Aristen hopes its new FxStudio special effects suite will kick-start interest in an overlooked area of games technology, discovers Jon Jordanâ?¦


Product: FxStudio Creativity Suite
Company: Aristen
Price: Available on request

By their very definition, special effects need to be special. According to Toby Gladwell and Andy Kaplan of Seattle-based middleware start up Aristen however, too often there are too many other priorities for developers. The result
can be ordinary effects; more D’oh!FX than SFX.

Over the years, that’s something they’ve experienced and now it’s something they want to change. Gladwell was a co-founder and ten-year veteran of Monolith Productions, which was where he meet up with Kaplan. Both eventually moved on, respectively becoming a lead tools engineer and a producer for the likes of Sierra Online and Secret Lair Studios. Since May 2007, they’ve been Aristen’s CTO and CEO.

“Special effects are a problem for every game team. You’ll probably have a team of world builders but maybe only one effects engineer, and the sad reality is that individual generally gets thrown into place at the end of the project. The dilemma is that everyone knows they need cool stuff in their game – but how do you marry the technology with the artists?” Kaplan questions.

That’s where the company’s FxStudio Creativity Suite comes into play. Currently available for PC and Xbox 360 and also now shipping as part of Emergent’s Partner Program for Gamebryo ­– with PlayStation 3 and Wii are on the way – this cross-platform system consists of a runtime and various other components, enabling you to bridge that gap as seamlessly as possible.

“We looked at the market and saw there was no off-the-shelf system. There’s no Photoshop for special effects,” Kaplan points out. “That’s what FxStudio is: a generic solution that addresses the problem of how you get effects up and running in your game while giving artists the tools they need to really express themselves.”

Built as a data-sequencing engine, with tools and runtime and
processing parts, FxStudio handles cross-platform development both in terms of the specific file formats required and also by enabling artists
to tweak the quality of their effects for the different capabilities of the
platforms. The processor can be integrated into the automated
build systems that are becoming increasingly popular with
developers too.

“If you want to increase the number of particles or emitters for a particular platform, you can select an individual property within a component and tweak it on a platform level and the processor will pick out just the properties relating to that specific build,” Gladwell explains.

The basic effects themselves are created in the runtime, while artists work in Designer, a special effect time-based sequencing tool that can be integrated within standard world building tools. For example, in the case of Gamebryo, it’s integrated within the Scene Designer so effects can be placed directly in the world. And there’s a preview tool, which enables real-time iterative polishing on the target platform.
But where Aristen expects FxStudio to demonstrate its value is the synergy it enables. “Traditionally, developers start off getting some particle effects going but then an artist will say they want to key some sounds or maybe flash the screen or rumble the joystick and suddenly, it’s become a layering problem,” Gladwell says. “Art and engineering need to be working together to figure these things out. What our technology embraces is the ability to wrap any effect – shaking the camera, triggering a sound – in FxStudio so it can be exposed to the artist and then driven by the tool.”

The early feedback the company’s gained has been promising in this respect. “We’ve only been to two shows – GameFest and the Austin Game Developers Conference – but we’ve got over 30 companies evaluating the product including some big publishers,” Kaplan reveals.

Still, as he also points out, FxStudio remains a new product and there’s a fair amount of market education required. “Our challenge is to prove to people this is a viable product: to let them know there’s an off-the-shelf solution for special effects because up to this point everything’s been done in-house. Our competition is internal development.”

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