Archive for July, 2006

Hoorah

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on July 28th, 2006 by MrCranky

Well, after several weeks of plans and pitches and back and forth, we’ve come to an agreement to develop a pilot project for an educational title! Much relief on my part, as I can finally stop hedging on whether or not it would go ahead. We’ll be ramping up over the next month or so, depending on how long it takes to become a ‘Sony Approved’ developer, as well as taking on another couple of developers part-time (and no, we’ve already found the people, so there aren’t any jobs up for grabs I’m afraid). Still no office to begin with, at least until things settle down. Which is probably a good thing, as working remotely means we can do the work wherever is sensible, instead of being crammed into a little office where no doubt the air conditioning would have trouble keeping up! Not a good thing in this awful heat.

Once we get going, I’ll be prodding the guys to start blogging here to, so it won’t be just my incessant rambling you’ll have to listen to any more.

On unrelated news, we’re still trying hard to get a proper build of Brave made for the US market; the struggle now is to find a Sony Approved DVD burner and media. The fact that DVD manufacturers change models at least once a year seems to mean that the only models approved for making game submissions are the ones already out of production. Ebay is our friend now it seems! Anyway, a big thanks to 4J Studios for their help with trying to get Brave out (again).

Snapped

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on July 21st, 2006 by MrCranky

Thought I’d escaped most of the picture snapping at Develop – there’s a brief glimpse of me here about halfway down the IGDA blog from Jason Della Rocca, blatently staring, mesmerised by the free beer supplied by Codemasters, instead of taking the chance to chat to Ken Perlin. I’ve found a lot of his stuff really interesting over the years, but must admit I didn’t actually know what he looked like. Ken’s talk was the one I skipped to go to the ‘Strategies for Success’ talk. Think I took the wrong option there! Still, it was re-scheduled from the previous afternoon, where it didn’t conflict, just the way these things work out.

Also found the pictures from the Develop Industry Excellence awards which we tried to blag our way into. Here’s myself and István with one of the reception cuties. No, I’m not that drunk. Well, okay maybe just a little. It was free beer damnit!

Have had my head buried in spreadsheets and plans for a couple of days, although that should be done with now. I’ve got some web-development work to do, I have to call our accountant and get the 2005-6 year end returns filed properly, and then its on to working on some pre-cursor work for our big deal, in advance of actually getting it signed.

Develop Brighton Debrief 2006

Posted in Industry Rants on July 17th, 2006 by MrCranky

This was the closing session of the main conference, and from my impression, consisted of a lot of slapping each other on the back really. The panel (including Phil Harrison of Sony and Mark Rein) touched on a few points, but basically summed things up as “things are rosy right now, everything’s going well”. Well, I’m not sure how well everyone else is doing but it doesn’t seem that way to me. So at the end of the session I asked whether or not they thought the next-generation of consoles had really grown the market enough to justify the huge cost increases, and basically was there enough money in the system to support the current crop of developers. Admittedly, all credit to Phil Harrison, he took it on the chin and said ‘No’, but to be frank if he’d pretended otherwise I probably would have got up and walked out.

The gist of the reply was ‘No, people are going to have to be smart, reduce costs, and take advantage of new markets’. That to me says everything is not going well. That to me says that we have a set of developers all scrabbling to develop on the next-generation of consoles, despite the fact that they have a tiny market share compared to the current generation, despite the fact that the games cost many times more to make, and despite the fact that the technology is totally untested. That to me says that the remaining big developers are betting heavily on the next generation, and everyone’s just playing a big game of chicken. No-one wants to say: “actually, we can’t afford to continue like this”, because they’re hoping someone else will say it first, and reduce market congestion, or something else that will save them. And most of all, that says to me that Sony knows they (and Microsoft) are pushing onwards too quickly, and that some developers and publishers are going to die in the transition.

Call me old fashioned, but I’d like to run a company based on something more than just enthusiasm for the new crop of technology. It doesn’t matter if its new and trendy, if it doesn’t sell enough product to make back the cost of developing for it, then its worth nothing.

Unfortunately, that was the last question of the session, and apart from some people talking to me about it as everyone was getting up, there wasn’t much debate about it. I hope at least I did something to damp everyone’s enthusiasm a bit, and get a bit of realism back. My goodness, aren’t I a miserable b&*%ard.

Develop Brighton 2006

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on July 17th, 2006 by MrCranky

Okay, here are some assorted thoughts about the various sessions attended over the two days. I’ve split the final, debrief panel session into another blog post as it degenerated a little into a rant about the state of the industry.

Keynote [Mark Rein (Epic)]

An interesting talk, although a bit opinionated; I missed the first half so maybe he said other things. Basically he slated episodic development as a broken business model, and Intel’s trend of putting shoddy graphics chips into low-end PC systems.

The episodic thing was a fair point, although only in a very limited sense – he was saying that traditional huge AAA titles couldn’t simply be broken into chunks in an effort to raise money earlier in the development cycle. However he conveniently skipped over all the episodic titles where it does make sense (e.g. Sam & Max by Telltale), labelling them ‘casual’ throwaway titles. He was mostly shouted down by Jason Della Rocca and various others as being a dinosaur of the industry, and representing titles built on the Unreal Engine as also being old-fashioned titles, which I thought was a little harsh.

The PC thing is a valid point though I think (although not just Intel to blame) – we used to have Intel driving technology forward because business PCs were capable of running games, but only the games taxed the technology. So ordinary users would upgrade their tech to be able to play games as well. Now machines are getting faster and faster CPUs with more memory, but a business machine comes with rubbish Intel graphics as standard, and usually can’t be upgraded. So we [the games industry] lose large chunks of the market, as non-technical people will simply buy what they are given. Of course, I think its not just Intel, but Dell and the other system manufacturers that are at fault. For the sake of a 5 dollar component (the difference between an integrated chip that won’t run games, and a low end nVidia/ATI chip that will run them, albeight slowly), they diminish a market which has traditionally pushed tech. forward and helped them force the upgrade curve higher. Bad for us now, bad for them in a few years. Short-sighted decisions by these companies.

Xbox Live: Now and in the Future [Jeff Sullivan]

A nice ‘introduction to Xbox’ talk, well presented. Microsoft really seem to have their integrated online strategy sorted out here. A lot of good stuff about integration of online components, rewards, and shared content that really appeals to gamers. Couple that with their maturing Live support, and the future integration between Vista and Xbox 360 (already 2 titles in development where as a PC user you will be able to play against a 360 player across Live); I think they’re onto a winner with this (as long as 360 takes off as a platform). Certainly they put the Sony PS3 strategy (or lack of) to shame, especially in this important area of development.

Levelling the Playing Field [William Latham]

A good talk about the broken business model (which I’ve lamented here before) of the industry at the moment, and a proposed change to the system. Basically to coalesce the industry into 3 tiers: 1) the far-east outsource market, responsible for content generation but with no creative input, 2) a smaller, prototype developer level, responsible for developing the game idea and mechanics, working under the direction of 3) a core team of IP/brand generators, responsible for the design. The first two levels are essentially work for hire people (much like the film industry), and the third is the creative level. Money for the system comes through external guarantors, who green-light a project based on its merits (and the confidence in the creative team). Not sure if I agree that there’s enough money in the industry to merit such an approach, especially given the uncertain nature of success. However, the system as it is is broken, and I can see merits in this more structured approach to development, as opposed to the ad-hoc and shambolic approach currently in use, which can be blamed for a lot of the business failures currently going on.

Money for Non-Suits [Jonathan Smith, Nicholas Lovell]

Another business talk – aimed at illuminating why companies do what they do. Lots of talk about creating value, and the difference between profits, and growth. Basically to say that you can grow to add value, and you can make money to add value, but either way you need to have value, and that requires thinking long-term. Much discussion about stock market dealings, and basically a consensus that games companies really shouldn’t be publicly traded. Too much is conjecture and hearsay, and the difficult to predict nature of the industry can have horrifically bad consequences for a company’s value, without really being justified. Private investors tend to be calmer and more aware of the company they have invested in, leading to more sensible value/investment decisions.

PlayStation 3: A Parallel Universe [István Fábián (SCEE)]

A tech talk this time – dwelling on various ways of architecting software systems to make the most of the PS3 parallelism. Some very interesting stuff, and confirmed my view that the PS3 was more powerful, and yet harder to develop for than the 360. I can see wonderful algorithms and systems to make the most of the hardware, but it requires real knowledge of the underlying systems to get the most out of it (much like the PS2). I caught up with István afterwards at:

Beers with Codemasters

Where the Codemasters guys opened the next door bar for free beer for all developers. Thumbs up from me for that one! Good way to recruit as well. Chatting with István about some of the tech stuff dealt with at the earlier talk – I think we agreed that the tools are vital in making use of the PS3 tech, but that there won’t (and never will be) a silver-bullet solution. Developers need to think architecturally differently to make things work on next-gen technology, and from what I’ve seen so far, most developers aren’t up to the task. I think everyone probably needs to be made to develop a distributed system of some kind to really appreciate the problems involved in true (not just multi-threaded) multi-node processing. I also mentioned my surprise at Sony’s lack of effort to work with Codeplay, a company known for making compilers for custom hardware to aid parallelism.

Also bumped into Ralph Fulton, an ex-VIS designer now working for Codies, who confirmed other reports I’d had that DC Studios were horrifically bad to work for. After all the bad things we said about working at VIS, to hear someone say that DC was an order of magnitude worse opens up my eyes a little as to just how bad things can get!

Second day:

Leveraging the Ageia PhysX SDK for advanced multi-core simulation [Jonas Gustavsson]

A disappointing one this one – basically touting the wonders of PhysX, although feature wise it seems competent, the presentation left me feeling their software was a little immature. All of the demos shown had ‘frame-rate issues’ which were badly explained away, some so bad that they wouldn’t show them. All of the demos that were shown were unconvincing, showing contrived gameplay to utilise physics systems. I stand by my opinion that a physics system is best used to augment gameplay, not to replace it. Just because you can do bendable objects and breakable systems, doesn’t mean you should.

Strategies for success [Jamie McDonald (SCEE), Chris Deering (Codies)]

More an insight into what Sony London look for than anything really. Some interesting points about what a mature and successful studio look for in external studios. Chris Deering had some points about mobile and markets, but to be honest it was a little hard to follow and didn’t seem hugely relevant.

Design by democracy: How to keep your vision – while taking on board everyone else’s [Peter Molyneux]

An excuse to go see Peter Molyneux really, there was an independent developers group gathering but I was over-heated from the sun and didn’t feel like networking at the time. A good talk, dwelling on the difficulties in ramping up to a huge design team, and on the difficulties of following a game concept through to full production.

Productive morning

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on July 17th, 2006 by MrCranky

Going well so far – already crossed 2 big things off the huge todo list that has collected while I’ve been in Brighton. Have quite a few more to deal with, including a summary blog post covering the talks I attended and my take on the whole thing. Will probably have to go in industry rants, but more on that later.

Summer’s definitely here though – sitting outside with a laptop and hoping the wi-fi extends that far is definitely the order of the day.

Free wi-fi, we love you

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on July 11th, 2006 by MrCranky

Writing this entry from a pub in Brighton, a few hundred yards from the Develop venue. Turns out I lucked out with my choice of hotels, as it is just round the corner from the conference. Should make for much less scope for embarrassment after the post conference drinking. I’ll be doing my bit putting the company around, but there are far more interesting talks than I realised, so I’ll have to do all the networking and business stuff in the breaks.

All things looking positive in the deal I’ve been trying to sign – we won’t know more until the end of July, but we have (I think) an achievable plan, and a budget acceptable to both sides. There are still a bunch of obstacles to overcome to make it work, but I’ll be doing some work in advance of signing the deal to smooth the way, on the grounds that I’d rather make things easy now than hedge on failing to sign the deal.

Time to finish up now – looks like my table is being usurped by a funky looking band. One guy has a banjo, I think I’m going to run away now…

Planning hell

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on July 6th, 2006 by MrCranky

Gah, now I remember why I stopped using MS Project for planning – it has a nasty tendency to fight back in strange and unusual ways if you try to do anything out of line with how it thinks you should be making a plan. Great if I was a real-estate developer and needed to plan painters and builders and electricians, not so good when I have to plan games development.

The only thing Project is really good for is tracking resources and dependencies between tasks, and coming up with raw numbers as to how long things will take given X many people who can work for Y amount of time. Using it to try and order tasks or define exactly how things work is madness though – I far prefer the Agile methods for that, which involve reevaluating every couple of weeks and choosing the most important things to work on.

So after my planning blitz, I’m off down south for the weekend, followed by a trip across to Brighton for the Develop conference next week. Its easier to just stay down there and work from hotels/coffee houses in Brighton than to come back up and down on Monday/Tuesday, so essentially I’m away for the whole week. I’ll still be working on trying to close this development deal however, as it is quite an attractive deal. I’ll probably end up taking a few games down with me as well though – I’ve gotten hooked on KotOR again, trying to get through it playing for the dark side.


Email: info@blackcompanystudios.co.uk
Black Company Studios Limited, 14 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3BL
Registered in Scotland (SC283017) VAT Reg. No.: 886 4592 64
Last modified: June 17 2014.