Engines of Change

Engines of Change
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

June 21st 2010 at 12:41PM

Will Freeman looks at a middleware sector charged with adapting to a new development landscape.



A few years before the acquisition of Criterion’s Renderware in 2004 by EA, the middleware sector was still in a relatively fledgling state, dominated by a clique of high profile tool and engine firms.

That was before the iPhone, Facebook and the segmentation of the middleware market into a state where all manner of offerings from complete engines and toolsets to weather systems tech compete for studio’s attention. In 2010, the middleware market looks very different from how it appeared six-years previously.

As the definition of just what middleware is enters a new state of flux, and the companies developing tools and tech start to toy with the boundaries that divide them from service companies, it’s a perfect time to take a long hard look at the sector today, and ask where it will be in the near future.

“It’s always difficult to get a handle on just where middleware begins and ends, and what it’s in the middle of,” confirms Paul Mayze, COO of Monumental Games, which, when not developing games, offers and end-to-end MMO creation solution.

“When the likes of Criterion and Epic took the industry from niche to mainstream it all seemed so much clearer – but probably because they accompanied a pretty limited group of genres targeted at a small number of platforms whose audience was well-defined."

Now, with middleware firmly fixed in the games developer’s conscience, its hard to refute the suggestion that non-proprietary tools are as integral to the industry as studios and the publishers that so many paint as the sector’s villains.

TOOLED UP

That shift from niche to convention is down to one thing; developer attitude to middleware. Increasingly the idea that – like some virtual industrial revolution – middleware is coming to take developers’ jobs is becoming a rather archaic notion.

“I think the attitude of games developers towards middleware has changed over the past five years,” suggests Autodesk’s senior industry manger for games, Mary Beth Haggerty.

“As games have evolved in sophistication engineers have begun to realise that it is not efficient, or even interesting, to solve all problems themselves. Using production-tested third-party middleware can free teams to work on what is fun and interesting in their game, rather than concentrate their efforts on problems with available solutions.

"Using middleware developers can focus more resources on innovative gameplay and less time on just getting basics into their codebase.”

Middleware’s success in winning the affection of games makers comes primarily from its ability to adapt with the market, and give developers what they want, which begs the question; how is middleware today evolving to meet the want of modern studios?

It’s an enquiry that generates a lot of answers, and the first comes from Blitz Games Studios.

“The shifts we are seeing in the games market are changing the scale and speed of development, making it essential to deploy middleware that provides tools for rapid development and prototyping,” explains the standalone toolset provider’s studio technical director Richard Hackett.

“The ability to make edits in real-time on the target console, visual tools so that designers and artists can work effectively and an integrated tools pipeline are all essential elements for fast and effective development.”

To many, the issues testing the dedication of developers today – namely budgets, team sizes and production timelines – are effectively exaggerated versions of the very concepts that inspired the first generation of middleware. As those trends have become amplified, so has the pace at which middleware providers need to adapt.

“Middleware will become more important as development time has to shrink to be financial sustainable and specialised,” confirms Thorsten-Tobias Heinze, the product manager of Periscope Studios’ dynamic audio solution psai.

"Development teams of middleware developers can focus solely on their middleware development as R&D teams become more difficult to sustain for developers. Even in Japan with its traditional in-house development philosophy, the developers start to turn towards middleware.”

As the East gradually welcomes the middleware it was once infamously cautious to embrace, another trend is changing the rules closer to home. Social network gaming is here to stay, and with it comes its kissing cousins mobile and indie development.

MOBILISING MIDDLEWARE

Autodesk’s Haggerty is quick to highlight the fact that now the games industry is expanding and powerful handheld and mobile models are looming large on the market’s landscape.

“Just because these do not follow a traditional console cycle does not mean middleware companies do not need to keep up with constant hardware innovation in this area. Autodesk is actively partnering with hardware mobile and handheld manufacturers to better respond to developers evolving requirements.”

The tech giant isn’t alone in recognising that a new breed of developer, working not only at a different scale, but with an entirely new ecosystem, is hungry to harness the potential of middleware.

“Indie or small developer market is a major target now for middleware companies,” says the CEO of particle effects specialist Fork Particle Noor Khawaja. “I believe we will see more middleware for mobile devices and online browser gaming. We have not yet tapped these markets but we are keeping a close eye on them.”

Fortunately for the army of new content creators embracing social gaming, barriers to entry for the most ubiquitous platforms, such as mobile and web, are falling by the wayside.

That’s according to Philip Belhassen, CEO app middleware specialist StoneTrip:

“Middleware will likely continue to evolve and add more features and enable people without deep technology backgrounds do more with the tools.

"It’s exciting to think of the creative ideas that people will come up with and then think that we will hopefully be a part of them achieving their development goals.”

That considered, it’s natural to think, says Belhassen, that some consolidation will occur as tools merge and morph to meet studios’ requirements. To that end, StoneTrip has been enthusiastically adding app friendly platforms to its ShiVa 3D engine, and claims to be the first to enable 3D game development on iPad, Android and recently Palm webOS.

StoneTrip is even readying its tools for Facebook development; something that would have seemed rather implausible at middleware’s dawn.

Even more specific discipline-focused middleware offerings, such as the Firelight Technologies’ FMOD audio solutions, are recognising the value in supporting the boom in social and mobile gaming. As well as supporting the likes of PS3, 360 and Wii, the duo of FMOD solutions also embrace iPhone, Unity and Android integration.

“For middleware providers, it is essential that understandings of new platforms are secured early and tools provided that support the unique features of the platform,” explains the firm’s sales and business manager Martin Wilkes.

“As an example here, FMOD worked to provide support for both the iPhone and iPad. This has been a great addition for FMOD with some 200-plus titles and we are working closely with leading publishers such as EA on many of their lead titles.”

Another provider of tech tailoured very specifically making itself available to developers on platforms traditionally viewed as hosts of small scale productions is UI specialist Scaleform, which frequently supplies front end solutions for triple-A games.

“Mobile and social gaming forces middleware vendors to question their product offering and make hard decisions whether or not they should adjust to these new markets,” reveals Scaleform’s president and CEO Brendan Iribe. “Staying focused is important, but missing a major market, especially if competition gets there first, can be very costly.”

Middleware needs to help developers take advantage of all the available hardware and software functionality, says Iribe, including multi-touch, accelerometers, cameras, and increasingly, stereoscopic 3D. There’s also the capacity for mobile middleware providers to tackle the likes of maximising the memory, performance, and battery life.

MOVING ON

Of course, social and mobile platforms aren’t the only areas of the industry catching the attention of increasing numbers of gamers. There’s also been a resurgence of interest in new controller technologies, which, as Blitz Game Studios’ Hackett highlights, provides new challenges and opportunities.

“We again benefit from our direct connection to in-house game development that drives this continuous change. To back up our strategy of offering an integrated and complete development solution we continue to make substantial investments in new technologies as we have with 3D TV and including provision of a motion control toolkit which will be part of BlitzTech as standard. The new kinds of gameplay and the increased engagement with ‘non-gamers’ made possible by these devices is something that really excites us at the moment.”

Of course, Hackett is referring to both Natal and Move, which each promise to fill the gaps exposed by the Wii’s eventual shortcomings.

“Natal opens the door for new category of middleware that will utilise new peripheral hardware capabilities,” enthuses Fork Particle’s Khawaja, as conversation turns to the future.

“I think we will see middleware that does stuff with adjustable intelligence added. A ‘Natal-like’ system which takes interactivity to a new level may trigger the trend for artificial intelligence and decision making technology applied to gesture recognition, facial expressions and emotions, and conversational speech. I think these are only a few applications and there is room for many more."

Motion control certainly seems set to test tool and tech companies, but arguably it introduces no greater challenges than those long presented by the PC infrastructure. Middleware providers have long wrangled with catering for graphics cards changes, and parallels like Direct X updates.

Perhaps that’s the reason Torsten Reil, the CEO and co-founder of human body movement experts Natural Motion, is so optimistic about the fact that Natal is being pitched as the alternative to a new hardware generation:

“I think everyone will benefit from an extended hardware cycle. For example, we have a lot of product and technology ideas that will run perfectly fine on current hardware. In addition, Natal and Move itself are opening up very compelling opportunities for technology providers.”

There is reason for caution, though, as Natal and Move threaten to shake up middleware before its overall ecosystem settles. “The danger is that small middleware companies could reach a tipping point, where they are forced to spend more time ensuring compatibility with an explosion of platforms than making their core product better,” warns Frank Kane, founder of sky rendering experts Sungdog.

“Bottom line, middleware development is going to get more expensive. Companies that can effectively scale and shield their customers from this complexity will be the successful ones.”

If that weren’t enough to worry about, Intel’s long promised multi-core future is on the horizon, as the megahertz race concludes. According to Scaleform’s Iribe the demand for heavily optimised multi-threaded software is one the rise, and gaining momentum. Still, it’s not all bad news, if the capacity of investment of effort is in place.

“There's a growing opportunity for tools and middleware providers to get ahead of the curve and start addressing the needs now, at least start working on them,” suggests the CEO.

“Efficiently multi-threading a core middleware solution that wasn't originally designed for it usually requires a significant amount of architecture and code changes, often a complete rewrite. To complicate things further, the solution should be designed to scale from a single-threaded single-core scenario to a heavily multi-threaded multi-core environment.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

With the industry currently defined by its restlessness, looking a little further forward at the prospects for middleware is slightly daunting, but the future is certainly enthralling, and if many are to believed, it’s also set to boast impressive depth.

“Stereoscopic 3D is a feature of the future for all graphics – whether offline, real-time, in games, movies or in simulation and visualisation,” insists Crytek’s director of global business development for CryEngine Carl Jones.

“Whilst it is not required for the effective development of all such projects, it does add, well, literally an extra dimension to any virtual environment, so having a solution that is efficient and allows instant creation and control will be vital for certain projects.”

Along with the need to take a gamble on Intel’s multi-core plan, the potential rise of 3D means middleware providers must be prepared to spend some hard earned cash in place of their developer industry-mates. In the wake of the recent economic crisis, which saw the core market risk fewer new franchises and instead commit to bigger budgets on formulaic entertainment, the financial challenge is perhaps the biggest middleware providers will face in the coming years.

“The impact on the video game development landscape is irrevocable and is resetting how games will be made and go to market,” warns Emergent’s CEO of game technologies Scott Johnson.

“The video game industry is only now beginning to recover from a rash of studio closures and developer layoffs, and publishers are striving to find new models for creating high-quality gaming experiences with less risk, smaller staffing counts, and lower overheads.”

From Johnson’s perspective, a tough start now does mean an increase in the standards of future tools and tech:

“Shorter game development schedules and smaller budgets demand that middleware solutions drop into game projects easily and live alongside other middleware productively in a content ecosystem that doesn’t care whether functionality comes from middleware or internal technology. Content creators won’t have to worry about which vendor is responsible for Tool X or Feature Y, because it will work, and it will work seamlessly with the rest of the game’s toolset.”

Equally optimistic about the pressure on the middleware sector is Stephanie O’Malley Demming of XLOC, which offers localisation integration tools. She argues a convincing case that sees developers woes meaning more work for tool and tech providers:

“As game development becomes more intricate, developers will continually look for solutions that take care of the standard areas of production, so that they can focus on the more complicated, creative, core aspects. Allocating internal resources to non-core functions of game development is expensive, and as time goes on, developers and publishers will increasingly feel that it’s worth investing in middleware solutions that already have technology created and evolving, and that are built to be incorporated into engines or processes.”

INTEGRATED CIRCUITS

Speaking to the experts of the sector, it appears middleware suffered a similar fate to motion capture in its early history. Initially overenthusiastic middleware firms promised the world, proposing that their products could solve developers’ every problem.

“It’s not what we’re seeing right now and a lot of people are very bitter with their experiences,” suggests Ready at Dawn’s sales and marketing director of engine. Like many of its contemporaries, Ready at Dawn is a developer that has seized the opportunity to move into the middleware sector.

“There are so many disjointed parts too,” states Nagel. “Something we’re trying to solve with our integrated approach, where teams have to license an engine and then choose between 10 other pieces of middleware to complete it if they can get it to all work together and play nice.”

The disparate nature of vast swathes of today’s middleware market is slowly disappearing, and every day in the development community seems to bring news of a new collaboration or integration. Things are still complicated though, and as a result a new focus on efficiency and simplicity has been born.

“We do have new tools to combat this rise in complexity,” promises Emergent’s Johnson.

“Scripting languages and higher-level compiled languages are improving the efficiency of both game developers and middleware providers. Open interoperability standards make it easier than ever to share content between middleware products and studios’ internal technology.”

And the glue between these advances? Improved prototyping toolsets that give games makers the ability to rapidly iterate on technology and content experiences free from delay, says Johnson. Quite simply, middleware is now better at fusing itself with developer’s own tech.

That’s all very encouraging, but the issue of an increasingly diverse dev sector remains, meaning the pressure is on for middleware houses to keep focus.

“In today’s shifting market, it is very easy to get distracted and to shift your development efforts to meet the flavour of the day,” warns a pragmatic Felix Roeken, who serves as Trinigy’s general manger, and works with the firm’s popular Vision Engine.

“That approach tends to have the opposite effect on customers as tech providers shift resources and forget about those customers who made them successful in the first place. The trick is to respond to changes without losing sight of your core competencies.”

Concentrated effort is clearly a priority then, if middleware firms are to thrive, but that must be balanced with the adaptability needed to cater for new platforms and new models of development.

“Recently there has been a resurgence of debate on the impact of piracy on the health and future of PC gaming, and on the opposite end of the spectrum some pundits have even questioned the likelihood of a future console generation,” says Emergent’s Johnson.

“The PC and console markets are going to continue to thrive, thanks to the vision and passion of game creators, platform holders, middleware developers and publishers working together to create entertainment that consumers want.”

DIVIDE AND CONQUER

It seems then, that segmentation is a necessity, and something that will define the future of middleware. At least, that’s what xaitment’s group CEO, Dr. Andreas Gerber thinks.

“That is the first trend, to have independent smaller and much more flexible and specialised engines and tools. But independent in a way, that all these smaller engines fit very well together, if someone want to use them all.” confirms the man heading up the team behind xaitment’s suite of AI tech.

Few refute that segmentation is the solution to securing a stable future for middleware, but juggling the finer points of diversity, focus and integration isn’t without significant difficulties.

“Certainly, segmentation can be a challenge since it requires us to constantly re-think and adjust our products, business model and strategy as the case may be,” admits Trinigy’s Roeken.

“However, at the same time segmentation is a gift since it creates new business markets, new revenue streams and – ultimately - enables growth. Hence, segmentation took a key role in the maturing process of our industry in the past years and I trust it will continue doing so in the future – let’s embrace it.”

It’s hard not to warm to Roeken’s optimism, but not everybody takes such an upbeat perspective on the potential pitfalls middleware is currently straddling.

“Middleware has to start delivering on its promises,” advises Ready at Dawn’s Nagel.

“No one is going to continue licensing engines that require you to rip half of it out before you can even start or connect it to some other piece of middleware it wasn’t designed to work with. People have learned from their mistakes and I think the real era of middleware starts now with companies that will be smart enough to be honest with their customers and make promises that are realistic and achievable. We’re here to help the teams we work with achieve their vision and make it easier on them, not just to take their money and run.

”
The future success of middleware also lies with harnessing the potential of areas outside of traditional gaming. As the tech behind film and games continues to offer new opportunities, so does the expanding world of serious games.

“We've always had strong business in that sector and it continues to grow for us,” explains Sundog’s Kane.

“Middleware providers need to be conscious of the specific needs for applications that aren't purely for entertainment; physical realism and interoperability with government standards are important in that world. I also see the number of tools, engines, platforms, and technologies that middleware providers need to support continuing to grow over time – there's really no sign of consolidation that I see.”

Another emerging trend in the field of middleware is that of working with the developer, initially to assist with both support and advice, and ultimately to adapt core tech in response to a studio’s needs and take those modifications to a wider audience.

“This can lead to some fantastic developments that then can be integrated into tools for other developers,” reveals FMOD’s Wilkes.

“A great company for this was the team at Neversoft with the guitar hero series. A fantastic game based entirely on audio, and it was at Neversoft’s request that FMOD developed many features for that series. Features that are now available to all FMOD users.”

Whether you view middleware as the saviour of game development or greet its presence with suspicion, there’s no doubt that it is not only here to stay, but it is increasingly intertwining itself with every element of modern game creation. Simultaneously dividing and streamlining with ferocious efficiency, it is an incredibly adaptive, dynamic sector, and as such, is perfectly placed to encircle the new fields of social games, extended console markets, and new platform paradigms.