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Blue Sky Thinking

With Project Skyline, Autodesk's Marc Stevens and Eric Plante are bringing the disparate worlds of art and programming together

As game budgets continue to rise, the need for efficient use of time and resources becomes ever more important. However, the traditional production pipeline is fundamentally flawed, the artists surrendering their assets to programmers with no effective way of spotting mistakes and make adjustments on the fly.

Only companies with enough resources or technical knowledge to create proprietary solutions have been able to address the problem, but Autodesk is here to help. With Project Skyline, it is working on a new model for game production that creates a live link between the art assets, the game editor and the run-time, unifying the entire pipeline.

In this interview, Autodesk's vice president of games Marc Stevens and character animation product manager Eric Plante walk us through Project Skyline, and its potential repercussions for the industry.

GamesIndustry.bizAutodesk has been steadily ramping up its involvement in the games industry. How pervasive are you products now? How much opportunity is there for the future?
Marc Stevens

No matter which successful games you look at today, they're using one or many of our tools to create the content. Looking back to a few years ago, there was a lot of money that people were investing, studio-by-studio, project-by-project. It was all their special sauce but, when you got down into it, it was all the same stuff, and it's because you couldn't go anywhere and get a solution.

So everything that the developers did - the programmers, the game designers - most of that was in-house developed stuff. Even a couple of years later, even the most successful third-party tools for high-end titles – Epic or something – they sell 25 or 30 licenses a year, so you're still only touching a handful of games out of hundreds that are made.

And then you've got this boom of all the mobile games that are being done, and all the social games. Yes, they're a lot simpler than console games, but on the other side mobile hardware is getting more powerful every year. The iPad or the smartphone is going to be just as powerful as a PC or a console, so there's no reason why the content or the complexity of the games can't go with it.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat does Skyline add to what you already offer?
Marc Stevens

One of the areas that we thought we could get involved and help is to bridge the gap between what all the artists are doing, and what happens on the other side of the pipeline. We could see there's a lot of inefficiency, and energy and time lost.

The smartphone is going to be just as powerful as a PC or a console, so there's no reason why the content can't go with it.

Marc Stevens, Autodesk

That information [art assets], usually it's all transformed once into a level-editing environment that's built specifically for the game – to lay out, design the gameplay, and all of that stuff – and when it's time to make the final game, it's converted again. And whenever something's wrong – you want to make changes, there's bugs – finding out what happened and why and then changing it is very hard, time consuming, and complicated.

We've seen some of the more innovative companies designing processes and doing things on their own to solve this, but Autodesk is in a position to help them, too. If you roll the clock back a couple of years that's one of the reasons why Autodesk got in the middleware business: to learn more about the problems the programmers and the developers are having – what happens in the run-time – because it was an area we just weren't that familiar with.

We started with the acquisition of Kynapse, an AI path-finding middleware. From there we did some of our own stuff with Human IK, procedural animation and motion-retargeting middleware. Then [we acquired] Beast from Illuminate Labs, for lighting, and most recently Scaleform for UI.

GamesIndustry.bizHow many people at Autodesk have direct experience of making games?
Marc Stevens

Eric actually came from EA, here in Montreal, he worked there for a number of years. And Mathieu Mazerolle, who couldn't ne here today, came from Ubisoft. Another guy was Frank DeLise, who worked with THQ on the Homefront franchise and a bunch of other things.

I don't want to say that we didn't have people here that knew about games, but I don't think we had people who had spent ten years making games... We started to bring in people who had to go through all of this; that used our tools and saw the inefficiencies, so we could start to look at how to build a more unified process.

GamesIndustry.bizCan you explain what you mean by "unified process"?
Marc Stevens

Where the artist can both create content that can be merged into a run-time authoring environment, and also be brought out to the game in a consistent manner where people can make changes and see the results right away, and if there are problems understand how to backtrack to where they came from in our tools. That's where we started from with Project Skyline.

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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