While the first two versions of its ProFX procedural texturing technology didnâ??t set the middleware world alight, the re-tooled, rebranded and refocused Substance Air is on course to tap into the growing digital download market, Ed Fear discoversâ?¦
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Allegorithmic’s ProFX was a brilliant idea. Take textures, and their inherent bloat and inability to scale elegantly, and make them procedural. Ta da! Small, portable textures generated on-the-fly with the might of our next-gen consoles.
While the premise was sound, the tech failed to take off in the way some expected. Where it did gain significant traction, though, is in the online market. Although it counts only a number of Western studios amongst its client base, almost all of Asia’s largest MMO developers – The9, NCsoft, Gravity, Nexon – are ardent customers of the technology.
Allegorithmic’s president and founder, the enigmatic Dr. Sebastien Deguy, has been at the forefront of the company’s push into the East. “You know, I read the other day that there might be as many as 10,000 game studios in China,” he enthuses. “Maybe only 300 of them are really active, but that’s still a big market.”
It’s China and Korea’s markets that have embraced ProFX, and for good reason. The significant barrier to revenue generation in free-to-play MMOs is the download size of the client – the bigger it is, the less likely people are going to complete the download, and therefore the less people that’ll actually play the game. Being able to reduce texture footprint by up to 500x can have a significant influence on client size, especially as textures typically take up 50 per cent of any game.
Deguy gives us a case study. One of Allegorithmic’s customers, Gravity, released a new ProFX-enabled version of its popular game Ragnarok Online, reducing the client size from 1.3Gb to 900Mb. “Just from a 25 per cent size decrease, revenues went up 38 per cent,” explains Deguy.
“The model is that, out of 100 people who want to play a free MMO, 10 will actually complete the download and one of those will end up paying for items. Our goal is to increase the number of people who actually play the game.”
Realising the power (and demand) of this new market, the company went back to the drawing board, coming up with its new product – Substance Air.
“Essentially, we could have called it ProFX 3.0,” says Deguy. “It’s the next generation of ProFX but completely rewritten. It’s more flexible, more scalable, and more focused on the core market: online gaming.”
Much of the focus for the new version has been on making the workflow easier and redesigning the authoring tool’s interface. Because artists are used to working in a directly visual environment, Deguy admits that there was a problem with getting them on board.
“Artists find it hard. They found it hard to get used to ProFX, so now we have a set of training materials and videos. We also run a lot of training to get people up to speed on the product. What we’ve found is that after about two hours they’re comfortable with it, so we know it’s not a massive problem, just a problem of first steps. I think with ProFX it was the case that we only ‘changed the lives’ of about one per cent of people – 99 per cent said, ‘Umm, no thanks’. Here now with Substance it’s more than that, about 50 per cent. We’re aware of the problem, because it’s a real innovation, and we have to change the way people build their assets, and that means we have to help them.”
Deguy is clear that, while the current focus is on the size benefits of procedural textures is at the forefront, the company hasn’t abandoned its other push – using the run-time generation of textures to make them more dynamic.
“Substance Air is the first iteration of the new Substance family. So, you’ll have Substance Air for online games, maybe another Substance product for retail games. But, for retail games, they’re more interested in the dynamic textures because they’ve got all the space of a DVD, so being compact isn’t such an important thing. They’re more interested in making their environments more dynamic, so that when I hit a wall the impact is different depending on, say, the weapon involved, the angle of the attack and the velocity of the attack.
“We’ll have something for web-based applications too – what I call the new 3D. New 3D is real-time, online, multi-platform – cellphones, browser – and also mass-market. So you’d need to have something compact for online; something dynamic to scale between the multiple platforms. But it’s online gaming first. We’ve found a business model and a proposition of value, and we’ll see what comes next.”
Given that ProFX had a free version called MapZone, we asked Deguy whether Substance Air will receive the same.
“MapZone will still be there, and we’ll still be rolling in minor upgrades,” he confirms. “But for Substance, I’m not sure about the business model yet.”
The reasoning behind MapZone, he goes on to say, was to help build a community around ProFX. Given the different process required to generate procedural textures, having a community that was comfortable with the tool and could help out new users was an early goal of the company.
“We want to build a community. It’s a highly complex tool, so we’ve spent a lot of time making it more accessible to non-technical artists. But it remains quite technical, and quite a different way of working.
“So we’ve been looking for smart ways to build a community so that there’s this help base. The idea was that having MapZone out there free would help attract that community, but it turns out that it didn’t really do a huge amount. We didn’t reach that critical mass. So maybe when Substance comes out that’ll help, because it’s more focused towards artists.
“We’ll see, but we’re not sure about the different levels of pricing. We’ve got many ways to go – we could say it’s free for non-commercial use, or maybe that you pay a fee once you’ve found a publisher. We’re considering all possible avenues.”