Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 12 (Dec 2006)

Middle Ground


The use of third-party middleware within the entertainment realm is expanding
by Michael Arrington

Middleware, that sometimes thin layer of technology that sits between consumer hardware and games and other entertainment software, is an important but rarely noticed (by anyone other than developers) component of today’s entertainment applications.

In the early days of the video game business, developers generally built their games from the hardware up, designing and implementing all of the higher level technologies that made their products run. Industry pioneers such as Id Software (maker of Doom and Quake) and others wowed gamers again and again as they laid the technological foundation for modern 3D gaming.

Today, many of these core technologies are available ready to run from third-party sources, and they’re helping developers roll out their games faster and for less money than ever before. Perhaps more importantly, middleware is allowing an increasing percentage of development dollars and time to be spent on content creation—the real differentiator of a killer game.

Almost all games now rely on at least some third-party technologies—mainly low-level products such as audio libraries and other fundamental components. However, an increasing number are built on higher level middleware systems, including physics and artificial intelligence, network software, and complete game engines.

A recent market study, Middleware for Interactive Entertainment 2006-2011, by Acacia Research Group, estimates that annual spending on third-party middleware for console and PC game development will reach nearly $79 million in 2006 and will grow to more than $108 million by 2011.

Most of that total (around 48 percent in 2006) is being spent on game engines from providers such as Epic Games (Unreal), Id Software (Quake), and Emergent (Gamebryo). Low-level middleware, such as the foundation graphics and audio technologies provided by vendors like RAD Game Tools (Granny, Bink), make up another large chunk of the total (about 31 percent).

Physics and AI systems account for the majority of the remaining spending (just over 13 percent combined), followed by network technologies and other high-level middleware products. It is noteworthy, however, that some of the most interesting products available today fall into that smallest final category—this includes such cool technologies as IDV’s SpeedTree natural vegetation system.

Physics Lessons

The past year has been an exciting one for the game middleware industry. Hardware acceleration of physics became a reality in 2006, with the launch of the first Ageia PhysX-compatible add-in boards and the acceleration of Havok FX from Nvidia and Havok. Though broad market acceptance of an additional piece of costly gaming hardware is certainly not a given, it is clear that hardware acceleration of gaming functionality beyond graphics is on the horizon.

Third-party physics systems have become a must-have middleware component for most game developers, but the business is changing, and physics providers may face an interesting transition as hardware-focused companies such as Ageia and, possibly, graphics chip makers such as Nvidia begin to look at physics software technologies as simply a value-add to help sell chips and boards.

Either way, content developers win big, increasingly enabled to stretch the creative envelope as providers rush to offer solutions that can push ever greater numbers of objects around a 3D environment in a realistic manner.

The year also saw even more blending between physics, animation, and behavior (AI) as companies ranging from Havok to NaturalMotion introduced refined products for improved character animation for coders and artists alike. These hybrid technologies help create more realistic motion by offering the tools to smoothly merge preset sequences (either motion capture or hand animation) with real-time physical interaction. The coming couple of years may also see the emergence of hardware-accelerated AI either from new entrants such as AISeek or from existing silicon providers including Nvidia and ATI. Like physics, AI is an excellent candidate for hardware processing and, if successful, will give content developers even more ways to improve their products.

Going Mobile

Finally, beyond the high-powered world of game consoles and PCs, new platforms are beginning to show signs of being ready to run more advanced entertainment applications. The current generation of dedicated handheld game systems (Nintendo DS and Sony PSP) are already 3D-capable, but the next generation of advanced phones will be taking a dimensional leap as well, thanks to new hardware from chip makers.

While these simple devices won’t be displaying 10,000-polygon characters anytime soon, they offer an opportunity for artists to work on their "newly old-school" low-poly asset creation skills. The middleware layer on these devices is still lightweight, focusing on basic services, but will grow in tandem with hardware capabilities.

Empowered devices with a range of usage models (desktop, living room, portable) will open up new avenues for game designers over the next few years, and publishers are already working on tying their PC and console games (especially those with an online component) into mobile devices.

Advantages

By using pre-built middleware components, developers can get their games up and running faster and more cheaply than building technologies from scratch. And, perhaps more importantly, they can get those artists who are building content for the game involved in the process sooner.

Using a third-party engine such as Unreal or Gamebryo, 3D artists, audio designers, level creators, and other content developers can start building game assets almost immediately. High-level middleware components such as game engines and physics systems include an ever-improving tool set for content developers, and these tools are increasingly focused on integration with existing content tools and pipelines.

And, with code and content coming together early in the development process, a game’s designers can get feedback on their concepts much sooner and begin testing and refining the gameplay that will help make the game fun and unique.

The end result of this is, potentially, a better game built for less money.


 

Michael Arrington is a senior analyst for Acacia Research Group. He can be reached at Michaela@acaciarg.com. To purchase the full report, go to the Acacia Web site.

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