The crusade against middleware

I take the cue from an unrelated thread on Q23. I would write and explain extensively if I was writing daily as I used to some months ago. Instead I’ll just go with some short comments.

I’ve noticed a ton of games using the Havok physics engine and I have to say, I’m a bit disappointed. I mean, I love the ragdoll flopping around as much as the next guy. But when a lot of games use the same physics engine with very few tweaks, they get a sameness about them.

This is not a specific problem about physics. This is a general problem about middleware and engines licensing becoming predominant.

It’s not the first time I criticize the use of middleware. I always said that sometimes you don’t have the privilege of choosing whether to use it or not, but in any case I think it has a negative effect on the potential of what you are making.

I strongly believe that game design deals both with “what” and, in particular “how”. Right now we are drifting to an idea of game design that is limited to “what”. When you are bound to use a predefined tool then you cannot decide anymore “how”, only “what”. Game design becomes exclusively a problem of content production while I believe that innovation is mostly an exclusive of “how”. That’s also why I wrote that today game design isn’t a discipline with its own recognized dignity.

We have already in the whole game industry a serious problem of “sameness”, where titles within a genre have very few distinctive traits parting one from the other. If then we start to use the exact same engines across a number of titles then game development becomes just an extension of mod development and not anymore of game development.

My strong belief is that today NO serious game company with the hope to stay in the market in a leading position for the longer term can rely on middleware. Technology building, I believe, is mandatory to preserve and secure the right to be there and to be relevant. It’s the MOST IMPORTANT investment. There are plenty of new game groups trying to find a place in the market and hoping to become big in the future. Well, I believe that in ALL these cases accepting middleware as a “shortcut” to be there in the shortest time possible is at the same time a serious mortgage on the future of that company.

As I said, often you don’t have a choice. Or you go with middleware or you cannot even try. But those few who try to build their own technology will find a much steeper approach early on, but they’ll also see a proportional payback later on. “Game” is INDUSTRY. And the infrastructure is the foundation of an industry, if you don’t work and invest on this foundation then your efforts will be be short legged. At the end the real “raw” value is the assets (people and technology) you develop, not the volatile content.

On the other side there’s a trend that is unavoidable: more and more groups will specialize, those who build tools and engines and those who build content (in TV this is already a reality, with specialized groups who invent and sell formats around the world and groups who buy and adapt them). From my point of view the “winners” will be those who develop *both* of those internally. But this is mostly a discussion pertinent to those sitting at the high levels, where the foresight is most important and where that same foresight is rare.

Here Jeff Freeman would come and tell me that game devs are bored about recoding the same basic stuff like walking and that middleware allows you to reduce overhead and focus on what matters.

And I’d reply again making another parallel with comics. It’s like comics artists suddenly said that they are tired of drawing the same backgrounds, the same skyscrapers in New York that in the end look always the same, and they want instead to focus on the plastic figures and emotional expressions in the foreground.

In the same way I said that “mechanics” and “metaphor” are part of a whole, the same about technology development and game design. “What” and “how”. It all part of making a game and nothing is ever secondary.


I wrote above that middleware is unavoidable.

My point, largely misunderstood considering the comments, is that developing middleware internally is going to be one of the major strength in the longer term because it gives your company a sensible, concrete advantage over the competition.

Plenty of dev studios are licensing Unreal 3 engine. But Gears of Wars still came from Epic. Plenty of dev studios licensed the Source engine, but HL2 still came from Valve.

I’m saying: with a crazy number of game companies tossing themselves on this market, the ability and competence to develop internally the technology and drive the innovation forward is going to be a major asset and a major *advantage*. If you make mistakes but still have strong technology then you’ll never completely fall behind. You’ll never completely fail. That competence will guarantees you continuity and stability.

From another perspective: I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future instead of another MMO company licensing Gamebryo we see instead Gamebryo’s makers acquiring a MMO company.

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