Technicians behind new French shared tech scheme on plans to buck the trends of middleware

Lyon GDC: Play All aims to avoid Criterion and Epic pitfalls

In a special research session during the second day of Lyon GDC two of the technicians involved in the new Play All technology project explained the aspirations for the new shared middleware platform and how they plan to buck the trends of middleware.

Develop exclusively revealed the official unveiling of the Play All platform last week – the initiative has seen five Parisian studios come together, with the support of four middleware companies, four research labs and one college, to create an industry standard shared technology to aid next-gen game production.

At Lyon GDC two of the studios involved, Darkworks and Kylotonn, were on hand to present their plans to the rest of the industry, explaining that they intend to sidestep the perils of using popular engines like that previously available from Criterion and current ‘engine du jour’ Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3.

"A number of studios invested in Criterion and Renderware, but this no doubt effected work for a number of French and other Europen studios," said Kylotonn’s technical director Hubert Sarret, when looking back at the history of technology in the games industry. Criterion’s Renderware engine was popular and near ubiquitous during the first half of the decade until it was acquired by EA in 2004.

Recapping the ramp up for next-gen games and the ‘batch of fantasies’ associated with more processing power, he pointed out that development technology had fast become a key point of conflict between studios and developers.

"The trend is that publishers will ask if you have internal technology" which is expensive to develop, Sarret said, or they will encourage you to licence Epic’s popular Unreal Engine, which is also too ‘costly’. All of this creates a high risk, high price climate for studios. So the collaboration between the studios and technology companies for Play All will disrupt this conflict to bring about stability, he said. "We are convinced that the industry is ready for a change."

Darkworks’ technical director Arnaud Carre the provided some background to the project, explaining that the thinking behind Play All is to bring together the best of breed talents from each participating company, such as AI, networking skills, procedural content generation and programming skills.

Each studio involved has assigned a technology officer to the project on a two year contract, working from a single base and helping to gradually build the technology, integrate it with each studio and also create a programming standard that will be used across all the companies involved.

A free beta version should be available next year, with the project deadline set for September 30th, 2009, by which time the platform should be complete and in use at all the studios involved and a number of others.

Carre added that the team are keen not to create something restrictive, but instead a platform that can serve as the foundation of any game. "What we have been trying to do is work out what the common parts are," he said. "Because every game is different." So despite the business ethos being opposed to that of Criterion and its Renderware was or Epic and its Unreal Engine, the technical theory is similar, but shared across studios.

This is the key element to Play All, the two said, as the sharing and collaboration will aid both the technology and those studios using it – the organisation has an active open door policy to others interested in contributing, and is inviting feedback from all those that test the free beta version of the engine.

"Collaboration means we can also work on large scale projects, and we’re happy to take on more studio partnerships," said Carre.

"Collaborative tech is a reality now," added Sarret, although "there are some question marks which remain" he said the team was fast "working on answers" – all of which means that the collaborative process will enable "a huge step forward for the industry."

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