Global Game Industry News Blog

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Escapist: Schizophrenic on Game Development

I'm constantly wondering why The Escapist pretends to be more targeted at gamers and "not into the development side of things." Then they go and do something like this. My overall opinion at this point is that their recent web-redesign (which I was sad to see go, but understand why it did so) has also thrown them into a tumult to reach new audiences.

Regardless the recent piece is mostly about game development with an excellent piece about XNA, and Erin Hoffman weighs in on Scrum/Agile and another piece on using middleware... which I guess fits into an Agile model, but the title doesn't really help because you think you're going to read about Agile, but instead you're just reading about something else.

The Escapist - The DNA of XNA
In the world of science, DNA is a recent discovery. In the world of game development, XNA is even newer. Simply put, XNA is an easy-to-use software suite. It lets you make games for both the PC and Xbox 360. First announced as an initiative at the Game Developers Conference in 2004, the project was led by J Allard. By the end of 2005, the proof of concept was up and running. At the 2006 GDC, Microsoft released the completed XNA framework.

XNA makes game development more accessible. "It's really about providing the same tools, the same libraries, the same capabilities of both platforms," says Dave Mitchell, Director of XNA's marketing department. "So you can write your game once and have it run on both platforms. The real sweet spot is casual games."

It all started when Microsoft decided to build their technologies specifically with developers in mind. Mitchell says XNA came about when Microsoft realized the small-time developers, people new to development, were encountering "the 'country-club mentality.' You sort of have to know someone to break in [to console development]."

It's a big catch-22: Developers need at least one game under their belt to attract a publisher, but developing that first game without a publisher's substantial investment is usually impossible. "We just saw all of these complexities and challenges," Mitchell says, "among indies, hobbyists, students, university settings, in particular, of building a pipeline of creativity to come into the industry." After identifying that problem, Mitchell recalls looking across the rest of Microsoft for answers. "One of the things we take great pride in is really engaging with the hobbyist and enthusiast level with a lot of our technology and arming and equipping them." Visual Studio Express serves as one example.

"We really then set off to see what we could do to open up the Xbox 360 as a console," he says. "We were asked internally, can you make games on Windows? Sure, check. Can you do that on a console device? No, you really can't without getting thousands and thousands of dollars in equipment. And, of course, getting an agreement in order to get to that point."

So, in the beginning, the XNA team wanted to democratize game development. XNA represents the first time in the 31-year history of console gaming that retail units are also development boxes.
As for Microsoft's competitors, Mitchell can't speak for the other console manufactures' ability to support a technology like XNA, which might allow user-created games to run on a PS3 or a Wii. "For the overall health of the industry, I certainly hope that they look to enable some of that." Considering what XNA has the potential to do, we can only hope other shops lift their licensed curtains, as well.

The Escapist - Scrumming It
It's true: making games is hard.

When it comes to finding an effective management paradigm, the game industry is still young. That youth is a double-edged sword: Game companies appear (and disappear) so rapidly that new methodologies can be fully implemented and tested in a short time-frame, leading to faster innovation and open-minded approach, while simultaneously insisting rebelliously that no previously described method from predecessor industries in either entertainment or software science could fully apply to game development. They just don't understand us, man!

To some extent this is true. Game development, especially at the AAA level, mixes some of the most difficult elements of software design and development with the uncertainty and volatile creativity that drives every other entertainment business. It doesn't help that games did not gradually or gracefully develop, they exploded.

In the earliest days of game development, the average team was 2.5 people, and most of the early games for the Atari 2600 were one-man bands. Some of the earliest mid-'80s hits by familiar names such as Namco boasted development teams of four or five.

By 1988, teams expanded; Sierra's King's Quest IV had 17 names on its credits, many appearing more than once. A transition in a single decade from teams of five to teams of 20 doesn't seem like much, with single developers still covering multiple bases, but it was the first critical step in differentiating between old-style development - work designers like Howard Scott Warshaw called "authorship" - and modern development, where people management and communication became essential not just to the success of a game, but to its basic completion.
Neither Scrum nor any new production methodology provides a complete recipe for a successful game; there is no such thing. Making games is hard. What these new methodologies do, and perhaps more importantly, what they indicate, is responsiveness to the development process, and working smart as well as working hard. Ultimately, what remains fascinating about Scrum is its simplicity and common-sense approach as a toolbox for managers, the same way compilers and libraries are tools for programmers. Scrum, in addition to being its own method, in recent years has become the gold standard for attentive process. That there is great interest in this new batch of tools, and great interest in advancing process in the way we advance technology, may be a sign we're growing up.

The Escapist - The Small And Agile Approach
For decades, every game was a unique snowflake. Teams started from scratch every time, reinventing the wheel with every game, as each one required a new engine, new art, new everything, and that all had to happen before the designers got to the part where they made a fun game. Times are changing, though, and the craft has advanced enough that third-party developers can specialize in art, physics or engine design, and enterprising game companies can focus entirely on the hard part: actually making a good game.
The rise of middleware means Remedy can stay small and agile, while making a game that might be better than one they could make in-house. "I think Havok is a perfect example," he says. "Today, it would be crazy ... to write your own physics module." While it was common several years ago to write your own physics, today it's unlikely you'll compete with the top packages, and you'll have to fund a much larger team to build out your own physics engine. He also called NaturalMotion's Euphoria system "very interesting," adding, "We are not using it at the moment, but that's something I can clearly see is the way of the future," partly because it's a good engine, and partly because something like Euphoria can replace a lot of animators. This seems to be a natural progression for the industry, he says, and while he wasn't authorized to tell me exactly what middleware Remedy was licensing, he was adept at discussing the various packages and how they fit into their overall development strategy.

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  • I, too, am left bewildered by the new Escapist design. It's sort of like:

    "Hey, our car is kind of broken. We should get it fixed, or maybe get a new card."
    "Okay, here's a brand new zeppelin! It's like, waaaay more floaty than a car!"
    "Uh... okay. Thanks?"

    By Blogger Darius Kazemi, at 8/07/2007 04:50:00 PM  

  • Yeah. It's certainly different. One of the things I loved about The Escapist was it's visual quality. But that's expensive. They've kind of gone in the opposite direction, or as you say just a very different direction.

    One thing I have to say. If it's purely web based now, why on earth do they make me flip through pages?!? That made sense in the PDF visual layout. Not so much in its new incarnation.

    By Blogger Casey, at 8/08/2007 09:53:00 AM  

  • Hi Casey. Thanks for the trackback, always appreciate it. And I'm VERY sorry I missed your IGDA talk -- I'd been looking forward to it for months, but we're in the last week of dev with GoPets and things have been intense.

    I don't think the Escapist has ever outwardly said they aren't into development, but I do think the majority of their readership (just because of the sheer numbers involved) is more on the consumer than the developer side of the equation. If you look at the forum activity, the articles that get the most attention generally are the ones focused on the game-consuming side of things rather than the developer one.

    I think they try to strike a balance, though. They're trying to cater to two sides of a development audience, and probably the best way to explain where they fall is that they'll cover development subjects so long as they're also of interest to the gaming community at large.

    Some of this probably also has to do with their advertising revenue streams. As a high-end gamer magazine they attract a certain kind of reader and therefore a certain kind of advertiser. The developer magazine circuit is pretty tied up by Game Developer, and I think they're both not going to crack that and shouldn't try -- I don't think the developer community is hungry for that kind of thing, since they tend to be pretty insular. This is a tricky thing for me, since I'd like to know whether my articles are helpful to the development community, but only rarely get feedback -- this despite the fact that most people in the industry I know do read the Escapist. Probably at least some side of it is that devs don't have a whole lot of time to spend on comments, and in a professional context when you're leaving comments on a public forum you're investing your public image and reputation, which is challenging.

    I find it's a good match for me because I don't have the authority to write from an industry veteran position -- I leave that to guys like Noah Falstein with Game Developer -- but I'm fascinated by that window between the gamer and developer communities, and I think the Escapist hits that pretty square on the head. I hope they stay around. I too will miss the glitzier graphics -- it's what first drew me to the magazine and I'm sure that's the case for a lot of folk -- but I did always wonder how the production expense was sustainable.

    By Blogger Erin, at 8/08/2007 06:12:00 PM  

  • Erin, no worries about the India talk. I hope things are going well for 1P/GoPets crew. It was a light crowd, but a fun one. (Realizes he should post meeting minutes from that AND the education thing...)

    I suspect you're dead on in your assessment of the situation. You're also probably right that GD has a wrap on the developer advertising market. Though, I think MS ought to be pushing XNA in The Escapist. ;)

    I know it's hard for developers to be visible, which is one of the reasons I hope that what I'm doing is helpful. However, the dissertation is still 3 or 4 months from draft 1 completion, and who knows when (if) I can get a book deal out of it in the end.

    Thanks for reading, and no problem on the trackback, it's in the bowels of blogger as far as I know! I can never tell if this is my private stomping ground or if people read it.

    By Blogger Casey, at 8/10/2007 02:18:00 PM  

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