Develop Brighton 2006

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.

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