4 October, 2006
Now, I know some pretty smart people trying to do the middleware thing for online games. Let me repeat my usual caveat for pieces like this: I’d like to be proven wrong, and anyone can feel free to do so. I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong, but don’t expect me to cave in due to very meager examples.
It’s a common theme on various sites discussing online game development: it’s hard to make one of these beasts. Making an online game is really difficult, expensive, and not for the faint-of heart.
But, lo! Charging down the hill comes the white knight, “Sir Middleware”! He will save us from these problems and let us focus on making a cool game! I think the next generation of middleware will probably also promise to take care of our outside obligations to give us enough time to develop the game, too.
Yet, it isn’t happening. And, I believe it might not happen soon.
Why? The main reason is because middleware mostly handles the tech side of things. And, in all honesty, the tech side is the easiest to deal with.
Consider this. Meridian 59 just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Pretty cool, eh? The game was developed by some guys in a garage, essentially. With little more than some research and good software engineering principles, the original development team created a robust, customizable, and stable platform for a game. And it has lasted 10 years after being passed through the hands of multiple developers.
“But, Brian…,” you begin. Yes, yes, it isn’t pretty and it doesn’t support hundreds of thousands of people on a single shard. But, despite a vocal audience, these aren’t strictly necessary for an online game. Games like Runescape have shown that you can have a game that isn’t very pretty on multiple shards and still have a popular and profitable game. Getting distracted by having realistic elf boobies, er I mean, ear physics is just that: a distraction.
The real issues are in design and service. Now, some of the middleware providers are being smart about this and offering consulting for design and services. But, if you have someone else providing the design, the tech, and the services, what does that leave you with? Very little except a large bill, most likely. Cash up front, please.
On the design side, we’re still struggling with some major issues. How do you provide enough content for an endlessly hungry playerbase? Can you rely on user-created content for your central content? Can we learn from other online applications, like social networks? What data can we extract from our users to help us make better decisions? Can we create profitable games that that aren’t DIKU-derived? Each of these questions is in a different stage of being answered, but they’re important to think about.
On the service side, we’re still struggling with basic issues like customer service. How much is enough? Does it make a large difference to our audience? What does it mean that the games with the worst customer service tend to be the most popular? Or is it the popularity that creates the poorly rated customer service? Or, will people complain no matter what? Or, consider other questions like: How much uptime is enough? What is an acceptable period of downtime for updating the game? When should you compensate people for excessive downtime, and how much? What business models are best for each game? What will the audience reaction to new business models be, and how what changes can we make to ensure a favorable response?
These last two paragraphs are filled with questions without easy answers. Some of the smartest people in our industry (and, I think some of the smartest people in the world) are worrying about these issues. And, these are largely issues that middleware cannot solve. The problem that middleware is best at solving, the technology side of things, has not been a real problem for over a decade at this point if you set your expectations appropriately.
Therefore, I don’t think that middleware will save us. I don’t think that middleware will suddenly allow people that could not build a game before to effectively make a game. It seems unlikely that a team of people would have perfect answers to every other question I pose above, but would not be able to handle the tech side of things. Or, at the very least, be able to hire some people to handle the tech.
Okay, so when will middleware help development, if ever? I think that eventually middleware will become an important part of the equation. This is an easy prediction since it’s already happening, as we’ll see.
To really get a good perspective, let’s look at graphics engines. These days it’s common for people to license an engine instead of building it from scratch. But, let’s look at some early commercially-available engines. The Doom and Quake engines were very popular options.
What really set these apart?
- They were developed by a game developer who knew what was needed. They were not developed by a company without previously published games.
- They were part of a game being developed. In fact, many people say that the latest id games are mostly tech demos.
- They were developed by highly experienced people. John Carmack is recognized as one of the leading experts on computer graphics.
- The most successful licensed games did major rewriting. That is, the engines were licensed by knowledgeable developers.
There are probably more elements, but I think these are the important ones. Unfortunately, few online game middleware developers meet these qualifications. I think the biggest failing is the last one, where some middleware developers try to represent that you don’t need specialized knowledge in order to make a game. This is a false assertion: you still need a lot of knowledge and experience to pull it off.
Graphics engine licensing has remained popular as things have gotten more complicated. The relentless march toward photorealism has made it so that you can’t really sit down and hack out your own state-of-the-art engine without a lot of cost. So, you really have to license a recent engine in order to keep up with things. I think this may be the case in the future as we try to push the limits of what we can do, just as modern graphic engines keep pushing the envelope of what can be done on a PC.
But, there is hope for people without millions of dollars for licensing. Just as GarageGames was started to give indies access to a good graphics engine for a very affordable price, I think that you may eventually see a quality engine available for indies. But, don’t hold your breath because it probably isn’t coming anytime soon. It took years and some really crazy people dedicate to starving for indie developers for GarageGames to happen. For now, you better do the research necessary to write your own online game server and network system if you are doing a small project.
But, as I’ve said, licensable engines are coming. I think that The Hero Engine from the upcoming Hero’s Journey game from Simutronics is probably going to be one of the front runners. If you look at the list I created above, this engine meets most of the criteria. Simutronics has a long history of online games and is developing its own game with the engine. They know that the tech is only part of the answer given their experience. Therefore, if knowledgeable people license the engine, then things should look good for future games. However, Simutronics had a large coup by licensing the engine to BioWare for their upcoming online game. Therefore, the engine will now have a prestigious price tag due to this prestigious license. Unfortunately, I fear this may delay the acceptance of the engine. And, middleware still isn’t the answer for the indies on a limited budget at those prices.
What are your thoughts? Is middleware stronger than I give it credit for? Or, am I wrong in seeing middleware coming over the horizon?