Autodesk Leads Middleware Talk at E3

The flashy side of E3 ‘ which officially will return next year June 15-17 ‘ gets most of the attention at the annual confab, but there’s plenty of serious business also taking place as companies talk to each other about how to make next year’s games even better than this year’s.

To that end, software maker Autodesk held a special luncheon and panel discussion on the use of middleware products in the making of videogames. Best known in entertainment circles as the maker of the standard high-end animation tools Maya, 3ds Max and Softimage, the company’s games middleware offerings include HumanIK, for in-game character animation, and the AI solution Kynapse.

On hand for the chat were Autodesk VP of Games Marc Stevens, who lead the discussion on the role of middleware in making games with Kelly Zmak, president of Radical Entertainment, and Kevin Scharff, development director of Spark Unlimited.

Zmak says Radical, which is releasing June 5 the game Prototype, makes the decision to use middleware based on quality and not on saving money. When making games, he says the goal is always to try to do more with the resources you have, and if you can solve a problem with a middleware package rather than create a new proprietary tool, the decision is obvious. ‘If I can get more quality by using middleware, I will,’ he says.

Scharff, whose studio made the games Legendary and Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, agreed, adding it is important for the middleware to work well within the current production pipeline. ‘We don’t want to fight middleware,’ he says. Anything that minimizes the time spent learning to use a new technology is therefore extremely valuable, as is middleware that can be used on more than one game.

Evaluating middleware and whether it’s right for a project is always difficult, limited by time, money and available resources, Scharff says. Most important is the need for middleware to solve a big problem, even if it creates a lot of little ones at the same time, Zmak adds.

The game itself usually determines what middleware is needed and used for on any one project, Zmak says. ‘You look for what’s going to solve your problems and put it in the hands of the people who are going to use it,’ he says.

Scharff says as middleware evolves, it needs to play nicely with the foundations of the games. Middleware costs money, but it also offers the benefit of tech support, he says. Costs, and therefore risks, also will increase.

Zmak agreed, saying games makers should focus on making games more than R and D on technology. ‘Middleware can benefit by pushing the envelope,’ he says. ‘Give us tangible solutions.’