During GDC Europe last year GamesIndustry.biz first met up with small independent developer Animoto, based in Hyderabad, India. The team has created its own engine, led by former EA and Microsoft programmer Mark Currie and is gearing up for the release of its first game, a post-apocalyptic PC RTS title called Apox.
Here, Currie and the company's CEO Vinnie Reddy explain how the developer is trying to forge a path that combines low costs with high quality in a market that's putting more and more emphasis on marketing as time goes on.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Animoto.
Vinnie Reddy: Well, it started out as a motion capture facility initially, but when I met Mark we moved into game development. Right now we're not an outsourcing facility - which is what people have in their minds when they think of developers in India. We're into independent game development, and we've started working on our own RTS game with an in-house engine.
Q: What fuelled that decision towards game development, or was it always the plan?
Vinnie Reddy: No, it was more because I met Mark - we both worked at Trine, on a project associated with that studio - and then we set out for a year trying motion capture in India, but that doesn't really have any market. So that's when we thought we'd diversify into something that's more about games. Trash - the engine that we're using - is actually Mark's project, which he's been working on and off for eight years. The game was released in 2005, so we're really setting out to remake it with more advanced graphics, different gameplay and a few other things.
Q: Putting together a game engine is no small task, but tell us a bit about the game itself first.
Mark Currie: Apox is an independent RTS made with a very small team. Now we're in India it'd great, because there's a lot of affordable manpower and a lot of talented developers. It was an opportunity, and we've hired a nice team.
Vinnie Reddy: We have about 14 people now, with programmers and artists - the idea was that we wanted to be small and independent, and work on our own games, not working as a service just for anybody. I think we were lucky actually to find programmers on our team - the game is coming along well do far, and we're trying to add some first-person shooter elements into the RTS game as well. We were originally looking at November-December to put the game out [although the game is now scheduled for early 2010].
Q: So when you were hiring, were there a lot of people with the right skills for you to take ready-made, or was there a lot of training involved?
Mark Currie: I would say it's never easy, but it's a lot easier in India than in other places. It's hard to find people who have good game development experience in the type of game we're making. Most of the experience is in mobile games, or DS games, or games for very small children. You can certainly find talented, smart programmers, and we train them as to what they need to know about game development. So it's a nice fit.
Vinnie Reddy: That's how it's worked, in a nice way. We found people who have experience in software development, and we give them the added dimension of games. Luckily we found Mark who has great experience.
Q: The game development scene in India is still in its infancy - do you see yourselves as trail-blazers, and do you hope to inspire others?
Mark Currie: In India, yes - with any success, there will be followers.
Vinnie Reddy: I think the business model comes down to the fact that a lot of people started out on this side of things as more of a service company. I think in the economic downturn those people have been feeling the heat. What we're trying to do is stay small, make smaller games and keep the budgets small. To make similar games in Europe, it'll cost you a lot of money.
Q: How will you bring the game to market?
Vinnie Reddy: We've been talking to a few publishers who are based in Germany, and we did the same in the UK too. They're people who have local experience, although they might distribute internationally. We're also talking to a few digital distributors, such as Steam - so different people, with different expertise.
Mark Currie: We're looking at some innovative distribution methods, such as maybe partnering with cable broadband suppliers to provide exclusive content for their customers. Or magazine providers - the original Trash game was released by a popular Polish magazine, and that went really well.
Q: And was that a games magazine, or a general interest publication?
Mark Currie: It was a games magazine. The full Polish edition was given to everyone who bought the magazine.
Q: And the magazine publisher then paid for that?
Mark Currie: Yes, they paid for the localisation.
Q: And do you have plans to support the game on an ongoing basis, with downloadable content, for example? Or will you wait and see how it goes?
Mark Currie: Everything in life is 'wait and see' - but yes, there's a strong multiplayer component which will need balance and content updates.
Vinnie Reddy: Updates via digital distribution is a big part of it, actually, which is why we're looking to work with ISPs - that then become easy.
Q: So the engine - what made you want to build an engine back when you started?
Mark Currie: Yeah... it's a huge task and it's taken a lot of time. There's over 3000 lines of C++, and it has a lot of nice features. It scales to 32 players, with mission scripting support - it's coded very well, and because there are only a few people working on it, it's very consistent code. I've done contract work at Microsoft and EA and I've seen what code bases look like in these bigger teams... they might have 20 people working on something, and even though they're super-talented, it's rushed and can easily become a mess. We took our time, and it's a pleasure to work on.
Q: And is it something you can use again in the future, perhaps for other genres? Or could you license it to other companies?
Mark Currie: Absolutely. For a strategy game it's a great idea - it could definitely be used for any sort of RTS-type game. Different engines are good for different things - the Source engine for first-person shooters, for example. Our is good for strategy games.
Vinnie Reddy: There aren't many engines available off-the-shelf for RTS games in fact.
Q: The RTS genre itself hasn't been so popular with the console era, because on the whole they haven't transferred well yet... but is that a good thing, because the PC installed base is still massive, but the big players are focusing on consoles?
Vinnie Reddy: That's what we thought - the PC could become a place to play for independent developers. You can make a decent game with a decent budget.
Mark Currie: Although there are still big players releasing PC RTS games - Starcraft II is coming out, Company of Heroes sold a couple of million Dollars... there's money to be made.
Q: Indeed - the RTS genre is pretty mature now, so what's the pressure like to come up with new ideas?
Mark Currie: Well, you have to. For us, we're zooming in a little bit, so there are fewer units and a bit more control over what you can do. And then you can do some things in FPS mode, things like having ammo for your units, or commands. It's fun [smiles]
Vinnie Reddy is CEO and Mark Currie is technical director at Animoto Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.