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Digital Extremes’ Schmalz Talks Dark Sector Origins, Biz Future

Digital Extremes president James Schmalz discussed wide-ranging views on the game biz at a recent conference, and Gamasutra was there to hear about the MMO genesis of Dark Sector, as well as praise for Bioshock’s storytelling abilities and t

Mathew Kumar, Blogger

April 8, 2008

6 Min Read

At the recent ICE 08 game conference in Toronto, Digital Extremes’ president and founder James Schmalz discussed his views on the current and future video games industry. Along the way, Schmalz drew on his experience developing the recently released Dark Sector, giving high praise to Bioshock’s storytelling abilities and the possibilities offered by Little Big Planet. Taking the form of an informal interview with Scott Colborne, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, Schmalz began the session by discussing the genesis of Dark Sector: “We wanted to develop our own technology and started from scratch without even knowing what any of the current generation of consoles were going to be like. It was pretty risky, but thankfully the majority of our choices were correct, at least in terms of the Xbox and PS3.” “The initial seed of Dark Sector actually came from an after dinner sort-of cocktail hour, and somebody had this idea of doing a massively multiplayer game set in outer space. It was originally going to be an MMO action title on the PC,” Schmalz revealed. “We were really pumped to do it, but as time passed we did some analysis -- this was a time when bandwidth was really expensive -- and the result was very scary to us. Then we saw that the big storytelling games on PS2 and Xbox were the ones that were making the money. So we shifted from an MMO game on the PC to a single player, story driven game on the consoles." Colborne asked if the decision to develop their own engine was a positive one. “The PS3 and Xbox360 are these incredible pieces of hardware that are very difficult to code for well,” Shmalz said. “If I knew what I knew now then I maybe would have made a little bit of a different decision!” “But we had a huge advantage in that it was custom designed for our game and we know every single part of that engine and how to ensure it runs smoothly, and is thus easily adaptable to other things.” When developing Dark Sector Digital Extremes had to content with shifting platform specifications, including the surprise reveal of the Sixaxis controller. “There always going to be lot of surprises, a lot of adjustments: you have to be flexible,” stated Schmalz. “The Sixaxis was definitely as surprise but we managed to get that in there.” Schmalz argued that the effort of getting your system to work on more than one system, despite possibly wildly different specifications, was of utmost importance. “To make a game work on two systems at once is the biggest way to reduce your risk,” he said. “It increases your market share so much.” The Future Of Storytelling “One of the things we put a lot of effort into with Dark Sector was making the story visually and cinematically impressive,” he continued. “We’re getting a lot of good feedback and the ‘movie like’ experience is what I see games going in general. We’re doing that better than ever before and the envelope is only going to be pushed further. It’s becoming more similar to the movie industry. You’ll have the summer blockbusters but you’ll be able to see the ‘arthouse flicks.’ You kind of see that with independent PC games already, but we’re going to see a lot more of that on the consoles as time passes.” However, despite the increased importance of story, Schmalz warned against simply hiring writers from film or TV and expect what they do to work In games. “If you try to hire writers from outside it’ so hard for them to understand that the nuances of storytelling that are popular in film are hard to bring across in games.” he said. “Bioshock is a great example of a brilliantly implanted story,” Schmalz enthused. “It’s very hard to make people care about the story because people are focused on the game play, and what was clever was they used all of these tools to engage the player in the story. When you get down to it on a surface level the story really is very simplistic. You can ignore all of the audio tapes and still understand it at the end.” “If you tried to just translate No Country for Old Men into a game, it’s very interesting, because what makes that film great is the subtleties that come from the acting, implications from certain dialogue or the mise en scène. It’s still a violent, action orientated film, but if you tried to write what made it great into a game, there is so much less of a captive audience, it would be far too easy for people to miss those things that are so important.” His praise for Bioshock continued, “It’s incredibly clever in Bioshock how they presented a story knowing those things -- allowing you to get the core story by having those sections thrown in your face, but the subtleties were there to be found if you wanted to. People are learning big lessons from Bioshock.” The Next Console Platforms Admitting that Digital Extremes’ next game “even next couple of games” would be on the current systems, Shmalz discussed what he saw as the future of video games systems. “Really what I see happening on the next generation is purely more computing power. The big difference that happened with this transition was the switch from single to multiple processors. The jump from one processor to eight was hard, but eight to 64 won’t be that different. They’ll simply offer a ton of new processing power. Imagine using one processor just to run a single AI, or even simply one particle effect.” This was going to have a positive effect for developers he felt. “With this generation there was a huge technology shift, but the new systems will be more of the same. That is going to shorten development times.” With its work on the Unreal series for Epic Games, Digital Extremes knows a lot about user generated content, and similarly Schmalz expects to see a “lot more of that” in future games consoles. “Right now there isn’t a big fan base for that in console games, but LittleBigPlanet is going to change that. It’s completely user generated, and when that becomes a big success it’s going to change everything. There is a lot of desire to see that happen and it’s only beginning to flourish.” In conclusion, Schmalz stated that no matter what the future holds, the most important thing to hold on to is to “develop a fun game”, something he hopes to have accomplished with Dark Sector - a title that's debuted to mixed reviews, albeit slightly stronger user feedback. He concluded: “As game developers we can’t design fun -- you don’t know fun till you’ve played it, so to capture that, through development, is the core thing.”

About the Author(s)

Mathew Kumar


Mathew Kumar is a graduate of Computer Games Technology at the University of Paisley, Scotland, and is now a freelance journalist in Toronto, Canada.

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