A New Milestone - An exclusive look inside Italian developer Milestone

A New Milestone - An exclusive look inside Italian developer Milestone
Sean Cleaver

By Sean Cleaver

July 18th 2017 at 12:01PM

Not only has the studio changed engine, but it's been a full service for Milestone over the past five years. Develop sent Sean Cleaver to check out one of the biggest, and perhaps riskiest, evolutions in racing games development.

Where the older, historical part of Milan gives way to the newer, modern buildings and offices, you’ll find the offices of Milestone. On the street of Via Olona, you can turn one way and see the walls and buildings of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, the terracotta roof tiles and the spires of the Duomo di Milano. Turn the other, and you’ll find the newer tenement blocks, the offices and the science museum that has a Cold War submarine, the Enrico Toti, sitting outside it.

Milestone is at a turning point as a studio. Over 20 years, it has established itself as a racing game developer. Heavy investment in technology and expansion of licences and IPs are seen as the next step. Just as the studio sits between the old and the new in Milan, it hovers between its history and its future and the team is ready for the risks ahead.

Milestone is at a turning point as a studio. Over twenty years, it has established itself as a racing game developer

The studio is renowned for its experience in racing game development. However, beyond its notable game releases and the notoriety such experience brings, not much is known about the studio outside of its native Italy.

Now Milestone is expanding, trying to build new IPs on top of its established licensed franchise entries, and looking to future proof its technology with Epic Games' Unreal Engine. Milestone wants the world to know who they are.

The studio isn't just looking to show off the improvements that come with a new engine, but a whole new ethos. One of the things you'll hear a lot if you speak to anyone from Milestone is that the company has undergone a reinvention that was like starting from scratch. A change in upper management has seen a switch from relative comfort and satisfactory returns, to greater risk and even higher reward.

20 years is a long time in the games industry. In order to appreciate Milestone's plans for the future, we must first look to its past.

HISTORY

The studio originally started out under the name Graffiti in 1994. During that time, the studio released a game called Screamer, an MS-DOS racing game that brought the same style of arcade racing that the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were offering at the time. The series grew with the release of Screamer 2 and Screamer Rally as Graffiti became Milestone in 1996, and the games moved away from the arcade styling to the more simulation based titles that the studio is now known for.


The first licensed game came in the form of Superbike World Championship, published by EA.
It was Milestone’s first foray into the world of motorbikes. For the next few years, the company concentrated on this until enteringa partnership with Infogrames and starting to develop games specifically for consoles.


At this point, Milestone was gaining notoriety as a racing game studio and also started to take on work-for-hire projects. Licences from Alfa Romero and TV show The X-Factor all helped, although the team itself stayed relatively small. The team also managed to continue its work on superbikes with SBK 07 and started working with MotoGP.


At this point though, Milestone was beginning to hit problems.

 We have to invest in technology. Technology is the core of a video game


 Irvin Zonca, Milestone

A big leap was about to be made with the next generation of consoles, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Milestone, like many other studios at the time, found that developing for these new machines was a struggle. Despite the teething problems the studio experienced, Milestone took on new licences and returned to four wheels with World Rally Championship in 2010.


The R&D department worked on building and honing the engine that had served them for many years. But the quality of games the team was delivering was, on reflection, not what it could have been thanks to the limitations of the engine. The company is now very honest that the management vision at the time was constricting the studio’s ability to deliver that quality.


Irvin Zonca is the head of game design at Milestone and has been at the company for 12 years. Develop spoke with him last month about the switch to Unreal Engine and the challenges it brought to new IP Gravel. This time, we’re talking frankly about the studio’s history. We start with the biggest change he’s seen during his time at the company.


“It’s probably been the management,” Zonca explains. “Because until five years ago we had another manager. I was just the head of a very small group of gameplay designers, just three or four people. The former manager wasn’t thinking big enough. He was just reiterating what we were doing, he wasn’t considering expanding the company. He wasn’t considering taking risks, and so on. So, everything was quite plain. It was not easy at all, but we had to ask ourselves, ‘Where are we heading? What do we want to do? Do we want to keep up with our competitors or not?’.


“The first iteration of our engine is from back in 2010,” Zonca says. “It was already the child of
a previous one that was created years before. It was an engine that was getting old in almost every way. We couldn’t create open worlds, the shaders were not great. It was quite old. Not flexible at all. It was okay for 15 years ago, maybe not even for ten years ago, but we talked with them and we said, ‘We have to invest in technology. Technology is the core of a video game’. So this was the key, but the manager wasn’t listening to us. He wasn’t eager to impress our customers.”


One of the founding members at Graffiti. Ivan Del Duca, stayed with the company until 2001. He’s not long returned to the company as a technical director, but while he was working elsewhere he was becoming dismayed at the products that Milestone was producing. “When I was external to the company, I was a bit worried because there has been a period where I was not quite satisfied as a gamer by the products that Milestone made,” he tells me. “And this was one of my fears before returning to Milestone. Would I have the opportunity to make some changes to improve the quality?”

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GROWING UP

Luisa Bixio is the vice president of Milestone. She has worked for the studio for over five years, starting as a commercial manager. As the company has evolved, she has been front and centre in creating a new, better Milestone. Growth is clearly an important goal for the future.


“We want to be in business,” Bixio says. “To do that we have to change and we have to get better.” They say you have to speculate to accumulate, and Milestone is speculating heavily indeed. Licences have been a big part of Milestone’s work over the past decade and that looks likely to continue. MotoGP’s latest edition is now out and MXGP has released its third entry, having been moved to the Unreal Engine.


But there are more projects in the pipeline and Milestone is keen to expand with its own IPs, like Gravel.
This desire to grow has seen a lot of hires within the company, expanding to gather expertise in Unreal Engine, and to help with their own R&D in creating bespoke solutions for the needs of the racing genre, like physics and AI. This is vital, given the nature of some of the licences like the annual MotoGP game, which is licensed from parent company Dorna.

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Walking around the studio, you see a few different indications of the studio’s past. You’ll find posters of recent releases and even a room full of framed game discs, going as far back as the PS1 days. But aside from that, you won’t find any nostalgia for that past anywhere else in the company. There is a pride in what Milestone is creating, and an acknowledgement in what it has done, but beyond that, the company is focused on its future.


Milestone sits on the fourth floor of its office building, but the majority of development is done in large, open areas. Most of the team sits in two of these areas and are divided into different aspects of the game design process. On one bank of desks, team members are experimenting with world design tools. On another, there are tests on vehicle physics, with many on-screen graphs showing the realtime physical load for suspension on a certain terrain change. Then there are other desks working on the likes of terrain deformation, programming AI patterns and testing tracks to make sure the cars and bikes are responding as they should be.


Working together is vital for teams that are using new tech, as everyone can help and learn from each other. But for all the negativity that the team said they felt in the past, this all feels positive. Everyone here not only looks happy, but seems excited about the projects they’re working on.

With Unreal everything changed. We started from scratch, basically. But we didn’t have a huge amount of time to do this


Ivan Del Duca, Milestone

U-TURN

Irvin Zonca puts this new direction and positivity down to the change of management and the introduction of new technology. “Five years ago we had a change in management, and I was made head of game design,” he says. “We had other people with us and we were given the objective of investing in technology. Putting new ideas on the table. Making the company grow. And I think that this is working. It’s not easy. We started five years ago to look for new game engine and we decided, ‘Okay this game engine is not good’.


“We knew this for years, that we wanted to change. Five years ago, it was impossible for us to create a new engine by ourselves, because game engines are very big. It was not possible to stop game development for a new engine, because we didn’t have the money to just focus on R&D.
“We had to wait for the stars to align. Epic was ready, we were ready. We found new people like Ivan Del Duca, who is our head of development, and he’s been here for less than two years, but he arrived to work with Unreal Engine 4.


“So it was the right time, and we started working on new pipelines with the engine. Five years ago we were making €2 million a year. And now we are making €28 million. This means that we were able to start the growth that we were planning. It’s not easy because we’re building the elements for the engine and we can’t stop developing games.”


Although it’s a challenge he enjoys, Zonca does struggle to get the team working together as he hopes they would. “I know it’s quite strange because usually if you put a bunch of people who love video games in a room they will gather together and start speaking out loud, making noise about what they like,” he explains. “The problem is that here we are all passionate about racing, and games in general.

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“When you start working on a specific asset, on a specific feature or something within that line, you focus on what you’re doing. It’s not so natural to talk with other people, to look at what other people are doing. If you put some developers into a room, they will focus on their work without talking to each other. It’s quite strange, but it’s what happens in development.


“So we really need to push people to talk with each other, to see what other people are doing. We prefer to have open spaces and all the doors open in order to push people to look at other monitors. Sometimes, I’m walking through the office, and I see something on a monitor. I stop and I talk with the person, I ask questions and they explain it to me. I give feedback. It’s crucial, it’s fundamental to make people work together, especially when you’re working on an open world game.”


Ivan Del Duca was brought back into Milestone because he has experience with Unreal Engine, but he also knows the company. “I’m very happy with the results of all the work we did in the last year,” he says as we discuss the upcoming final phases of MXGP 3’s development in the engine.


“We started emigrating technology out to Unreal Engine and it’s very, very different from what we had. We had some custom tools and the technology was tailored around them. This means that the production was very well known from every point of view by all the team members. And we knew exactly how much time we would need to make a new game, to make a new chapter of a game, and so on.


“With Unreal, everything changed. We started from scratch basically. But we didn’t have a huge amount of time to do this. I’m in charge of the R&D department and we worked for about ten months to write the technology that was built to integrate and expand the possibilities of Unreal Engine. Unreal is a generic engine. You can do whatever you want with it.


“Vehicle physics is one of our most important pieces of technology. We rolled this into the core technology to expand the possibilities of Unreal Engine and then we started with Gravel, but in the end we decided that maybe the first title should be MXGP 3, being a bit smaller and something that we knew better. Gravel is a new experiment for us. We want to return to our origins, maybe like Screamer, and try to bring back those kinds of gaming experiences.”

Gravel is Milestone’s first new IP in a long time and it’s something that they are very passionate about. Not just because of the excitement behind doing something new, but what it signifies for the studio. A fresh new direction after a reinvention of the company.


So, it may be a surprise to see the team talk so candidly about it and the development process. But, as it is for anyone who creates something new, Gravel, MXGP 3 and the Unreal Engine created a very difficult but necessary learning curve. Which is why MXGP 3 will be the first release and the priority for development within Milestone for the time being. While the project is less time intensive compared to Gravel, things haven’t been as smooth as expected, despite some elements becoming much simpler.


“It’s easier in two respects,” explains Del Duca. “One aspect is because we know exactly what we have to do. It’s easier to divide all the tasks, the features that we have to write and test and submit to the platform holders. We are at the third chapter of MXGP, so we know how to do it and we know what we need to improve. But Gravel is an open world game. It’s massive. While MXGP is a bit smaller, it is based on smaller circuits, smaller tracks. It has a lot of stuff to go on, but compared to a bigger title like Gravel it has been the right choice to focus on MXGP 3’s development with the new technology.

We want to be in business. To do this, we have to change and get better


Luisa Bixio, Milestone

“But, to be honest, we had to change something during the development of the game. During the development of MXGP and the development of Gravel, we found that something that we planned wasn’t the right choice, or something we implemented wasn’t the right thing to do, and we had to change during development. This caused some problems, but the good thing is that using Unreal, we have Epic supporting us. This is a huge change for us.”


While Milestone is learning about the engine, Unreal is learning what it is missing, like car physics and driver AI, for more varied projects that Milestone is capable of creating bespoke solutions for.
“Working with a shell technology is an incredible feeling because there are thousands of people working on the same things, and they can help you. They can give you advice and also, I’m not just talking about other companies, but also single developers, they use Unreal Engine. They write nice plug-ins. You can see it and you can say, ‘Oh, it’s something nice and something cool’. You contact him and include his or her technology into your own game, something that was impossible with your own technology because it was something that was unable to be implemented into our engine.”


This road trip has only just begun for Milestone, and it’s taken over 10 years for the studio to change its management and its mindset approaching game development. The road looks set to lead the studio to some interesting destinations.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

With all the excitement around Milestone, expectations may be high, but the reinvention has seen some very open and honest reflections.


“Everybody was excited to do new things to unleash creativity,” explains Zonca. “And I have to say that it was very positive. This last year has been very, very positive. The team was really happy because it has been given the chance to push more of what we did before.


“Every time a new console is released, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo change all the TRCs (technical requirements checklists) before going to submission, so you need to relearn everything. Think about the new functionalities of the dashboard or new trends in game design. You have to keep learning if you are working as a game developer. So it’s not something that scares us, it’s just a reality. This is why we were happy about changing the game engine, because it was better. Nobody cared if we had to learn new things.”

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Zonca and his team are very honest about their journey to developing Gravel. The team at Milestone are all racing fans, and have put a fair amount of hours into playing the competition, like Forza Horizon and The Crew.


But this is coupled with an honest appraisal of what the team can do. This is the studio’s first open world project and they know there’ll be a lot to learn from the likes of Forza Horizon that have been iterated upon for over half a decade.


“We know how other people made that,” Zonca explains. “I don’t think that when you do something for the first time you can be as good as other people. As this is the first time we’ve made an open world, it wouldn’t be fair to say that it will be the best open world. I don’t think so.

“It’s the same thing when we talk about the motorcycle game market. There are very few developers that create motorbike games because it’s very difficult to create the first one. And you really need some years to go through all the problems with physics, animation, and so on to make a good one.


“I don’t believe people who say, ‘This is our first effort. We’ve already made everything that we wanted to do. Everything is perfect.’ It’s not. It can’t be. This is why we try to avoid some traps when developing it. So, for example, we didn’t originally set Gravel up to be an open world game, but we put some open world maps into the game we had.


"It was a good step to start from in the beginning, to start working on open maps, giving the player the chance to do something. But if you want to trigger events, you need to have a storyline that will develop [narratively] with cutscenes, and so on. It would really have been too much for us to start with. So we wanted to start with applying some limitations to the game design, and then focusing more on the open world features.”

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Everyone at Milestone knows that this is a gamble, but it’s arguably a sensible gamble that could benefit the studio and the Italian games industry as a whole. More jobs, more skills, more training and experience. Milestone, of course, relies on the Unreal Engine now, along with Epic’s support of it. But the forecasts are up, the licences are continuing and new licences and projects look set to be unveiled in the future.


“It’s not easy to restart doing what you already did in a totally different way,” admits Zonca. “But when you master it, you’re better. You can do better things. You feel great. You feel more like the competition, and so on. But, at the very beginning, it is very difficult.


“We looked at this as a good and positive thing. We bet on growing. We bet on Unreal technology, and we bet on people that we took on board. It’s working, but we weren’t sure, honestly, that it would. Because one major mistake and we are fucked. But we gamble and, for the moment, we are doing well.”

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