In defence of middleware

This mini-rant sprang from a discussion on The Chaos Engine about middleware, in answer to the question: “even if it’s the best engine available is it really worth being locked in to anything other than in-house, license-uninhibited tech?”

That depends on whether you’re interested in building games or shipping games. You’re trading many man-months of effort on a new / unknown engine versus a non-trivial licencing cost. How many games do you have to ship on your internal engine before the difference in cost becomes positive? And what do you do with all those engine developers you’re carrying once the engine is done? Because they’re part of your burn-rate now.

Making your own tech is simultaneously the risky option for the business, and the safe option for the developers. Why? Because as long as you can persuade someone to bankroll it, there’s a tonne of work to do, and it’s nice, tangible work with obvious goals and milestones. You know when you’re done. You know what you’re making. The customers are the other developers on your team, and they’re not nearly as fickle as the public. It’s a lot easier to find success in building your own engine than it is to find success making and shipping games.

That is super short-term thinking though. Because once you’ve succeeded in making the engine, you’ve still got to ship a successful game, and worse, you’ve probably got to ship several successful games before the engine development effort is paid back. Plus your engine will have a lifespan just like they all do: if you don’t profit enough from the games made on it in that lifespan, then it’s been a net loss.

It’s no wonder that individual developers don’t like middleware. It’s clunky, it rarely fits right with what you’re trying to make, and you’ve got little to no control over its development. But “it’s expensive” isn’t a great argument against it, because the alternative is expensive too. It’s not risk-free, but it’s certainly less risky than doing it yourself. It’s a known cost, and in most cases a known risk. Fundamentally, it frees your employers from having to take a gamble on the tech you build, and when the money they’re gambling on your tech is money that they could be gambling on your games, I don’t think that’s really very attractive.

I’d prefer to be working for a smaller company that can be more agile, more robust, and capable of shipping more games, over a company that’s carrying an engine development team, that has to build games based on tech that won’t be done till some future date, and which has less capital to work with because it’s invested a chunk of it in an engine that has yet to pay that money back.

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Last modified: August 14 2014.