From indie to middleware provider: Chimera maker Zero Dependency

From indie to middleware provider: Chimera maker Zero Dependency
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

February 21st 2014 at 12:45PM

Develop caught up with the outfit’s technical director Andy Esser to find out what makes its forthcoming game engine stand out from the crowd

For readers who aren’t aware, what is Zero Dependency’s story, and what makes you distinct in the world of middleware?
Andy Esser, technical director: Zero Dependency was formed in 2010 by Phil Hurst and myself. We were looking to create fun, engaging and beautiful games. More recently, however, we’ve focused on creating powerful tools and middleware to help serve the increasing accessibility of development.

What motivated you to start building a new game engine? What was the gap in the market you saw?
Whilst conducting research for developing our own games we discovered that many of the options out there weren’t really suitable to us. They either catered for high accessibility, and therefore delivered low power and control – or the opposite but were then very expensive.

Personally, I love getting stuck in and finding out how everything works. However, with many of the development tools that just wasn’t possible. I found that lack of control really infuriating.

On the other hand, engines that seemed to provide you with all the power in the world were restrictively priced. So much so that a small indie team just couldn’t even hope to use it. We decided there had to be a middle ground, a set of tools focused on improving workflow without costing a fortune.



And what are the Chimera’s engine’s key distinguishing features? In other words, what defines it as an engine?
We are focusing heavily on having a really clean, powerful workflow that can cater to all team sizes and requirements. Of course beautiful graphics and powerful physics are important but that doesn’t mean anything if it takes months or years to generate a scene.

A couple of key areas we’re working on are getting assets into the editor, and then getting games onto target platforms as easily as possible. We’re working on tools that will allow artists to live preview content from Autodesk Max and Maya direct in the editor to see how a particular asset will look or impact the scene.

Another tool helps test your game content, including gameplay, effects, assets, audio and physics interactions, directly on the target device. Developers will be able to make changes in the editor in real-time and see how they appear on the device.

We’re also working on a set of tools for offline processing that can be incorporated into a continuous integration pipeline. For example pre-processing art assets into formats that take advantage of platform specific features and data layouts. This reduces loading and processing times when gamers load a game, whilst cutting down on ‘dead time’ for developers.

These are fairly standard tools within triple-A studios and engines, but aren’t really provided for smaller teams. We want to bring that power to the smaller studios so they can concentrate on creating amazing works of art, without having to spend much time optimising a pipeline or trying to reduce the size of packaged assets.
All of these features help towards streamlining development, decreasing iteration time and an overall reduction of the cost of publishing a game to the marketplace.



Most of the features I’ve discussed so far are about getting assets into the engine, or packaging them up afterwards, but one of the key principles of Chimera is modularity. Chimera is built on a cross-platform core which provides standard functionality for features such as file IO, threading, memory management and networking.

On top of this core we are building powerful rendering, physics, AI, audio and input systems – however developers are free to completely replace these systems with their own if they have an existing renderer, for example, or if they want to alter the behaviour of the physics.

This provides almost unlimited control of how each component works whilst not sacrificing accessibility as the default systems will be high-quality and high-performance.

We also support ‘hot-reloading’ of modules within the editor and debug builds on target devices, meaning that changes can be seen and tested immediately, without having to go through a lengthy or complicated build process.

The editor itself is also written with all these features in mind. For example, developers can write their own modules for the editor. They can create their own importers/exporters for asset types, a new UI system, or a network build system – whatever they need to improve their workflow and give them ultimate control.

You mentioned cross-platform. What platforms exactly does it target?
We’re planning on deploying to a multitude of platforms, including mobile. However currently our focus is on PC, Linux and Mac, as well as the PlayStation 4 and the PS Vita.

The way that the core Chimera systems are written means that developers only have to write code once, and can then deploy to all of their required target platforms, once again cutting down on iteration time and giving developers more time to focus on what they do best: creating beautiful, engaging games.



What kind of studios is the engine being made for? Is there still an emphasis on smaller developers?
The benefits of Chimera are for all developers. Whether this is one or two man indie teams, or full-size triple-A studios. With a price point that is not restrictive, we provide powerful, fast and extensible tools to ensure that developers can do what they need to do as quickly as possible.

Chimera is not designed for a specific type of game. It is equally suited to first-person shooters, 2.5D platformers, point-and-click games or any other kind of title that developers are working on.

It would be interesting to hear more on why Chimera particularly matters today. How does the make-up of the engine reflect trends or changes seen in the industry today?
We’ve seen a massive change in attitudes over the last few years. With game popularity on mobile devices increasing, more and more tools are appearing to allow anyone to develop games and universities offering more varied and higher quality degrees.

With the latest generation of consoles being released we’ve seen the major console holders opening up much more to independent developers. We can see this in the ID@Xbox program, or the very open nature of Sony who are happy to speak to any developer about getting their game onto the PlayStation systems.

All of this means that more people than ever are either working in, or considering a career in the games industry and we want to be right there, at the forefront, helping people to realise their dreams.

If a studio was to adopt Chimera, what do you think would be the most significant impact on the team?
The core principle of Chimera is improving workflow. We’re hoping to push as much control onto the content creator – the modellers, the artists, the UI designers – as possible, allowing programmers to focus on improving gameplay, AI, physics and reducing the amount of time spent on bug-fixing and iterating.

We’re going to be creating really comprehensive documentation, coupled with online training videos, and in-studio training sessions as well, to reduce any hit to productivity during the retooling process. We’re building source control tools direct into the editor that will fit in with  a developer’s existing Git, SVN or Perforce systems to ensure that all their hard work is safe and available to the rest of the team.



How will the pricing and licensing of the engine work?
We’re reviewing a number of licensing options, but right now we’re looking at providing a one-off cost per major release, as well as a subscription model to help those studios where cash flow is an issue. We’re hoping to provide a licensing model to suit all teams regardless of size and funding. We will also be making all the Chimera tools available to download for free for non-commercial and academic users.

And when can we expect the first commercial release?
We’re hoping to coincide our first commercial release announcement at GDC Europe. As much as we want to get teams using our tools as soon as possible, we also want to make sure everything is in a good state and that we’re providing the tools and services that developers need.

Based on feedback from the beta participation right now we’re looking at visiting interested studios to demonstrate Chimera to them and find out what more could be done to help their development. We want Chimera to be the best tool possible, and for that we need honest feedback from as many people as possible in the industry.

How can studios keen to try your engine before then get involved?
Although we’re still a few months from releasing Chimera, we are looking for studios who are interested in beta participation.

For more information visit the official website.

Models and Textures kindly provided by Robin Silcock (www.robinsilcock.com)