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Maybe it’s a mixture of a lack of ambition and/or inverted pride but you don’t often hear middleware execs talking about how they’re running the fastest growing company in the industry. Brendan Iribe, CEO of game user interface vendor Scaleform, has no such qualms.
“We signed over 50 games in the first eight months from our launch in March 2006,” he says. “In 2007, we signed 120 games, and this year we’re on track to be in 200 new games. By the end of 2008, between 300 and 400 games will be using our technology. We’re the fastest growing middleware company out there.”
It’s hard to argue with those figures. But, as ever, behind such an overnight success story comes a tale of hard work and a certain amount of luck too. Back to the source. Brendan Iribe met CTO Michael Antonov at college. Both were into games, with Iribe on the business and art side and Antonov the programmer. Originally, they thought about developing their own game and started to play around with the tools required. But Iribe’s experience with multimedia for trade shows and exhibitions, plus their growing experience of the games industry, resulted in a more lateral approach.
“We saw there was a deficiency in terms of visual tools, so we worked on it for a while and decided bringing a user interface solution such as Adobe Flash to the games market would be successful,” Iribe recalls. “Of course, we didn’t know how hard it would be. After four years of attempting to make our own version of Flash Studio, we started talking to developers and instead made a UI engine powered by Flash. Even then it was another 3 years of development before we released the first version of GFx.”
Happily, this learning experience was funded by personal finance rather than venture capital, with that source, Iribe’s uncle, eventually coming onboard as CFO. Neatly, this coincided with Scaleform’s first proper year of operations and the since profitable annual returns.
The icing on the cake was the reputation of the company’s first clients. “Crytek had looked critically at the product for several years before signing up to use it in Crysis,” Iribe says, as if trying to play down the story. “As a new company, you need a champion – a big game – so Crytek was great, and then we got the call from BioWare. They wanted to use GFx. We wondered if it would be used in Mass Effect. They said they were going to use it in all their titles.”
It sounds too good to be true, but in actual fact, this the only way the sort of low margin, high volume productivity tools supplied by Scaleform can work. It’s not a Unreal Engine, more a SpeedTree or Miles Sound engine. Success only comes if it’s used very widely, as Iribe’s claim that 16 of the top 20 publishers are licensees underlines.
But three years into operations, there are plenty more, higher volume or higher margin, areas for Scaleform to investigate. The current major push is setting up the company’s Asian operations with documentation, support and website being localised into Korean, Chinese and Japanese. Scaleform will also have full-time sales staff in each territory. Then the focus will shift to new technological features (see boxout).
“We’re providing a UI solution and we need to do it globally,” Iribe says. “It’s fun but it’s not world domination. It’s UI domination in the games space. We’re providing a Flash pipeline, not a Scaleform pipeline. Every game needs font, text and icons. We’ll enable you to do some things you can’t otherwise do such as animating your UI or putting it on 3D surfaces, but our foundation is the efficiency of the workflow we offer through Flash.”
Iribe also says that GFx isn't Scaleform's only innovation - the firm will offer new software next year. Always the businessman, he says: “We’re always looking to expand the business and make more money so we will be launching more products in 2009.” Several are planned but he’s coy about going into details, at least about one of the planned extensions. “You can say we’re thinking about expanding GFx with other complimentary middleware solutions,” he decides. “They will be add-on products that create complimentary solutions. We’re never going to make a 3D engine.”
Then he changes his mind. “We’re going to be doing a localisation product,” he reveals. “No one does localisation because it’s such a fragmented market. But user interface design, fonts, text and localisation go really well together. When you localise a game most of your efforts and problems concern the text and there we can offer an affordable, effective, streamlined process that helps manage it. A simple example. With the click of a button we can automatically check for overruns in every language. That’s a huge saving right there.”