In the sixteen years he spent working at EA Partners, SInjin Bain witnessed sweeping changes in how video games are conceived, developed and made. He saw team sizes swell to 150 people and far beyond on high-profile games like The Sims and The Godfather. He worked with the new wave of indie developers that followed from Jon Blow's Braid, and mid-tier studios feeling the pressure from both sides. He saw a great deal of success, but an equal amount of inefficiency, much of it so ingrained in aging technology and fundamental processes it had become almost invisible.
Even at a company as large as EA, and within a division as diverse a portfolio as EA Partners, "there was no asset sharing and there was no overall ability for teams to work with each other and collaborate."
"We've had the luxury of coming at this thing fresh, and that goes all the way down to our runtime technology"
"These are the problems that the industry has had for 20 years, and the problem is that the approach and the architectures have stayed the same," he says when we meet at Casual Connect Europe, shortly after a session in which he introduced his new company, MaxPlay. "There are issues at all levels of production, so from the top in terms of team sizes, team locations, how teams operate, how disciplines work together, how they can't work together.
"Those problems have always existed, but they've been exacerbated over time."
Not only are the biggest teams now far larger than a few hundred people - occasionally around 1,000 for the very biggest games - they are also more distributed. Companies like Ubisoft and Rockstar draw on resources spread across multiple continents when they make Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto, and that trend is reflected at the other end of the scale. Small teams now frequently opt for a virtual office, to save on the costs of hiring a physical space, and to ensure that geography doesn't prevent them from finding the best person for the job. In 2016, an indie game studio can amount to little more than a series of laptops in Delhi, Denmark and Delaware. The problem, as Bain sees it, is the technologies available to them were created long before those circumstances existed.
MaxPlay is addressing these "fundamental issues and blockers" with a new development platform, which Bain has pitched as, "Google Docs for game development." It's a neat hook, and one that has particular resonance for this website's editorial team. The instantaneous collaboration afforded by Google's cloud services has become integral to how efficiently our own dispersed team works together. In many ways, Google Docs solved a problem we didn't even know we had. Bain believes MaxPlay could have the same impact for developers of every type and size.
"I don't want to hire 500 programmers to make the platform evolve. So we've constructed an architecture that lets the community do that"
"If you listen to people when they talk about existing platforms - not to pick on anybody, right, but it's Crytek and Unity and Unreal - it's, 'You know, Unity is really helpful,' and then the first thing out of their mouths is, 'But.'
Bain smiles. "Okay, 'But' what?'"
Entrenched engine companies are facing the innovator's dilemma, Bain says, trying to keep pace with a furious rate of change while shackled to foundations they laid more than a decade ago. "They're all core issues to the [Unity] architecture. It's a ten, fifteen-year-old legacy architecture, and the same thing is true with the Unreal Engine. We've had the luxury of coming at this thing fresh, and that goes all the way down to our runtime technology."
With multiple people able to work on a given file, asset or item at the same time, MaxPlay will offer clear benefits to teams working across vast distances, and even those separated by little more than the length of an office hallway. It also has an integrated community that Bain compares to Linkedin, which will help individuals build a reputation through feedback from their peers and, when sufficiently populated, should help bring new teams together.
Crucially, this real-time collaboration will allow for more rapid iteration, and Bain traces a direct line between the ability to iterate and the quality of the ideas that process yields. "The fundamental premise is, 'The faster you can iterate on something, the more times you can iterate on something, within a given amount of time, the better chance you have to make a better product.'
"Even with the current set of tools people are always driving to iterate faster. Our platform is just another technique to add to your toolkit to be able to iterate more."
"Anybody who tells you they know what the requirements of VR development are gonna be is full of shit. Nobody does"
This would have been useful to teams a decade ago, when Bain was primarily working with console developers at EA. Now, though, when so much of the games industry is working in mobile and other digital platforms, creating games that operate as services over a period of years, it is essential. The need for iteration continues to be reality long after launch.
"You have to continue to iterate, not only in a preproduction sense, but then you have to iterate on multiple parallel paths because you need to AB test," Bain says. MaxPlay also has an open architecture, so its users will be able to modify and add functionality to the platform sharing tools and modules through an integrated marketplace. "I don't want to hire 500 programmers to make the platform evolve. So we've constructed an architecture, an open-API architecture, that lets the community do that."
In doing so, MaxPlay is hoping to future-proof itself against new trends that are only now entering the market. With VR and AR, Bain says, "that goes to times ten, because you need seven times the processing power in VR, you need ten in augmented reality when you look at Magic Leap." The company is addressing this with MaxCore, which it describes as, "a scalable, data parallel computing architecture and advanced rendering system built for multi-core devices." From there, the VR and AR communities can then push MaxPlay in the direction that best suits their needs.
"We're talking about a new medium," Bain says. "Anybody who tells you they know what the requirements of VR development are gonna be is full of shit. Nobody does. All we know is, if we give somebody the ability to modify and extend the platform easily, that's what they really need, because we're not gonna describe what VR can or can't be. The developers will. People are gonna need to experiment and make mistakes. There's gonna be some really bad VR."
However, even if MaxPlay has a solution that better addresses the problems of today's game developers than incumbents like Unreal and Unity, one shouldn't underestimate the difficulty of gaining a share of the market. Unity has done its very best to make sure that nobody has to pay a great deal to use its tools, and it claims that more than 1 million developers do just that every single month. Despite the way it appears, though, Bain does not regard attracting users to MaxPlay as a zero sum game.
"We don't need to knock anybody off. We just need to be one of the three or four in the conversation"
"The market actually is growing pretty dramatically," he says. "With the power of phones increasing, with VR, the percentage of developers using engines and platforms, the percentage of the overall community, is going up. It used to be, maybe two years ago, 50 per cent of people used engines, off-the-shelf stuff. Now it's 70 per cent. It's gonna be 90.
"It's not just about games, either. We get people from the medical sciences, education, military simulation. All of these verticals are gonna go full interactive, and they need tools and platforms to do it. So it's not a zero-sum game. In fact, our projections for us to be very successful, you know, we don't need to knock anybody off. We just need to be one of the three or four in the conversation.
"It just seems to us that there have got to be better ways to work as an industry than we have. I would be hard-pressed to put 200 people who make games in a room and say, 'Hey guys, are we doing the best we can?' I think everybody would go, 'There's gotta be a better way. There's got to be.'"
GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for the Casual Connect conference. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.