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Tooled Up

Autodesk's Michel Kripalani on working with Epic Games.

Without even knowing it, most people are probably exposed to the fruits of Autodesk's labour hundreds of times a day. The firm's ubiquitous 3D authoring tools - 3DS Max, Maya and Motion Builder - are used to create and manipulate almost every 3D object you ever see.

Watch a movie or a TV show and you'll probably see a 3D effect, whether subtle or incredibly overt, which passed through an Autodesk tool at some point. Look at an advertisement, and there's a strong chance that the product you see will have been modelled in 3D rather than photographed in real life. And of course, play a videogame, and everything in sight was probably created in an Autodesk tool.

It's in the games sector that Autodesk has faced one of its biggest challenges of recent years, with the advent of next-gen console technology and the associated demands for 3D characters and environments that are vastly more detailed than anything we've seen be-fore.

Michel Kripalani is in charge of the games business at Autodesk - one of three managers who oversee the three sectors which the company sees as its main customers. "I manage the games business, so I speak with all the games guys and I make sure our products have what they need," he explains.

"We also have a film industry manager, and a design visualisation industry industry manager, who manages the needs of architects and people who are visualising products. Between the three of us, we try to educate the group - and then the development team goes off and builds, and they have to cover all the industries."

Kripalani has just finished a tour of Europe, hosting a series of seminars with Epic Games' lead character artist Chris Wells as guest speaker. "We call this a superuser tour - what we do is we bring users who are very knowledgeable on the cutting edge techniques, and use these seminars as an opportunity to build community with all the local game developers."

Rounding up the seminar tour with a visit to the Develop conference in Brighton, Kirpalani is satisfied that the feedback on Autodesk's new products has been positive. "I think we're absolutely there with the last releases that we have," he says. "There were some major releases, with Max 9 and also with Maya 8.5.

"The primary theme of both releases was dealing with performance and handling millions of polygons. Both of them were 64-bit releases, so you could load them up on a machine which was filled up with enough RAM and really handle these massive data sets."

"We recognised that this was going to be an issue many years ago, and we decided to target it. That said, of course, people can always expect that there are going to be future versions - and we'll continue to address and to push where we need to push. But we're very happy - I'm personally absolutely ecstatic - with the last releases that we've had."

"They were leaps and bounds beyond. The difference between Max 8 and Max 9 in terms of being able to handle millions of polygons and these huge data sets was just night and day. If people are trying to do this stuff and they're not in Max 9... " Kirpalani laughs. "They really should be! They should figure out a way to get to it."

This, Kirpalani believes, is the biggest challenge in moving to the next-gen - simply handling the kind of data sets developers need to work with. Moreover, he accepts that while the company has scaled this vast obstacle this time around, the same challenge will arise once again next time console hardware is revised.

"I think that we'll probably have that issue every five years. The thing is, you almost get comfortable with dealing with data sets for PS2 and Xbox - then all of a sudden, wham, all the developers need data sets that are ten times larger.

"Autodesk tools, and most tools, we're on our annual, or 18 month, or 24 month cycle - whereas these game consoles are on their five year cycle. So every time you hit that wall, there's a little bit of a challenge involved in getting up and over it.

"I mean, we're seeing large data sets across all industry. We're seeing it in architecture, we're seeing it in film, we're seeing it in everything. It's very important to all of our customers. However, I think that in games, it's more acute, because the hardware changes. It all happens at once.

"Then for five years, everyone will be happy. Three years from now, we'll be talking about all kinds of really cool PS3 things, but people won't be talking about performance. Four or five years from now, when we're looking at the next-gen systems, it'll be a performance conversation again."

When it comes to addressing issues like this - whether it's performance, or the need for specific tools to address needs unique to the games industry - Autodesk relies heavily on feedback from various leading developers to guide its development process.

Kripalani, in his role overseeing the firm's relationships with the games industry, has nurtured relationships with several key developers - one of which is the studio behind the vastly successful Unreal Engine, Epic Games.

"We have a number of relationships with developers like Epic to try to understand where to push the boundaries, coming into this generation, in tools," he explains. "We do all of our product planning three years in advance, and a lot of that planning comes through conversations with developers like Epic."

Aside from touring with artists like Chris Wells, Autodesk also works closely with Epic and other top developers to establish where new features are required - a moving target which can change as rapidly as videogame graphics technology does.

"If you look back at previous versions of 3DS Max, there were tools such as the initial normal map creation - which we call render to texture - which came in Max 7, or some of the pelt mapping tools which came in Max 8," says Kripalani by way of example.

"These are tools that were heavily influenced by our conversations with companies like Epic. So, it's just one of those things where it's an ongoing conversation.

"Folks like Tim Sweeny, who's driving all the technology at Epic, they're really on the forefront of game graphics. They'll figure out what pixels and polygons they can push, and then they'll figure out how they fill that with the assets. A lot of the conversations come down to exporters, and file formats, and data structures - how to just get the core assets that they're going to need."

Kripalani is careful to point out that Epic shouldn't be singled out as Autodesk's sole partner - "We have these conversations with all the major game companies," he stresses. However, the growing customer base of the Unreal Engine, which is fast becoming the de facto technology for next-gen games, does seem to guarantee Epic an important role in determining the direction of the tools which Autodesk provides.

"The other thing that's important to understand is that what Epic needs for their engine is more than likely what the majority of everyone else around the world needs for their engine, too.

"Take normal maps, for example - it's not Epic exclusively. They happened to be one of the first studios that adopted it, so from an Autodesk perspective it was really good for us to speak with them about it, but all next generation engines these days are using normal maps.

"It's just that we look to these cutting edge companies so we can see where the path is getting carved through the forest," he concludes, "and then we just kind of follow along."