Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

4 October, 2006

Why middleware will not save us
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:14 PM

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?


  1. I agree with your assessment — but not from the development perspective. I’m not a developer, so I can only trust the great Psychochild as I approach him from the foot of the mountain of development issues. I find agreement with it from the players perspective.

    Why? Because middleware will enable too many people to make games. People that should not be making the games. Games that will be average at best, and will do nothing to expand MMO gaming into the mass market.

    It’s a regular thing for me to find, in player circles, a post where someone is asking what everyone else is interested in and looking forward to. The main motive for the post is fishing for a game to be excited about as well. While a few games do show up on many short lists in common, no one game has a huge buzz working for it amongst the players. Further, there are so many damn games (just in the West alone) that are in varying phases of development, that the player base is being segmented too deeply to generate any huge buzz.

    Yup, the volume of games on the bench is actually a buzz kill. Hitting WoW numbers grows harder with the announcement of each and every new MMO project. The existing audience fragments more and more into the games that appeal to them as individuals, and no new audience members arrive on the scene (or not enough do) to pad the ranks and swell the numbers that any one game can get.

    Further, this volume of games in development (middleware or not) leads to a homogenization of features and appearances. Too many games look just like each other. The only difference is the developer, or that one game has “Elves” and another has ‘”Aelfs” and another has “No Elves!” (Trivia: Taslantia – a tabletop rpg made “No Elves” their big marketing push — Google it, you’ll find that I’m one of the results on an old dead blog…. not a good plan apparently).

    End result is that the games all look the same, split the fans up, and then the fans all argue about which game actually goes to eleven! Joy. This huge push of games on the bench for the West is more likely to flop and any single game that pulls in more than 200K subs should be considered a raging success.

    More evidence? Look at those Asian games. The developers design a platform and then use it like middleware to churn out new games. Art assets are reused, mechanics, everything. To the point that it can feel like a company has one game with seven different names. Note how well those games have done when released in the West. They flop. Codemasters in the UK is making an art out of bringing Asian games to the West and profiting from the niche audience that results. I’m sure they profit because they don’t have to design the game, just localize it (and poorly at that to be honest).

    Point is, Western gamers jump into an Asian open beta for ten minutes, realize it’s the same game, same controls, same art, etc. and then walk and never, ever, look back.

    The only thing that makes our Western games different is that we don’t use that crappy interface for UI — and we have yet to over saturate the market through a huge volume of vanilla releases that all look, play, feel, and update the same.

    That’s for 2007 or 2008 though, as many of these unique shining gems hit the open beta phase and the gamers realize that they downloaded the same six gigs of game last week — just from a different company.

    Conclusion: Fileplanet will rule the world through subscription fees. That’s the MMO to watch for. “Fileplanet, where finding the good beta is the entire game!”

    Comment by Grimwell — 5 October, 2006 @ 7:06 AM

  2. Why? Because middleware will enable too many people to make games. People that should not be making the games. Games that will be average at best, and will do nothing to expand MMO gaming into the mass market.

    That’s already the case with other game genres, and is undoubtably going to be happening with MMOs as well. Yeah, the downside is that it gets that much harder for a high-quality-but-low-budget game to get noticed amongst the crap. But we’ve been living with that model with about everything else in the world.

    And already, the indie MMOs have been making quite the headway. Kingdom of Loathing, A Tale In The Desert, Adventure Quest, Yo Ho Ho Puzzle Pirates… At the beginning of the year, Minions of Mirth launched, a “traditional” EQ-style MMORPG developed with a combination of GarageGames’ Torque engine (as Brian mentioned above), and Python. And those are just the most popular indie MMO’s that I can come up with off the top of my head.

    None of these are going to be going head-to-head against World of Warcraft anytime soon, and the average Joe Gamer usually won’t even hear about them. It’s going to be a lot like the world of the old text MU*s… The available tools (like the MU* codebases) allow pretty much anybody with a minimum of talent and willingness to get the work done to put up a functional multi-user world.

    But here’s the secret: In the indie world, something above 90% of all projects never see completion beyond some “tech demo” or a “beta version” that is horribly undeserving of the claim “beta.” Finished, commercially viable products? Still a rarity. I expect as MMO middleware gets into the price range of hobbyists, you are going to see a ton of unfinished worlds with stock and amateur graphics on the web. That’s nothing new.

    For the major, professional dev shops? While there are certainly some technical issues that middleware can help resolve, that’s just one small piece of a gigantic puzzle that includes logistics, customer service, design, marketing, and developing tons and tons of CONTENT. The middleware may make development of an MMO somewhat cheaper and make prototyping very fast, it’s still going to be a tremendous chore. Shaving 10% off your development budget is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s still not going to revolutionize anything.

    Comment by Jay Barnson — 5 October, 2006 @ 12:19 PM

  3. MMORPGs, Security, and the Grand Promise of Middleware

    [...] This article is in response to M59 co-creator Brian “Psychochild” Green’s post, “Why middleware will not save us“. He hits pretty hard, and sets his sights on the “middleware market” in the MMORPG space. I’ll say I agree with the bulk of it. Yet, some of the specifics cause me trouble. Thus this post. [...]

    Pingback by covert creations — 5 October, 2006 @ 3:50 PM

  4. MiddleWare will work so long as (a) designed to be very flexible, such as C++/Windows APIs, and/or (b) designed so that users can modify the middleware source code. Without this flexibility, (almost) all worlds created by middleware will look/act just like all other worlds created by the same middleware.

    Related ranting on

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 5 October, 2006 @ 5:13 PM

  5. Middleware becomes cost effective when established best practices are stable. For example, SpeedTree is a pretty stable middleware.

    Another area where middleware will be very useful is the CRM area. There is a wealth of expensive CRM systems build for other businesses and they will bleed into the MMORPG arena more and more.

    The Hero Engine is probably the first integrated “engine” available. What’s really interested me is their system for giving power and control to the GMs to dynamically manage the game world. It’s too ambitious right now to focus on user-created content IMO, but I think the time is right for giving some content creation control to “certified” non-employee content creators, e.g. an effective freelance outsourcing process for content creation and acquisition.

    It’s all about giving the right people the leverage to do their jobs better.

    My quick 2 cents.

    Comment by magicback (frank) — 9 October, 2006 @ 5:10 AM

  6. Buena Vista Games is using the Gamebryo toolset for their new projects.

    Article here

    Comment by magicback (frank) — 12 October, 2006 @ 12:56 AM

  7. Its just a monopoly nothing more, if your rich you can afford anything even the American dream!

    If they started letting consumers develop their own games they would be out the business much like the car industry, however just because you can’t afford middleware does not stop you from achieving the same result with good programming skills. That’s a commitment out of most peoples reach even most companies who buy the most expensive solution, its not just about having amazing techies at your side anymore. They just want green in the pocket in minimal time, fast solutions make up for this, some even give you pre coded examples or already written libraries. However its a cost of an arm and a leg, the biggest problem with middleware today is that the demand for high end appeal overrides most production lines. Solutions you invest in two months from now may become obsolete before the year is over. Also most of these solutions are so massive you cannot use it outside a team/group environment, even the licenses are strapped to your seats.

    Comment by Shadow — 26 March, 2010 @ 5:27 PM

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