 version of Unreal up to where it should be. It certainly looks the part.”

Naturally, Mark Rein is confident about Unreal Tournament 3’s PC-equivalent performance on PS3, but admits that it has taken the production of one of Epic’s own games to get UE3 to ship quality. “Like we did last year with Gears of War on the 360, we’re kind of reaching version 1.0 of the technology for PlayStation 3. It’s really exciting – it feels like we’ve reached a big milestone and hurdled way over it.”

Epic’s troubles are pertinent because more and more studios are turning to existing technology such as Unreal Engine 3 to facilitate development for multiple platforms. The alternative – building equal-footed technology for several different architectures and performance envelopes – is a job too large for many small- to medium-sized developers. Merceron points out several reasons for why building a bespoke multiplatform engine is more difficult in this generation than it might have been in the past.

“These days, experts are rare – losing one key person in your team can make things tough, to a greater extent than before. Not only that, but the scope of today’s games is bigger: even console games are moving deeply into the online and social community spaces, an area where multiplatform needs to be applicable as well,” he adds.

But it’s not just building for the now that’s important – despite only a year having passed since two of the current-gen platforms launched, Merceron believes that cross-generation development will be a big force in the future. “Developers that are already trying to architect so that the core technologies can migrate to PS4, Wii 2 and Xbox 720,” he says. “It’s a very interesting trend, as it can really have a very positive impact for the company in about three years from now.” (And, as we reveal on page 6, this is a future Eidos itself is investing in.)

OPENING THE FLOODGATE

So, what should those embarking on contemporary multiplatform development be careful of? Amongst the people we spoke to, advice on making sure you have a solid architecture featured strongly.

“It’s correct that there’s a lot of bespoke or tailored code, especially in the hardware intensive processes like graphics or audio, but it’s definitely the case that when it comes to aspects like multithreading we’ve got an awful lot of common code,” says Alex McLean, technical director at Pivotal, which itself has spent the past year building its own unified development base for 360, PS3 and PC. As such, it’s important to make sure you have a solid underlying structure that’s applicable across all of the platforms, so that platform-specific features can be abstracted out on top.

It’s a point that Merceron agrees with: “Whatever your approach, anyone can trip up on architectural aspects. Architecture work is now extremely important so that you ensure the implementation will be robust and manageable. A poor low level architecture will generate a lot of multiplatform issues when designing the high level features.”

Part of the problem that developers have had adopting to the high-end machines of late has been that of concurrency, the true power only obtainable when all of the cores or SPUs are working efficiently. As such, splitting big processes into smaller tasks and building a super-scheduler to manage them is a major priority for developers starting out.

“The SPUs are incredibly hard to program and optimise for,” empathises Valery Carpentier, Emergent’s EMEA field application engineer. “You have to write data to special parts of memory or it’ll crash, you have to transfer memory yourself – it’s a big nightmare.”

It’s a problem that Emergent saw coming early – not just that of programming for the PS3’s unbalanced concurrent architecture, but developers having to plan how their game will work on anywhere from one processor to six. As a reaction, it developed Floodgate, a new but integral part of its Gamebryo engine aimed at helping game studios get the most performance out of parallel systems. Although it could be (somewhat unfairly) described as a scheduler, Floodgate is in actuality a system that manages processes running on different cores, keeping them thread-safe and their memory managed effectively – and scales from the six core PS3 through the Xbox 360 and even the Wii.

“When you’ve written the task program, you can tell Floodgate to run it on one SPU, two SPUs or even all five. It’s as simple as that – you just say ‘run this task on this many SPUs’ and it will.”

These ‘Floodgate programs’ can be written in pure C++ to ensure cross-platform compatibility and then later rewritten in chip-specific assembler during the optimisation stage. The benefit of Floodgate, says Carpentier, is that it allows people to get code running on multiple processors quickly – and that time saving, which Emergent says can amount to around 12 man-months, can be better spent optimising, swapping tasks between cores or altering how many cores are working on the task.

Issues with getting code running correctly on multiple platforms are cause to most of the grumbles we hear today, but what about actual assets? Are there significant performance differences between the high-end consoles, or are they similar enough to this gen’s stumbling block one of code?

“If you build assets, they are sharable across multiple platforms, so that’s where you win. Assets that you build are usable on multiple platforms. So long as you don’t do something like 360 and DS, the platforms aren’t that different – you can genuinely share assets between them all,” says Chemistry’s Pashley. “It’s when you get down to the technical sides of things – the things players shouldn’t care about – that’s where there’s differences that need to be addressed.”

BUILDING THE FUTURE

Ultimately, however, even if there are performance differences, most developers are used to having scalable pipelines – it’s not as if console specs have ever been identical. So in many respect it’s possible that growing pains today are aiding future developments. Certainly there’s historical precendent. Could it be the case that those developers with PC experience are better prepared, having dealt with flexible specs for a while now? When asking Mark Rein if he’s ever thought that having a PC background has helped Epic Games with working on different architectures, his surprise is palpable. “No-one’s ever mentioned that as a positive before – people used to see us as a PC company trying to make a go on consoles, and that’s always been a hard selling point for our technology,” he says.

“But yeah, we’ve been dealing with different system specs, different performance envelopes, different CPUs and GPUs for years, so it probably does make us better equipped – especially as these new systems, the 360 and PS3, are very similar in nature to high-end PCs in terms of some of the parts that they’re using. So it’s important to remember that we had this problem already on PC in a much larger way than we did on the consoles.”

And so, as dual- and quad-core chips continue their onslaught into even entry-level PCs, there will come a time when a single-core chip is an anachronism and working in parallel is just the standard. The transition has been – and still is – a difficult one, for sure. But it’s one that will gradually be overcome, leaving developers in a better place to squeeze every last drop of performance out of whatever architectures the future may build.

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Weekend Reading - 12/Jun/2010

As the editor of @GameLinchpin I love to hear from you and share the brilliant things I find from other game development linchpins I discover.

I’ve recently updated the site book shelf with books I recently discovered from an amazing computer graphic artist Simeon used to work with, Antony Ward.

His work appears has appeared in many games over the years and always looks amazing. His books are in the Authors I Know section and well worth a read if you’re into discovering how to start and improve your high-end character art. I’m not an artist myself but I think that Antony’s work clearly shows that he really knows what he’s doing and produces some amazing art.

You can view more of Antony’s computer graphic work via his online blog & portfolio http://www.ant-online.co.uk/

Or contact him via twitter @ant_ward or his tips section @3dtwips

I also look forward to learning from you too via comments, feedback and having your articles appear here.