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Blitz Games part two: Andrew Oliver

Is the games industry changing for the better?

Following on from yesterday's interview with Blitz Games CEO Philip Oliver, here chief technical officer Andrew Oliver discusses some of the other issues affecting the games industry today.

Read on to find out why Blitz is firmly attached to producing and using its own middleware, and why Oliver believes some developers are being too quick to snap up Epic's Unreal engine.

He also discusses the positives and negatives of producing games for the launch of a next-gen console, whether the platform holders could be doing more for developers, and why he misses the Dizzy days...


GamesIndustry.biz: Earlier this month, you gave a speech at the London Game Developers Conference. Can you summarise the main points for anyone who missed it?

Andrew Oliver: Well, the title was 'Managing Complexity In Game Production Pipeline'; it's all about the tools that for next-gen. Now, we create all of our middleware at Blitz, and always have done. We've got cross-platform technology and we're doing quite a few big licences every year.

Lots of people in the industry have been saying, well, clearly everything changes, like with the PlayStation 3's Cell processor and multi-parallel processing. Well, a lot of things do change, but a lot of things stay the same. We're intending to take our middleware forward and use exactly the same principles.

Lots of very technical people in the industry have gone, "It's just not practical, it's not possible," but it is. It'd be madness to start again. You want to reuse what you can because it's efficient and you get value for money; you want to make sure all your artists and programmers are carrying on developing in a very familiar environment.

A lot of people are jumping off their own middleware - sometimes it was RenderWare, which has been taken out of the market - to just go and buy Unreal or something. And it's like, oh my God, you're almost starting again. Even though you're buying middleware, you've got to relearn.

What do you think of the Unreal engine?

We're dead impressed by all the demos. But a demo is... A lot of it is very very nice graphics. I mean, all of the technical features when you go down... Our middleware does that, we just haven't got the flashy art demo because we're busy making games. They're not.

The Unreal engine and toolset is very good and is becoming the obvious choice for many developers, but it's certainly not the only choice. That's where, I feel, a lot of people are making mistakes.

We had this five years ago, when everyone was going on about RenderWare, and I had to defend the fact that we do our own middleware to publishers who were saying, "Look, it's stupid for you to have your own middleware when you can buy RenderWare off the shelf and it's really good, really reliable and everything else."

We just said, "Well ours is good, and ours is really reliable, and we're going to carry on and extend ours because then we can be in control of our own destiny. God knows, something might happen to RenderWare, and then we're knackered." And people thought it was a joke, and it's like, well, it happened, you know?

And just like RenderWare got bought by EA, Unreal - I'd be bloody surprised if they're not in discussions with Microsoft or someone about being bought. I'd be really surprised if they're not. Put it this way - that's what these people do.

So you wouldn't consider selling off Blitz's middleware?

At least it'd be us controlling our destiny... It's not what we want to do, so what's the point? That was our way out if we wanted a way out, but we're really quite keen on writing games.

The thing is, if you're using somebody else's [engine] and then suddenly it goes... Whatever price it is - I think $750,000 to license - you write one game on it, but then you're completely tied in, and then your sequel, or even if you do another game, has to use it.

Well, they can just put the price up - so they put it up to a million and a half next year, and say, "Sorry, but there were too many games coming out, and we put so much more work into it that we believe it's worth this, and people will buy it."

Of course they'll buy it; because they're knackered, because they can't do the sequel, and the whole thing falls over. And so you go out of business. I saw this happening as EA were buying RenderWare...

People are doing good sales and marketing for things like Unreal, saying, "Everything's changed, you've got to rethink games, you've got to go and buy something in." But when you look at it closely, it's not that everything has changed. We've been pleasantly surprised at how many things are just growing on top, and we're just adding features to what we already have with a bit of reworking underneath.

Do you think the challenges for developers are getting tougher with the arrival of the next-gen consoles?

Oh God, yeah. You need a massive team of people. In the last generation, you'd ask an artist to go and model a character and it would be a week or something. Now you need to make it look so real you're talking two months or so.

Your timeframe for doing the game is still going to be a year to 18 months - but everything is five times harder, or takes longer. You could naturally assume that takes a team five times the size, but that would be silly, so you've got to be smarter.

It comes down to what your tools are doing, because you can't be texturing polygons the way you used to... You have to change certain practices. We're not going to start from scratch, we're going to adapt and change these principles.

Do you think the increase in team sizes and game budgets is a good thing for the industry?

It's quite good in some respects, because it's amazing to think what the consumer now gets. They are getting Hollywood productions, and I think that's incredibly good for the industry, that there is so much investment.

We do create magic, really. If you actually think about what's gone into a game, it's stunning. There are other marketplaces which are underinvested, whereas we're in a wonderful market that's massively overinvested, which is a brilliant thing.

If it was only that, what you'd see is the kind of EA thing going on, whereby you just see no-brainer titles, sequels... Which is disappointing, as you're losing out on originality and creativity.

But then, we're starting to get a fairly large emergence of Xbox Live Arcade, and Sony has said they'll do similar, and Nintendo will probably follow suit . So you'll get all the creative stuff, which wasn't created by massive teams but is actually really good fun, starting to emerge elsewhere. That's a saving grace.

What did you make of the news that the PS3 has been delayed until March in Europe?

I'm not entirely surprised. I think we all knew that things aren't quite ready, but I don't think I've given much away there. To be perfectly honest, I thought developers were going to get blamed for the games not being ready. I'm sure somebody on a hardware launch did that a few years back...

It's really hard to build these big games. With the best will in the world, Sony has done very well providing dev kits, but even then there have been short supplies, there have been problems - it's cutting edge technology and teething problems. So I'm not bloody surprised these things happen, and it's a miracle they do as much as they do.

How has the delay affected your business?

We've been here so many times before... I should imagine some people have been really knocked by it, but we predicted it, and we don't rely on that kind of thing.

Six months ago, everyone was talking about signing up for next-gen no matter what, and dev kits were coming out so people were going for it. We've been saying, look, everybody in the first year of Xbox 360 will probably lose money one way or another, because the sales aren't going to be there - but the amount of cost to develop is horrendous.

You have to develop at some point. That's a fair comment. But can your cashflow take a year's hit of development? That's the issue. This year's been the PlayStation 2's biggest year, and it was totally predictable that would happen. You want have your biggest year in sales the same year you're investing in new technology; you don't want the gap some people will have had last year, where you put all your investment in upfront.

We are doing a launch title for the Wii, and it is more costly to be the first ones there, and you hit all the problems first. If you look at the Wii forums... Our programmers are bashing their heads against a brick wall and posting stuff up, then Nintendo realises, oh, that is a problem, then takes a week or so to fix it - and we've lost a week because we couldn't work on something.

Should platform holders be doing more to help you cope with these problems?

They're doing as much as they can; I'm actually very impressed. They make mistakes, but we make mistakes, and they're all very good, professional people. Everybody is right on the cutting edge of technology, and that's just a fact of life.

What with all these new problems to overcome, do you ever wish you could just go back to making Dizzy games in your bedroom?

It was a completely different thing. It used to be cool to just write your own game and bung it out, and if you had an idea, you could just do it. Nowadays... People occasionally come along to our company or we get packs in the post, "I've got a good idea for a videogame!", and it's like, "Yeah, like we haven't!"

I've got loads of great ideas, I'm so close to it I can see all the trends - I just don't have ten million bucks spare to build the bloody things. I've got to build prototypes and do design docs, and take all the fun out of it trying to convince someone else that it's great, when all the time the market wants sequels and licenses. Which is a kick in the teeth.

That's why I love Live Arcade. There are a lot of people in our company who have all been sitting on game ideas, and we all agree that you don't have to build an epic to make a fun game. We'll be able to put many fun games in places like Live Arcade, and I think that's a very redeeming thing for the future. Though even then, it's going to take five people five months or something to build a game, typically.

But look at what the consumer gets - it's so much better. It was only fun in those days because it was kind of novel; nobody had seen little characters moving round the screen. Quite frankly, you put that stuff on now, and people go, "It's rubbish" - well, actually, yeah, I've got fond memories, but it's a bit embarassing when you look back at it.

Andrew Oliver is chief technical officer for Blitz Games. Interview by Ellie Gibson. Click here to read yesterday's interview with Blitz CEO Philip Oliver.

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Ellie Gibson

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Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.