The long-running UK independent is looking to share its tools with other studios as it marks ten years of internal tech development. Ed Fear heads to Leamington Spa for a run-downâ?¦

Blitz middleware in focus

Time was, if you ever wanted a quote about the perils and evils of middleware, the Oliver brothers were first on your list. Staunchly independent not only as a studio but also on the technology front, they’d invested ten years into a common technology framework that has been used on almost every Blitz title in that time period – rendering external tech unnecessary.

Which made it all the more amusing to hear that the company is embarking on a licensing programme for BlitzTech, looking to seed its technology to studios worldwide. How did the critic become the restauranteur?

The irony is not lost on its CTO, Andrew Oliver. “That’s a very good point,” he laughs. “But what’s different is that we would never try to sell middleware to people who have their own tech, like Eurocom. We are trying to appeal to studios who have already decided to buy someone else’s tech. Once that decision has been made, we think we’re the best, and that’s the message we’re putting out there.

“The difference for us is that, if we were starting again today, would we invest another ten years in tech before releasing a game? Probably not. These people are looking for a starting point, whereas we’re not.”

The tech itself has everything you’d expect from a contemporary engine, with high-end visuals that might be a surprise if you’re judging it on Blitz’s usual licensed output. But BlitzTech’s differential is in how it handles multiple platforms and its comprehensive suite of tools.

“It’s truly multi-platform – you can have all of your versions ship on the same day if you wanted to. It’s also relatively easy to switch platform during development, which is something that used to be quite a struggle,” says Richard Hackett, Blitz’s technical director.

“All of the different platforms are all edited within the same levels. We have a system that allows you to set up different graphics pipeline for each platform – designers don’t see that pipeline but artists can go in and tweak the assets for each different release. You’ve effectively got the same game running on different consoles.”

Blitz believes that the key difference isn’t that its tech runs on multiple platforms, but rather that it maximises its potential on all of the consoles that it’s running on, explains Hackett. “One of the main areas for the engine team now is pushing the consoles further and further, and there’s always more room to do that. We’re really pleased with where we are, and we really think that’s one of our particular strengths.

“For example, in terms of PS3, we’re not stuck in the hole that certain other engines are – if you look at the Xbox 360 version of Dead to Rights and compare it with the PS3 one, you won’t really see a difference. When people say cross-platform, they assume that it’s the lowest common denominator across all of them, but actually this is the best of both words – and the game teams don’t have to worry about it. They can write their code for the 360 and it’ll run on PS3 exactly the same. It’s the same code base, the same asset base.”

The other emphasis has been on an intuitive, comprehensive toolset that enables designers and artists to fully sculpt the game experience without burdening programmers, Hackett adds. “Back in the Renderware days, middleware companies would boast about how many millions of polygons they could push.

“While there’s still an element of that, these days we’ve quite rightly moved away to being about the production tools, and how people can make good games efficiently, and letting people put their creativity into the game without the tech getting in the way. So that’s where we’ve put our focus. We’ve really pushed it over the years, and we’ve got a really thorough toolset that encompasses a lot of different areas.“

And thorough it is. Instant live editing on target consoles is particularly impressive, but more interesting is quite how many sectors the tool targets. Asset management, with support for remote working and full rollback of all changes ever made to the project? Check. Distributed asset processing for offloading complicated processes to idle machines? Check. Support for stereoscopic 3D as detailed in last month’s feature? Check.

Impressive as that is, the question many will be asking right now is one of support. After all, surely a studio has enough on its plate without dealing with needy customers?

The core technology group at Blitz, which comprises about ten per cent of the studio, has actually worked with the internal games teams in a provider-customer model, almost in preparation for this day. And the route to the wider middleware market hasn’t been as instant as may originally appear: the studio has been working with select external partners for the last eighteen months, most recently with Headstrong on the acclaimed House of the Dead: Overkill.

“We wanted to see if it really was a commercial project, and whether we could provide the support necessary. We were friendly with Headstrong anyway, and we really wanted to work on someone with a high-profile game – but we didn’t realise back then quite how high profile it would be,” explains Philip Oliver.

“Particularly on the Wii, there’s not many engines out there that can do this kind of thing – and on top of that they had their own internal systems, so had to find something that was better than that too.

“The idea was that, you know, there are a lot of nightmare stories out there about using middleware, and even court cases. That’s absolutely not what we want. That’s why we’ve gone into this so softly – we don’t want to let anyone down. And that’s also why we partnered with someone we knew; if it had been a complete disaster we wouldn’t have ended up in court.”

Luckily, it wasn’t – the partnership went well, and Blitz’s current focus is on publicising the collaboration, and gauging industry reaction from there.

One final thing the Olivers are clear on is that BlitzTech isn’t for everyone, despite the wide range of games it’s used on internally. “It’s not about volume of customers, it’s about quality. We’ll say that upfront: we don’t want every single person making a casual game using this, in fact we’ll dissuade it. We’re looking for games of this ilk or better; it should be triple-A games as that’s what the tech is geared for.”

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