How Autodesk is equipping indies

How Autodesk is equipping indies
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

May 2nd 2014 at 11:05AM

Director of game solutions Frank Delise tells us a Steam version of Maya LT is just the start

The industry's biggest tools providers are finding new ways to make their products more accesible to indies and smaller studios with tighter budgets.

Indies are now able to pick up everything from high-end engines to motion capture kits for affordable prices. Just last month, Autodesk announced it is bringing Maya LT to Steam, giving indies and even gamers access to the widely-used animation and modelling tool.

We caught up with Autodesk's director of game solutions Frank Delise to find out how else the tools firm is offering its wares to smaller studios.

Why is Autodesk interested in indie game developers?

I prefer the term 'game makers' – it speaks a bit more to the people out there that want to create games from less of a business or technical drive and more of a desire to make something – make their idea for a game – come to life. 

We know triple-A, but just like a lot of new studios and indies, we have a passion for game makers. Not just the triple-A games that represent a lot of the work our customers are doing, but also indie game developers who are incredibly passionate and innovative in their approach.

Many of us on the games team at Autodesk, including myself, have made games and the thing I remember was how hard it was to start out – especially when I was making my first game. It was a lot harder then, as the tools were less accessible.  So we know what it's like to have an idea that you want to turn into reality, but having so many detours.

Today it's easier than ever to get access to the technology, without sacrificing quality. And we want to continue to support indies – of course that means we're looking at other tools and technology we can offer indies to help them get started.

We also are thinking a lot about how we bring together people that want to make games. We're thinking about where and how that first idea for a game inspires someone to start looking for tools, someone who may not even come from a traditional gaming background. We’re exploring how to help them collaborate with the industry and test their ideas.

There’s nothing like seeing these kind of production quality tools in the hands of new developers – you never know what they can come up with. They don't have any preconceived notions of how this software should be used. Instead, they explore, experiment, test and modify both software and hardware to fit their needs.

Of course I can't talk about specific products or offering, but I will say we’re excited to be working in the new space.

How much of your developer client base are indies? Is this proportion growing and why/why not?

It's absolutely growing – thanks in large part to Maya LT and to our offering of desktop subscription plans that allow indies to use our software on a term-based licensing model.For developers just starting out, it can significantly reduce the upfront costs and remove a very large roadblock. And although we offer a variety of term lengths, we're finding that the month-to-month (US $50) quickly became the most popular offering.

As for a percentage of our client base that are indies? If we look at how many of our 3D animation users are 'indies', I'd estimate it’s quite a lot given that the term indie is very broad in the games industry today. We’re seeing the trend in the industry with experienced game makers wanting to start their own studios and create a different gaming experience and publishing their own games on mobile and social platforms or things like XBLA and PSN. And these are people that have relied on products like 3ds Max and Maya for years.

There’s nothing like seeing these kind of production quality tools in the hands of new developers – you never know what they can come up with.

Frank Delise, Autodesk

How will indies benefit from MayaLT? What will it enable them to do?

The big benefit is access. Maya LT represents a significant step towards professional game development for indie studios. It's based on Maya, a really well-known and trusted tool, so the UI, interface, workflow is essentially identical. We've built Maya LT to include the essential tools that indies need to make 3D game assets and animations. So as they develop in their pipeline, it's an easy leap to move from Maya LT to Maya when they want broaden the tool base. 

As for features that are 'not appropriate', I think it's hard to really ever say that someone won't need a tool – ever, period, full stop. The reality is that we see people use our tools in ways we never imagined. So in the case of Maya LT we streamlined the product by removing things that were more often used in film and television workflows, for example. And it's not all about limiting features. We actually introduced the ShaderFX feature in Maya LT first, as it makes creating shaders much easier for less technical artists. We also introduced a direct export to Unity in Maya LT that's not in 3ds Max or the full version of Maya. Again, this is because it's a workflow that we know indies need.

We're also listening to our customers and to indies that aren't using Maya LT, and this is a big driver of how we plan our roadmap for Maya LT. You may have noticed that we've been very aggressive in releasing and updating Maya LT. Since August we've had two major updates (2014 and the upcoming 2015 release), and we've released two significant extensions that added features like MEL scripting and OBJ export – all based on user and trial user feedback. 

There's a growing trend, following Unreal and Crytek's GDC announcements of low-price engines/editors, of targeting all gamers as a potential developer. Is this an attitude you share? 

Absolutely. We believe that great games can come from all types of game makers and developers. And we also know that each type of customer has a different need – from the large triple-A studios that use 3ds Max, Maya and our Entertainment Creation Suite to the new customers we've seen using Maya LT to create 3D indie games.

These needs go beyond just price, so lowering the price of something or giving it away doesn't necessarily solve problems for game makers and developers. Many large studios and publishers depend on Autodesk for technical expertise and custom development. Many of our triple-A customers have a dedicated member of our team on call to help with development, so there's a certain type of customer who needs more than just access and a lower price. 

Autodesk Gameware is what you’ll traditionally see in triple-A titles: Scaleform for engaging UI, like mini-maps and HUDs, and Autodesk Navigation to help design smart NPCs. Scaleform is actually being used in the upcoming Godus, the mobile title from Peter Molyneux. Maya LT was our way of taking all our experience in the triple-A space and focusing it on this newer group of developers.

Lowering the price of something or giving it away doesn't necessarily solve problems for game makers and developers.

Frank Delise, Autodesk

What other products do you plan to bring to indies?

Today our focus is Maya LT, but we're not planning to stop with a single offering. We'll be looking at other parts of the process to help game makers realize their ideas. Also if you look across Autodesk, you'll see this undercurrent of initiatives, products and offerings that help people 'make things in the traditional sense, and we would like to do the same for game makers.

It's not something that will happen next week or maybe even next year, but I envision a time when game makers come to Autodesk because they want to bring an idea to life – not because they need a tool. Of course we'll have the tool, but we want to build a set of tools, offerings and services that can help people make games they love.