First, The News
Blam! As hot as it gets, this mysterious news came to me as a bit of a surprise!
GameBryo is the middle-ware cross-platform engine that is used in an impressive number of games:
2001 – The Dark Age of Camelot
2002 – The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
2004 – Sid Meier’s Pirates!
2005 – Sid Meier’s Civilization IV
2006 – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
2008 – Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
2008 – Bully: Scholarship Edition
2008 – Fallout III
2010 – Fallout: New Vegas
2010 – Epic Mickey
2010 – Divinity II: Ego Draconis
2011 – Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga
.. and also..
Defense Grid, Civilization: Revolution, Wheel of Fortune, Shadow Harvest, Black Shot, RedView, Space Chimps, WorldShift, Freaky Creatures, Blood Bowl, Speed Racer, Empire Earth II, Freedom Force, Axis & Allies, Futurama, Open Kart, Jeopardy, Loki: Heroes of Mythology, Wildlife Park 2, Prison Tycoon, Making History: The calm & the storm, Kohan II: Kings of War, Playboy: The Mansion, Zoo Tycoon 2, Knights Apprentice, Stacked, Riding Star, Kick-off 2002, IHRA Drag Racing, Hospital Tycoon, Wizard 101, Dungeon Runners and many more..
The GameBryo technology was used by over 65 Emergent clients, small and big studios alike. Games ran on PS3, Xbox360 and Nvidia/ATI PC’s. The engine boasted plug-in libraries from a slew of other software partners, most of them also used in Unreal III and CryEngine 2, and all of them integrated into a number of big name games.
So, reading all that good news, how is it possible that Emergent failed to sustain a sound business? Clearly there has to be something wrong with either the model, the technology or the management. The truth is that the model already existed, and that the technology is more or less a copy-paste gone sour.
GameBryo was licensed by a number of companies, but also depended heavily on partnerships with other development houses. Emergent’s latest deal with Krome studios apparently sought to bring a mid-sized developer into the Emergent stack of development power to keep GameBryo support alive. After the deal and despite Krome CEO interviews telling otherwise, Krome’s financial status turned deep red in a matter of days, and after it closed, Emergent put everything up for sale. Bad technology? Just bad luck in terms of management? Or were both companies in financial trouble and hoping one could lift up the other one just by lying their way out of it? A bit of everything? It’s probably too early to tell, but surprising nonetheless.
The Biz Model
Vancouver based Numerical Design Limited branched into the game industry from a military background, long before the notion of ‘serious gaming’ was invented. Their first line of products was called NetImmerse, and even today, all GameBryo source files still carry the ‘Ni’ prefix. NetImmerse was not a huge success but some games were built with it. When NDL was absorbed by Germany based Emergent Game Technologies in 2005, NDL revamped NetImmerse into GameBryo.
Meanwhile, from 1996 to 2001, a company called Criterion was cruising into the limelight with it’s highly successful Burnout series. But Criterion was not just about games. It was selling the whole development suite it used to build Burnout. The Burnout games were demonstrations to show the world just how flexible and great it’s “RenderWare” technology was. It demonstrated speed, cool graphics, technical awesomeness and platform flexibility. It was the door for many developers to the hard-to-get-right PS2 development. And it also assured a healthy feedback cycle from the game team to the middle-ware team. A lot of killer games were made after Burnout by licensees, proving their model worked. In fact, the technology looked so promising that no less but Electronic Arts itself – largest game company at the time – simply bought it out of the market, stopped all licensee support, and merged RenderWare technology with their own tech. Technology wise, RenderWare was as good as any other game engine, but pipeline wise, RenderWare was bringing a flexibility to development teams that few other engines could boast, cross platform. It did a lot of things right, right out of the box.
This must somehow have intrigued EA in a period when they were struggling to shed their image of an uninspired dull static behemoth developer, living off a yearly fix of yet the same soccer and NBA sports titles, and using wide variety of not-very-compatible technology in a spread of studios. They wanted to rival Epic with their Unreal Engine, and RenderWare was to be their new jack of cards. Later, EA COO William “Bing” Gordon reports in Gamasutra that “RenderWare didn’t get the next-gen parts that we needed. We actually underestimated Epic early on.”
It explains part of the reasoning that must have driven Emergent to a fire-sale of GameBryo. Emergent believes that sufficient value interest from other parties that rival EA exists to buy such overarching tech, because it can cut off smaller developers from exotic systems like the PS3, Wii,.. Will it be Vivendi, Ubisoft, ActiBliz? Who’s gonna bite first?
RenderWare was glorious when it first showed off their editor demo where content was produced on PC and instantly uploaded to both Xbox and PS2. Must have been 2005 or 2006. Today, almost 2011, GameBryo Lightspeed, the latest technology rendition by Emergent, is built solely to support exactly that. On-the fly editing and gaming, shortening artist production cycles, bringing huge amount of flexible property sheets to every game object instantiated. Including life cycle management. The whole pipeline architecture is pretty much based on the kind of technology that RenderWare was using at the time of the Criterion acquisition. Hence my claim of tech copy paste. Not a real copy-paste obviously, but the same ideas were re-implemented. In fact, counting all architectural changes, that would have been the 3rd attempt.
While NDL and Emergent embraced the RenderWare philosophy and mimicked it rather closely, the console war led to a platform turnaround cycle, which meant a lot of work to be redone, and a lot of things to be rethought. NDL had a whole legacy licensee inheritance that crippled them from moving forward fast. There was a physical ocean of headroom between both companies. Unlike RenderWare, they tried to sustain version compatibility. Unlike RenderWare, GameBryo had a much smaller support team, had no sister games division bringing invaluable feedback, and had a smaller development team that for a large part was dealing with integration of 3rd party technology, similar to the efforts Epic was doing with their Unreal Engine. Unreal just moved a lot quicker, and to make matters worse, Epic threw the UDK in the public domain. It was clear that GameBryo was pushed in a corner and had to make choices. They chose technology partnerships over refactoring.
No Love For GameBryo?
If you browse many a game forum, you may occasionally pick up hard words towards Emergent’s technological achievements. Dancing on graves never gave way to huge civil progression, but I thought it appropriate to pull things into context again nonetheless. NDL and later Emergent really worked hard to deserve more, re-invented themselves when times were hard, and then things got even harder. But I want you to think of this: If GameBryo disappears, the gap between AAA and Indie will become larger. (Torque is dead, Unity still going..) Developers will have to spend money on re-inventing what has already been invented 2ce. Game developer money that could have supported creative souls, game play, concepts and content.
Gamers only see the end result in the form of an actual game they are playing. They may see bad lighting, missing polygons, strange animations, jerky frame rate or just altogether strange bugs. And then they yell at the GameBryo ‘engine’, which is not actually conceptually what a ‘real’ engine (Unreal, CryEngine,Source,IdTech5..) is. It’s fully understandable that they complain. After all a game experience must be worth their money, and seeing bugs on your HD screen is never sexy or something to boast about. But the point of the post is – fully realizing that only a few gamers may actually have read this far – that GameBryo, while being a bit overweight, was never a bad platform, bad tech or bad middle-ware. It was just ill-supported and ill-documented, and possibly also ill-timed. With a little more love, developers using it may not have caused so many bad feelings. The ‘bugs’ in your game? You probably should blame the developer, not the middle-ware it is based on.
Of course NDL and Emergent management are to blame too. They never had a creative vision of how things ought to be, something that Criterion was pretty good at. To their credit, they saw and created the market opportunity and just steered into the open tracks before them, and then just kept on going. Trying to ‘pull a Criterion’ off, and it seems it worked out for them in the end. It’s hard to say what choices would have made more sense, but I hope it is clear that GameBryo’s software side was certainly not the only issue Emergent faced. At least one single largest bidder understood the importance of GameBryo in todays market.
Now let’s find out who picked up GameBryo, and what will happen with it.
Love to hear opinions..