Last week saw the announcement of Oxide Games, a brand-new startup aimed at creating an all-new engine. That engine, Nitrous, is the work of former Civilization V developers Brian Wade, Tim Kipp, Marc Meyer and Dan Baker, with help from Stardock president Brad Wardell. The original announcement called Nitrous a 64-bit, multi-core engine designed for strategy games, but Nitrous is meant for more than just strategy.
GamesIndustry International sat down with Oxide Games co-founder Dan Baker and Stardock Entertainment president and CEO Brad Wardell to talk about the company's plans for Nitrous. Wardell made it clear that despite his involvement, Oxide Games is an independent company not directly affiliated with Stardock.
"I've known some of the Oxide guys for a long time and we've been making strategy games for a long time," said Wardell. "Every time we go and do a strategy game, we have to roll our own engine. It's gotten tougher and tougher for strategy games to be competitive with say, a first-person shooter, in terms of fidelity, because FPSs can just license Unreal. It was getting more and more difficult for us to compete visually as strategy games, and as a result they were becoming more and more niche. Or in the case of role-playing games, they just became first-person shooters."
"It was getting more and more difficult for us to compete visually as strategy games, and as a result they were becoming more and more niche. Or in the case of role-playing games, they just became first-person shooters."
Stardock president Brad Wardell
Wardell said that he had been talking to the Oxide team about a next-generation engine while they were still thinking about starting their own company. Nitrous has been designed to make "something that looks like Lord of the Rings" with thousands of high fidelity assets on screen at once.
Wardell explained that Nitrous is "not just for strategy games." Instead, Nitrous is intended for a wide variety of games with Wardell mentioning RPGs like Baldur's Gate as an example.
"I wouldn't say that strategy games are niche, but it's gotten to the point that unless you're a really big company, no one can afford to build the engines or technology that's involved in making an RTS," explained Baker. "We went back and forth before when we were talking to Brad and one of the questions was, 'why did the RTS genre get thinner?' I've seen a lot of market data and the games that come out sell great. The problem is it became so hard to just make them. It got more and more expensive, so a lot of the publishers just backed out of that market."
Baker said that when Firaxis began work on Civilization V, they looked for engines they could license and found none. Nitrous is an engine for "all the types of games that don't fit inside the traditional engine licensees." Wardell said that part of the problem is most games are trying to fit themselves into the first- or third-person shooter mold because that's what the licensable engines do best.
"We're looking to get the entire rest of the market. Everyone's been trying to redesign their games to fit that type of engine, because that's the only game in town," he said.
One big thing that stuck out in the original announcement is that Nitrous is 64-bit only. Oxide isn't worried about any issues due to that requirement because 64-bit hardware and operating systems are commonplace now. And while the 64-bit part is important, Oxide Games believes the multi-core aspect of the engine is a far bigger deal.
"We're looking to get the entire rest of the market. Everyone's been trying to redesign their games to fit that type of engine, because that's the only game in town."
Stardock president Brad Wardell
"There's a significant ramp-up cost to doing 64-bit. Part of that is because you have to start over from scratch. We're just biting the bullet and getting it done now. We think it'll give us a pretty big advantage going forward because game developers want to go to 64-bit, it's just that everything you license has been 32-bit for so long," said Wardell. "It's a non-trivial effort to write one of these engines from scratch. These other engines were written during a time where there was just one core. Dual-core is not that old. In another few years, you'll have 16 or 32 cores. It's hard to start from scratch again if you started from a time where there was just one core."
"We have pretty precise market data on customers. Everyone's system is 64-bit, so we don't find that controversial, except that people aren't doing it just yet," said Baker.
Wardell agreed that most games these days are CPU-bound, something he thinks hardware manufacturers have noticed as well. He pointed to the fact that AMD, Nvidia, and Intel have all expressed interest in Oxide's new engine.
"That's because they've seen what we've been doing. We've had video cards on the market that can do some amazing stuff, but the game technology hasn't been able to tap them because they're so CPU-bound. Your box might have 4 or 8 cores - even just 2 cores - most of these games out there are still basically single-core. With Nitrous, the more cores you throw at it, the faster it gets," he said.
Baker explained that legacy engines have actually held back hardware vendors in the long term: why make CPUs with more cores if the software won't support it? Old engines are hard to retro-fit for multi-core thinking, so the hardware industry has been coasting along raising the speed of smaller-core CPUs instead of adding more cores.
"People are beginning to build multi-core engines, but the initial investment of redoing all of your code isn't an issue for us as a new company," said Baker. "The second issue you have is that writing multi-threaded code is generally much more difficult on top of that. Between those two issues, there's a lot of market inertia and it's taken a long time. A few years ago, Intel was adding more and more cores to their CPUs and then all of a sudden that stopped."
Oxide Games is coming out today as a supporter of AMD's low-level Mantle API, which will allow developers to maximize performance on graphics chipsets that support it. Baker said that supporting Mantle was a "straightforward" adaptation that only took a couple of months on an alpha API.
"You'll see people misrepresenting that AMD's pushing this technology, but the reality is that a lot of people - including myself and other graphics architects - have been asking for this type of thing for a long time," said Baker. "I call it a contract of trust. The problem is driver models and APIs are built to protect against any random scenario which might happen. That costs you a lot of performance. Our game engine is already carefully engineered not to do certain bad things. From our perspective, when AMD came around and said, 'we're actually going to do this,' we were very interested to try it."
Baker believes Mantle-enabled games will probably have a seperate executables from their Direct X versions, for efficiency. He said that players could probably expect an option to load the Mantle-enabled version, but otherwise they should not be affected by Mantle's implementation.
"I don't think it's anything like Glide. Back then, the hardware had a lot of very specific variations," said Baker. "While there were advantages to doing that, it was because the hardware wasn't very programmable. A modern GPU is really just a processor; they're so programmable that the analogy doesn't hold up anymore."
Nitrous isn't an internal engine limited to Oxide and Stardock. Oxide fully intends to bring Nitrous to developers everywhere, but Baker wanted to caution developers on their expectations. It won't be a simple, plug-and-play engine.
"If you imagine you have a car," said Baker. "These other engines are like buying the whole car and then painting it. We're more like a high-performance engine. You build the car around it. We're not expecting someone without any experience writing code would be able to take on Nitrous. It's designed for professionals in the industry who want to get a lot of performance out of it, who understand their limiting factor is the ability to get everything running on a lot of cores efficiently."
Wardell said the team is still talking to early adopters and exploring options for licensing Nitrous.
"It's one of those conversations you have. What is the best route? A Unity-type model or do you do an Unreal model?" he asked. "I think that's one of those things that's just going to evolve because we have a different customer base than what you have with Unity or Unreal. With Unreal, it's people making AAA first-person shooters. They want to just plug it in. Unity is .NET/C#-based and they want to make an indie-style game. Nitrous is a very flexible engine. You can make anything you want out of it, but it's a not strategy game engine where you [easily] take the engine and make Warcraft IV."
"These other engines are like buying the whole car and then painting it. We're more like a high-performance engine. You build the car around it."
Oxide co-founder Dan Baker
Nitrous is currently aimed at PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. The team believes PC-like architecture of the next-generation consoles provides new opportunities for PC developers, and Oxide is going to be on the ground floor.
"This is the first console generation that feels like it has PC-level capabilities," said Wardell. "I remember back in the day, when the idea of making a console game was crippling your game."
"It used to be that when you made a console, you had these customized chips designed specifically for graphics," added Baker. "This is the first generation where, even though there has been significant customization on the hardware level for both, effectively we're using a part that's very similar to a PC. It's not a different breed. Looking at the PlayStation 2, it was an extraordinary exotic thing to deal with."
But what about other platforms? Mac OS X's gaming portfolio has improved, Valve just announced its Linux-based Steam Machines, and mobile has jumped into the 64-bit arena with Apple's A7 chip in the iPhone 5S and iPad Air. Both gentlemen called the Steam Machines in particular "very interesting," but declined to comment further on platforms right now.
"We don't want to get into pre-announcing platforms," said Wardell. "Certainly the next-generation consoles, Mac, and Steam Machines are interesting to us in the near-term. Beyond that, we haven't had a long opportunity to check out iOS 7 and the latest happenings on Android."