Video gaming is much more than just a multibillion-dollar industry; it’s a portal to alternative realities and augmented horizons. The developers, writers and designers employed by the typical studio craft self-contained, opulently textured worlds of impressive realism and naturalism.
These mammoth tasks of software engineering can require thousands of hours of manual work. A teeming sub-industry has sprung up, building software tools to free teams from these arduous constraints.
The tool development industry is living proof of the potential of next-gen software and automation to complement the human creative spirit. The best tools on the market unsnag the production workflow, liberating developers from irksome troubleshooting and busywork.
To bring you the practitioner’s perspective on the tool boom, I sat down with Dave Sharp, a seasoned developer with over 30 years of experience building games.
Q: HI DAVE, GREAT TO SPEAK TO YOU. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TOOLS ADD TO THE GAME-CREATION PROCESS?
A: Ever since gaming became its own sector, the manual work involved in coding has been a pain. In the ‘80s, I used to write all code directly into the game. Every time you started a new game, you couldn’t carry code forward from the last one.
As things professionalised in the ‘90s, we started to develop 3D game engines that were reusable across multiple projects. Most studios would have had an engine programmer responsible for making sure the engine could support multiple games in its lifetime. You also had level editors, who could use tools to create the geometry for a single level, which they’d then export to be read by the game engine. Effectively, you now had a reusable tool for every game.
Q: HAS THIS MADE IT EASIER TO DEVELOP MORE COMPLEX GAMES?
Definitely. Take audio, for example. Anybody who really understands audio knows what a specialist thing it is. Let’s imagine a scene of a car going through a tunnel. For it to seem at all real, you need to apply a Doppler panning and shifting effect to the engine. You also need the corresponding reverb as the sound hits the tunnel walls.
These things are pretty scientific. So having on-demand tools democratised things because the tool would take that painful, scientific bit out of the equation. And most importantly, it would always be reusable.
Q: AT ENDAVA, WE’RE ALL ABOUT STREAMLINING COMPLICATED MANUAL PROCESSES TO REMOVE THE NEED FOR SPECIALIST KNOW-HOW. IS THIS A FAIR DESCRIPTION OF TOOL DEVELOPMENT IN GAMING?
I would say so. The ethos behind tool development isn’t new, nor is it specific to the game industry. It links back to manufacturing processes over time, most specifically Henry Ford’s moving assembly line, where each person had one specific job at one part of the process. Nobody needed to know about the job before or after their own, they just had to do the right thing at the right time, and they ended up with a car. Well, it's the same with using tools to build up different levels to make a game.
Q: CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF A TOOL YOU'VE DEVELOPED TO AUTOMATE A REPETITIVE TASK OR PROCESS?
A big focus of mine has been around making game physics more realistic. For sports-focused games, that’s meant spending a lot of time out on muddy fields dropping rugby balls!
For shooter games, I’ve studied the maths of bullet trajectories. It turns out they can travel over a mile! I used to compile those bits of information for programmers. Tool development can incorporate all that into a level of verisimilitude that can make the difference between a successful game and a flop.
Q: WITH ALL THE OUT-THE-BOX TOOLS AVAILABLE, IS IT FEASIBLE, IN THEORY, FOR SOMEBODY WITH ZERO CODING EXPERIENCE TO PUT TOGETHER A FUNCTIONAL GAME FROM SCRATCH?
For sure. If I were launching a start-up tomorrow morning, I would sign up with Unity or Unreal and solve my entire toolchain problem in one go. Neither platform can facilitate everything. But with a bit of perseverance, you could go through 100 hours of tutorials and make a simple, 2D game. It won’t be amazing, but it is doable.
It sounds a lot, but 100 hours is four days. It’s not four months or four years.
Outside of gaming, there’s a push on low-code and no-code platforms; visual ways of programming that allow anyone to create an application. Gaming is not immune to these trends, so you can see this bleeding into the industry through tools.
Q: ARE THERE ANY PITFALLS OF USING OUT-OF-THE-BOX TOOLS OVER CUSTOM SOLUTIONS?
If you’re using Unity, you're limited to what it supports. A highly bespoke requirement probably isn’t available, so you need to find another way. It's also very difficult to undo a standard component.
But nevertheless, I still support the idea that a small start-up does not need a unique game engine or a tools programmer. What a small studio needs is to ship a game.
Q: ARE THERE ANY CONSPICUOUS GAPS IN FUNCTIONALITY THAT TOOLS AREN’T CURRENTLY FILLING, THAT YOU’D LIKE OR EXPECT THEM TO FILL SOON?
Cross-platform play is the big new horizon for tools playing the same game against each other, me on a PlayStation and you on an iPad. There’s a plethora of different technical specs and operating system differences separating an iPad and a PlayStation. Tools need to effectively interpolate them all into one end-user experience.
There’s another horizon in gaming’s popularity as a spectator sport. More people watched the League of Legends final on Twitch than the Superbowl. Tools could let viewers choose from different angles and perspectives.
Q: CAN YOU FORESEE ANY USES FOR AI IN THE TOOL DEVELOPMENT WORLD?
It would be useful in interpreting one player from another. In one game I’m playing, the NPCs that attack me are relative to my level. If I'm level 50, so are they. But if a level 200 player stands near me, the game pushes all the enemies up to 200 and I get mowed down.
The AI needs to interpret the situation more precisely. Otherwise, I’ll have a poor experience because of factors beyond my control.
Also, what relative advantage should the computer have over the player? I've seen games where the gains balance is so out of whack, it's just not playable.
That’s almost like bringing a philosophy to the game. But how do you code a philosophy, or a conscience? These are probably unresolvable questions. You can’t press a button that says ‘balance my game’ and produce a perfect harmony. That’s one place you still need human judgment.
Q: ARE THERE ASPECTS OF THE GAME CREATION PROCESS THAT ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHETHER YOU CODE OR USE TOOLS?
Definitely. Tools should free people up for creative work. Making games is hard. Even 30 years down the line, it gets harder and harder to find what people want to play. It’s like how Hollywood regurgitates concepts because genuinely new ideas are in short supply. But it’s got by doing that for 100 years. The game industry needs to get used to the idea of retelling old stories in new ways. And if the technicalities are getting in the way of your ideas, look past them: the point is to write a great game.
Want to know more about tool development? We’ve just produced a whitepaper all about the subject with our friends at GamesIndustry.biz. Download it now for a closer view of how tools are making cross-platform gaming a reality.
VP Extended RealityThomas has over 25 years of experience in digital productions, focusing on Strategy, XR, and UX to support digital acceleration across various industries. Past XR projects he led span from product design and training to marketing applications for internationally known brands. Thomas is a frequent speaker at international conferences, an advisor for start-ups, and a fixture at industry associations and events. His love for digital creation started when he was playing Pac-Man against his twin brother on the Atari 800XL, leading Thomas to develop his first own video game in 1996.
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