Indie studios building their own engines is nothing wildly unusual.
It’s a bold move, certainly, but numerous teams, from bedroom coders through to independents knocking on the door of triple-A, have opted to go proprietary. It keeps it in-house and it keeps it tailored, and in spite of the effort, it’s an approach behind some particularly successful, critically acclaimed creations.
But making their own in-house engine wasn’t quite enough for Tag Games, the Scottish team behind a wealth of own IP and high-profile client work.
Some four years ago, the team started working on a proprietary engine. Fast-forward to the dawn of GDC 2015, and the outfit has gone public with not just an open source engine that it is sharing with the entire dev community, but a full suite of metrics tools and a collection of back-end services, covering everything from IAP to leaderboards.
The entire package is being offered under the ChilliWorks banner, but going public is just the start. Tag Games wants you involved.
A dash of source
But before looking forward to Tag Games’ vision of a collectively refined, free, open-source engine as part of their studio model, it’s worth returning to that point four years previously when CEO and founder Paul Farley and his team set out to harness control of their tool chain.
“There’s always aspects to third-party solutions that you’d like to maybe change, or perhaps bugs that it can be hard to work around as a user rather than the middleware’s creator,” explains Farley, detailing the chain of thought that ultimately spawned ChilliWorks.
“We were using a third-party engine on an original IP game called Astro Ranch, and Apple had chosen it to be a launch title for the first iPad. Obviously that was great for us, so we wanted to get the game running at the best resolution for iPad.”
That took a huge amount of effort, as Tag Games liaised with their engine provider to get support for the resolution needed, and scrambled to deliver the goods to Apple and embrace a significant opportunity.
“It was a great engine, but that experience got us thinking about control when you use a third-party platform,” continues Farley. “We felt then that we didn’t have total control, and started to think about when that lack of control might impact delivery, not just to ourselves but to our clients. We didn’t want to find ourselves unable to meet our obligations because of an unfortunate case where control might be with a third-party.”
While Farley admits that he and his team have seen engine providers improve their customer support and responsiveness across the same time period that the ChilliWorks concept began to crystallise, it had grown clear to Tag that using a third-party engine put the team at the behest of their provider.
“When you’re a small studio it can also be pretty scary to think about the future of your engine providers; especially if you’re growing at the same time as you are depending on another company,” adds Farley, pointing to the historical precedent of RenderWare’s effective removal from the market; reportedly a factor in Rockstar San Diego building the wider company its own RAGE Engine.
The first ingredients
Back when work began on ChilliWorks – eventually comprised of the ChilliSource engine, ChilliMetrics analytics platform and ChilliConnect online services suite – the team at Tag Games weren’t quite planning to be so ambitious with the project.
“We weren’t sure at first that we might be trying to reinvent the wheel, but we felt we didn’t have any other option,” says Farley, who with his team had looked at numerous other options, including using an existing open-source platform that Tag could build its engine on top of.
“We saw a few such game engines, but to be honest none were quite right. That’s when we started to think about building our own,” he continues.
All this came at a time when the studio was making an organic move to more mobile work, and started to embrace free-to-play and games-as-a-service with more gusto than it had previously. That meant the search for a new engine was also a quest for something more; a solution that could handle every element of maintaining, engaging and retaining players.
“At this point developing a metrics platform was at most a side project,” states Farley. “We were starting down the free-to-play route, so a lot was changing for us. And that started us looking not just at engines, but at Google Analytics, Flurry and so on. They didn’t give us access to the hard data we wanted. We needed that data to give our analysts. The only other solutions were extremely expensive, and even though we aren’t a very small studio – we’ve around 35 people here – they were beyond our budget.”
It was in that mindset that Tag increasingly understood they wanted to do everything themselves. They wanted to build an engine that reflected new trends in games development, and a metrics platform and service suite that would step in time with that engine. The seed had been sown for what ChilliWorks would become.
A recipe for change
Under the bonnet of the ChilliSource engine lurks a source engine in the classic form, albeit with it’s own strengths, as Tag software engineer Ian Copeland explains.
“First of all it is a source engine,” he confirms. “So it comes with all the source code, and that means it’s a lot more flexible. If you don’t like something about the ChilliSource engine, you can just change it. So in that regard it works roughly similarly to Cocos2d or Marmalade. But it’s a much newer code base, so the actual API is very clean and very modern, we feel.
“Additionally it’s incredibly extensible and incredibly modular, so it’s really easy to add stuff to it, whether that’s for your game or for the engine as a whole.”
Farley adds: “We started at just the right time, and that became a huge advantage for us. ChilliWorks has been underway those three or four years, and a lot of the other similar services and solutions are maybe ten or 12-years old. So we’ve had nothing in place to re-work for today’s games’ demands. We’ve started at a time when this technology is really coming into it’s own.”
ChilliSource’s in-development GUI tool is a great example of that, explains Copeland, pointing out that it compliments ChilliSource’s current mobile and tablet leaning.
“The GUI tool we’re working on is supported by a GUI system, and it’s something we’ve put a lot of work into to make it very current,” says Copeland. “It’s very powerful and we’ve been building it for years. Its focus is making it very easy to build a good quality GUI that will work across multiple mobile and tablet platforms and a range of different screen sizes, and a GUI that meets today’s standards.”
The engine currently leans towards mobile but, thanks to its open-source nature, can also be very easily adapted for any target platform, and according to Farley, is built to be particularly easy to use.
“A month learning a new engine is a month not make games,” he states. “That is not a good situation, and one ChilliSource will help you avoid.”
Add source to taste
Accessibility and flexibility is all well and good, but why make it utterly open source, and completely free? Tag may charge for additional modules – something like $10 to $20 a month for an additional element might be typical – but the core of the engine and a complete feature set for development will come with no cost.
“We’d found out over time that a lot of the tools we’d been making weren’t being developed by games developers, and were perhaps first made for the likes of web developers instead.”
That meant Tag were sometimes paying for – or looking at paying for – a number of features that it was unlikely to use.
“As an indie you have to run a tight ship to survive,” asserts Farley. “I think that’s how we’ve lasted eight or nine years. So you can’t be wasting anything on tools you don’t need. We started to think that other studios would be facing the same challenge, and looking for a tool tailored for them.”
At the same time, Tag started to consider that a great way to get a better engine was to get more people involved. The team had hired additional server engineers, and are still looking to grow with the engine, but that isn’t enough for their ambition for ChilliSource. They want as many people as possible on board; for the good of the engine itself, Tag, and games developers across the world.
Of course, Tag also has to make money, which is where ChilliMetrics and ChilliConnect come in.
ChilliConnect and ChilliMetrics will be paid-for services. Harnessing ChilliSource doesn’t mean users must sign up to the accompanying ChilliWorks platforms, but each element of Tag Games’ technology triptych is designed to be complimentary to the others.
“ChilliConnect is a smorgasbord of connected services,” explains Farley. “It’s things like in-app purchase validation tools, and user management tech that lets you go in and look at each user individually so you can see how they’ve experienced your game, and what issue you might have had.
“That would even let you drop specific things – say some coins – into that specific user environment. Then there’s leaderboards and achievements support, and stuff for in-game communication and chat.
“There are also things like push-notification support and messaging. So there’s a whole group of things that bring functionality to make your game connected and social, including multiplayer.”
Like ChilliSource, the emphasis is on simplicity and user-friendly design; an approach that’s been repeated with the ChilliMetrics platform.
“As with ChilliConnect, where we didn’t want to get too distracted by an over-the-top feature set,” says Farley.
“It’s about giving developers what they need at a level of quality, rather than giving them all this stuff they don’t need.”
That, Farley explains, means providing a window to deep, meaningful data that a small team can crack open and interpret. That access to raw data is what Farley believes is what defines ChilliMetrics, but the platform also provides typical features such as a dashboard that will allow users to access various Key Performance Indicators.
At the time of writing, the ChilliConnect and ChilliMetrics platforms remain in progress.
One for all
The ChilliWorks suite in its entirety was conceived for smaller teams and even students. To that end, it has already been seeded into universities in the UK, such as Scotland’s Abertay University – famed for the quality of its games courses.
But according to Farley, the tools and services are also attracting attention from somewhat larger teams.
“A lot of larger studios and publishers have been very interested,” says Farley. “They’ve maybe been basing their entire tool chain around a third-party offering, so they’ve got very little control over that side of things.
“They recognise the need for more control over their tool chain, and so we’re expecting the engine to be used by bigger teams too. The potential is incredibly wide.”
Previously ChilliSource has been used by Tag in 12 or more commercially released games, including projects for Gree, Mind Candy and Ubisoft.
And for anybody unsure about adopting middleware made by a relatively small team, Farley concludes with a confident retort to the naysayers.
“We don’t have investors, and we’re not looking to make a 20-times return for anyone,” he confirms.
“We’re looking to make enough to grow Tag and improve the services. So we’re not going to disappear if we don’t make huge amounts of money.”
The technology’s future success certainly isn’t assured, but backed by Tag Games’ heritage and the potential of an open-source community, it may be that in years to come, with Farley and his team still busy on the platform, ChilliWorks stands as a household name in the middleware market.