E3 Part II: The Tools and the Tech that Make it Interesting

This second part of my E3 coverage takes a deeper look at some of the technology working behind the scenes that make these games so remarkable. There is so much attention given to covering the games at E3 and giving detailed features of the new games on the horizon. But what about the tools and technology used to create these cutting edge games? Where are we at with the development?

Round up the Game Engines

With all fantastic new games at the show, I thought I would do a roundup of top engines used in some of these titles. I picked a handful of games that stood out or where nominated in “Best of” categories to see what game engines were being used.

Here is a list of some of the games highlighted at the show:

Game Developer Publisher Game Engine
INTERNAL ENGINES
Modern Warfare 2 Infinity Ward Activision MW Engine
Alan Wake Remedy Entertainment Microsoft Alan Wake Game Engine
Assassin’s Creed 2 Ubisoft Montreal Ubisoft Ent. Anvil (internal)
Final Fantasy XIII Square Enix Square Enix Crystal Tools (internal- was called White Engine)
Dragon Age Bioware Electronic Arts Eclipse (internal)
Halo 3: ODST Bungie Studios Microsoft Game Studio Halo 3 (internal)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 Nintendo Nintendo Internal
The Last Guardian Team ICO Sony Japan Internal
Avatar Ubisoft Ubisoft Ent. Internal
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Naughty Dog SCEA Naughty Dog Game Engine 2.0 (internal)
Metal Gear Solid 4 Kojima Productions Konami New (internal)
God of War III SCEA SCEA New Engine (internal)
Fight Night Round 4 EA Canada EA New Physics-based Engine (internal)
The Conduit High Voltage Sega Quantum 3 Engine (internal)
Left for Dead 2 Valve TBD Source Engine (internal)
THIRD PARTY ENGINES
Batman: Arkham Asylum Rocksteady Studios Eidos Unreal 3
Bioshock 2 2K Marin 2K Games Unreal 3
Mass Effect 2 Bioware Electronic Arts Unreal 3
Shadow Complex Chair Entertainment Group (Epic owned) Microsoft Unreal 3
Splinter Cell: Conviction Ubisoft Montreal Ubisoft Ent. Unreal 3
The Last Remnant Square Enix Square Enix Unreal 3
Natal Paint Party Spawnpoint Studios –Microsoft Game Studio Microsoft Unreal 3
Natal Ricochet Spawnpoint Studios –Microsoft Game Studio Microsoft Unreal 3
Star Wars: Old Republic Bioware Electronic Arts HeroEngine
Source: M2 Research

What is apparent is that internal game engines are still predominantly used in the most highly anticipated games. Of the 23 games covered here 15 used internal engines, while 8 used third party solutions = 35%. Of course this is a very small sampling, but these games do provide a good representation of the top games listed in many Best of Show rakings for E3 this year.

So what does that mean? That some of the most graphically complex games are still dominated by internal engines. But I think a look outside this top echelon would show the adoption rate of third-party middleware is increasing. For example, Epic believes there were over 20 games on the show floor using Unreal Engine 3, and does not include games that were shown behind closed-doors.

One of the hit games at the show was Shadow Complex, developed by Chair Entertainment, an Epic subsidiary. What makes this game interesting is it is a side-scrolling game that combines 2D and 3D. Exclusively available on Xbox Live Arcade, Shadow Complex as a downloadable game, it also has an embedded system for tracking statics. Microsoft hopes games like Shadow Complex will augment more high-quality games through its fully-downloadable model.

Shadow Complex

Unreal’s Shadow Complex is an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive in both 2D/3D.

Bioware’s MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic was rated one of the top PC games at the show. It uses the real-time MMO game engine from Simutronics – HeroEngine. HeroEngine is finally starting to make waves as the first games are now hitting the market. Simutronics is no newcomer, the company itself has been plugging along for 20 years.

Emergent also made an announcement at the show that THQ signed a master licensing agreement to use the Gamebryo technology. The agreement enables both THQ’s internal and external developers to leverage rapid prototyping and iteration into their game development pipeline.

Trinigy is a German company that was at the show, and is the company behind the Vision Engine. Already well-established in Europe, the company has over 100 licensees including Ubisoft, Take 2, Firefly, Neowiz, Atari, Dreacatcher and Spellbound. Trinigy recently opened US offices in Austin and has been ramping up its position in the US market.

“The Vision Engine has been used in worldwide across every genre. We recently opened our sales and support operations in North America, and so far the response has been overwhelming,” said Felix Roeken, general manager of Trinigy. “The entire Vision Engine has been deliberately designed to mitigate risk, break down technical barriers and empower game developers to effortlessly push the limits of their imaginations.”

While not a game engine company, xaitment was at E3. Another German technology company, xaitment is also breaking into the US market. xaitment provides AI solutions to the games industry. Founded in 2004, a small German town on the border of France, whose university has the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). Earlier this year at GDC xaitment announced Chris Taylor’ Gas Power Games was going to be using its tools for several upcoming games. xaitment is also partnered with Emergent and Trinigy to integrate into their engines.

“While artificial intelligence has been around in the game space for some time, it has mainly focused on pathfinding and navigation,” said Markus Schneider, executive vice president of sales for xaitment. “We have expanded on that functionality by offering higher level AI in affordable, modular packages – an approach that has been met with wide interest across the games market.

All of these modules can be implemented separately depending on a studios’ needs, and all of them come with graphic user interfaces to help developers quickly create, test and re-use complex artificial intelligence scenarios.”

On the animation, paint and 3D modeling front Maxon‘s Cinema4D garnered some well deserved attention. The cinematic trailer for Square Enix’s new game Front Mission Evolved received high praise. The trailer was created by Big Machine Design, who relied heavily on Cinema 4D. “Game cinematics and game promotion in general is one of the fastest growing areas for visual content creation,” notes Paul Babb, president of Maxon USA.

More on the Cloud Computing Folks

Even though OnLive made the official announcement months ago they were not attending E3, they were actually there with a very subtle presence. Trying to fend off cynics, the company set up a residential location close to the convention center where they were providing demos. The company specified that the server being used was located over 300 miles away and the streaming connection was supposedly 4 to 6 Mbps. Of course the reasoning for this was that fact that after GDC many people were skeptical of the company’s capabilities.

Also in attendance was David Perry, who was giving closed-door demos of Gaikai.com to potential investors and publishers. As the company’s co-founder, Perry commented to me, “Our demos went well at E3 and three major publishers said they would be interested in investing in our company during our live demos. We have many patents filed and our tech is in a very advanced state.”

GaiKai

Calling their technology “Streaming Worlds”, Gaikai supports 3D streaming.

In an interview with the BBC, Perry explained that Gaikai will host and manage the games that get streamed to the consumer using Flash. “If a hardcore gamer is playing WoW at home and wants to keep playing when they leave the house, they can. Then there is the social audience who wouldn’t want a PS3, but plays Flash games. For those people, they could play on games EVE Online and share them with their friends on things like Twitter and Facebook. Perry continues, “We are codec agnostic as different compression codecs are better at different things. One might be great for fast gameplay, one might be needed for pixel perfect streaming applications like PhotoShop.”

Stereoscopic Gaming – First Games Coming Soon

The idea of 3D games in stereo is still on the outer fringes of the market. With films just starting to make an impact with consumers it will be some time for the mindset of the consumer to move that experience into their living room. But the boom of 3D in films has exploded in just the last two years, more than doubling each year.  In 2010 it is estimated that there will be more than 35 3D films hitting the market.

In an announcement just made, Peter Jackson said he will only be doing 3D movies in the future and already has several movies in post production His comments reflect the growing movement by top-tier directors and producers to support the 3D option including Jeff Katzenberg and James Cameron.

So how is that translating in games? Well, this year there were at least four 3D games at the show:

Game Developer Publisher Release Date Platform
G-Force Eurocom Entertainment Disney 7/17/09 PS3, Xbox 360
Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao Blitz Arcade Namco Bandai TBA – late 2009 Xbox Live Arcade, PSN
Avatar Ubisoft Ubisoft Ent. 12/09 PS3, Xbox 360
Toy Story Mania Papaya Studios Disney Q3/09 Wii

Of course, the one getting the most attention was James Cameron’s Avatar. Development on Cameron’s Avatar started over 2 ½ years ago. And while the game was developed in parallel with the movie, it does not follow the same storyline. The game supports technology from a Montreal-based company called Sensio.  Sensio has over 10 years invested in its 3D technology, and was picked as the standard for next-generation DVD players.

Luxology, the maker of modo, the modeling and animation package just released version 401 of the product which supports stereoscopy. Brad Peebler, Luxology’s CEO, “We have just introduced stereoscopic rendering in modo. There is actually quite a bit to implementing stereo – for example our implementation provides a stereoscopic convergence distance channel (objects at this distance from the camera will appear in the same position in both left and right images).  We could have just used the focus distance for this, but this separate channel allows for stereoscopic rack focus shots.”

Pia Maffei, Executive Producer at Alioscopy, a manufacturer of 3D monitors, notes, “Hollywood is definitely fueling the market for 3D content. It is great there is more support for the content. It is a long-term cycle though, and the development pipeline needs to be reworked to better support the technical and creative aspects of developing in 3D.”

“Nobody talks about the development price of creating a 3D game from the ground up, because honestly, nobody knows”. Maffei continues, “But we are coming to a point where new skill sets are needed for 3D designers. CG toolsets are different than 3D toolsets, so a CG artist working on a 2D screen may not be as good when working on a 3D screen. There is a whole issue with perspective with 3D. If something pops out how will it make the rest of the screen look, and more importantly, will the consumer be able to make the distinction visually.”

Final Thought – The Importance of Critical Mass

As I’ve been saying, I believe the Gaming Renaissance Movement is in full force. There is a critical mass emerging on multiple levels. We are finally at the culmination, where the key elements are aligned for mass adoption. We now have:

  • A wide range of developers and platforms.
  • Accessible development tools that support the creative process rather than the programming process.
  • Distribution channels that are opening up with broadband and mobile.
  • Most importantly – Mass adoption by a wide range of consumers and consumer preferences.

It has taken much to get to this point. Most of the early companies that helped pioneer aspects of the technology no longer exist. For example, ten years ago Jon and I did a survey of games engines and found there were over 100 different engines. There were some great technology companies like 3dfx, ArtX, Criterion, and MathEngine – just a few that helped lay the foundation for where we are today.

What E3 2009 has shown us is there is still so much more on the horizon. These growth opportunities will extend the framework of creativity, technology and consumer interaction.

-WM

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