SPECIAL REPORT: Codemasters talks new next-gen engine, Wii support and more

Neon â?? Codemastersâ?? guiding light

Next-gen games development has, as we all know, placed huge demands on not only the industry’s talent base, but also its technology base as well, demanding more staff to deal with more complicated software – all in order to make better games.

In seeing this hairpin-like crunch approaching on the road ahead, Codemasters’ internal team recently came up with it’s answer to the next-gen rush: Neon.

You may remember reading about Neon last year, when Develop exclusively revealed its existence (and you can read our original report here), but a quick recap: using PS3 as a starting point, Neon is a next-gen engine that is supporting every facet of Codemasters’ internal development going forward.

Originally put together in collaboration with SCE technical staff, the engine has been evolved into a multi-platform offer that supports 360 and PC as well.

"We all know that PS3 is a very powerful machine but a tough nut to crack, so it was a great place to start when thinking about what we’d need to succeed in next-gen," explains Gavin Cheshire, VP of studios at Codemasters. "So we’ve built a very durable, very next-gen platform that will last a long time."

The upcoming Colin McRae DiRT, due out at the end of next week, is the first game to use the technology, and is very much a milestone for both the studio and the engine.

"DiRT is a great statement of intent for us," explains Cheshire. "The response to the Xbox Live demo alone has been overwhelmingly positive, and we feel that the game has true next-gen elements, all thanks to Neon and what it’s capable of.

"And really that’s only the beginning, it’s something we can constantly contribute to and refine, setting us up for the future. Neon has been terrific for us as an internal studio and will be used for all the games we make going forward."

Those games include Operation Flashpoint 2, Race Driver and the still unannounced new IP game code-named ‘Project Strike Team’ – plus any other games Codemasters produces in-house going forward.

"Really, I’d describe the engine as a driving/action engine," explains Cheshire – having been designed for a racing title in the first instance, Neon’s focus on massively detailed terrain and eye-catching effects and environments certainly sets the studio up well for the future, suggesting that it will be easily adapted into other genres, from strategy to sandbox.

Of course, next-gen hasn’t just meant high powered machines, but new interfaces as well – and Cheshire adds that the platform might also in time be adaptable into a Wii-dedicated version.

"The whole system is in fact very modular and smartly constructed," he says. "So as well as being able to look at how we can adapt it for a very different machine like the Wii we’re able to use it with our own in-house tools as well as third party ones." Codemasters has already signed up to use Havok Behaviour in Operation Flashpoint 2 which will plug straight into Neon.

In time, Cheshire expects that Neon will grow beyond the confines of the internal team as well. Codemasters as a publisher has a long and healthy career working with external studios.

"What’s great about Neon isn’t just that it is so modular and easy to use, but that we will be able to share it with our partners as well, creating a very consistent code base across all our company’s games."

With that in mind and given that some of the best, most popular middleware of recent years – Renderware in the last generation, Unreal Engine 3 in the current one – came from studios themselves rather than tech-only vendors, the obvious question to ask Codemasters is at what point does it expect to licence the engine out to the rest of the industry? The answer puts the possibility on the technology’s roadmap – but don’t hold your breath.

"We’re dedicated to helping our internal teams – and of course looking at sharing it with external Codemasters partners – but third party licensing is some way off, although we will consider every opportunity," explains Cheshire – who adds with a laugh that of course if individual developers or studios want to use Neon sooner rather than later, they can always consider working for the company’s internal team or pitching a game to its publisher parent.

But he also says that Neon is a great lesson for the entire industry, whether or not those learning are working on Neon or not.

"The fact is that making games for new machines presents a challenge – not one that is bigger than any of us, but one that, with the right technology and the smart approach, we can all live up to."

This article is an extended version of ‘Guiding Light’, an exclusive article about Neon that was published in the Develop Industry Excellence Awards supplement.

‘Codemasters – powered by Neon’ is platinum sponsor of the Develop Awards.

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