One World One Tech: Heresy Edition
I haven’t had a chance to write in a while because I’ve been traveling for my day job. By the time I get back to my room or on the plane I have absolutely no interest in blog building. So the following rambling dialogue has been rolling around my head without an outlet. It came out quickly and as my fingers channeled the semi coherent thoughts to the keyboard, they provided a gossamer thin filter of relevance and form when perhaps a steel sieve would be more appropriate. Please excuse the energy burst.
A common thread certainly emerged from the publishers. Games cost a lot, and they take a really long time now. Sure assets are expensive, but one of the biggest costs today is technology, and everyone is building it.
Recently, a bunch of game industry luminaries kicked the idea of a one console future. They said it was too hard to manufacture for of a lot of different platforms. Their right, it is hard, but their conclusion is stupid. Trip Hawkins knew this when he allowed Joe Montana Football to built on Madden tech. He needed a competitor in the market. The competition among the consoles not only gives us hardware advances on a regular basis, but it amortizes the expense of market growth across multiple companies. Growth fueled by in store promotion, price cuts to consumers, marketing dollars to publishers and other promotions. Do you see a lot of innovation coming out of your phone company? Why would we want to relegate the console to the status of appliance? Let’s take a step back and look at the enabling technology, not the hardware. Let the consoles compete at the hardware level, like television do, but let’s get enough people behind the technology to force them to modify their consoles to meet our needs.
Every publisher incurs redundant costs. When I try to explain the game development process to every Hollywood executive who wants to know whey games are so expensive, I start by asking "what if we started every film production with a discussion of how we are going to build the camera?" It seems kind of silly but it is what we do in games. Sure there is middleware and Mark Rein is going to chime in and tell me Unreal can build every game while it cures cancer and cures the subprime problems, but whether we are talking about Unreal, Gamebryo, Tech 5 or EA's announcement today of potential licensing of the Spore engine, it isn't really middleware. At best, it should be called quarterware and quite possibly tenthware, at a time when the industry needs something it can call Panavision. Even publishers who license middleware are building the same accessions as others already built and are encountering the same issues encountered by other publishers. Is it better to spend twice as much money to get half the solution you would have if you worked together?
The consumer is ahead of us on this one. They are looking for fun over feature set. Not games to make you cry hyperbole, just fun. Until very recently, game marketing, and green light decisions were technology driven. We would write the number of animations per character were on the box right next to the number of weapons. Until recently, there were great distinctions between games in these areas. Today, everyone builds out the same basic technology feature set, they just attack it from different directions. Sure some are prettier than others, and some work better than others, but is all there. Kind of like Howard the Duck and Star Wars, same team, same tech, but one worked a bit better than the other. Consumers don’t really care about tech, they care about what you, as a creator/publisher do with it. They consume entertainment based on entertainment. I’ve been watching the promotion for the return of Heroes, and not a single ad mentions the number of new weapons, powers or explosions. The writers put a new story in the same environment and the same tech they already built. Ed Del Castillo of Liquid Entertainment believes the tidal change in games occurred with Bioshock, Assassins Creed and Mass Effect. These games were reviewed and promoted based on story and experience, not feature set. Just like Howard the Duck or Meet Dave, technology alone will not sell a game.
Consumer expectations have led us to commoditize the feature set, but not the enabling technology. Game developers and publishers still build to the same feature set from a bunch of different directions. Not only is it adding tremendous time and expense to products, but the products released are waffle products. A little over baked in some areas and under cooked in others. In looking at Mercenaries 2 reviews, I see the inevitable comparisons to GTA. Even though the critics seem to like GTA better, they still say there are some things Mercenaries did better, and others GTA did better. The distinctions are based on technology. Both games were late because of technology, and both compromised based on time and expense. I would guess both encountered similar issues. What would happen if the leading developers and publishers joined in building a true middleware standard for the industry?
I know, I know. First reaction is “technology is proprietary, we are not going to share.” But think about it. No matter how bitchin’ your technology is, haven’t you ever looked at another publisher’s tech and thought about how it would improve your game? What if we are able to slice off a material portion of the tech development time and expense because it was amortized across the business? What if you could spend your time building assets and fun rather than tech? Do you really like engineers anyway? I’m kind of kidding on the last one. Sure, we are not going to get all the way there, but in an open source world we would get a lot closer than we are today. Your engine is pretty cool and useful when only you are supporting it, but how cool would it be if the whole community supported it. We already see the difference in trajectory between Criterion who did not release source and Epic who did. And accessibility to technology alone does not a great game developer make. Take a look at the film industry. Uwe Boll has access to the same tech as Steven Spielberg, has it helped him? With the creative power available today, technology is moving from the forefront of product differentiation and becoming a set of tools.
The next argument is going to be the console manufacturers. You are going to tell me they won’t support industry efforts. This comes from the knowledge of how we got here. The consoles purposely make it difficult to port. Graphic pipelines, memory management, it’s all different. They want you to make a decision early on to make the product better for one than the other. This is a game they can play with a disparate publishing community. So long as we don’t work together, they can play us off each other. Their tactics change when they see a hardware mover. Especially when the other guy embraces it. GTA, Microsoft paid to get it. Unreal, both invested in making the thing work because a lot of games were being built on it. The Industry Engine, if enough publishers are behind it, they will support it, and compete for the better integration.
We would also gain a valuable human resource benefit. The talent pool is very shallow. Schools are starting to put programs in place for game jobs, but most graduates are in a better position to learn a new position than contribute to the company. Once they learn the systems and tools of their first benefactor, they are very well suited to work at that company. Other companies use different tools and tech, and if they leave, there is a pretty steep learning curve. When I moved between law firms, policies were different, but the job was the same. Move between studios in Hollywood, same thing. You are going to tell me games are different, but they are no very different from the special effects industry. The industry is transitory, and talent moves across companies on permanent and temporary basis all the time. The tools and tech are fixed and shared the talent is not. When ILM has a big job, they call down to WETA, and borrow some people. Can you imagine Actard calling Ubisoft? “Hey we need more World War II stuff, can you send some of those Brothers in Arms guys?” Can you imagine hiring a guy, other than a concept artist, who can walk in, sit down, and contribute from day one?
This is all kind of a pipe dream. It requires a fundamental shift in so many of the practices we love. But there are baby steps to be taken. Maybe it is a new company, maybe it is Mosaic-like foundation, but something can start to organize, codify and document engines currently in use and accessions being built to today’s middleware. The only cost of access would be contribution. When you say you want to hold on closely to your cool bit of AI, re read the part of this post about the benefits of sharing. Linux and Mosaic both grew from sharing, and both created profitable companies on the periphery. As of today Red Hat is worth 3.6 billion dollars.
The only question is "Who's in?"