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Column: 'The Euro Vision: Middleware, LGF, & Growth'

The latest edition of Gamasutra's regular 'The Euro Vision' column collides with Gamasutra’s newsdesk, as UK journalist Jon Jordan heads down to Game Developers Conference London, but still manages to write about something else entirely.
For three days, it seems that London’s Piccadilly Circus is the centre of the gaming universe, as the Game Developers Conference London collides in a shower of friendly sparks with the London Games Summit, and the numerous other smaller events that make up London Games Week. Peter Molyneux’s currently heading the most busy list, having given three talks in two days, closely followed by Epic’s Mark Rein (two in two). Heck, there’s more Gamaustra people together in one confined place than has ever been seen outside of San Francisco and San Jose. If they were high energy sub-atomic particles, we’d be creating wormholes or somesuch. But enough of these sci-fi metaphors. The conference is ongoing as I write - the Quebec government is hosting free drinks across the road, as it prepares for November’s Montreal International Game Summit, while next on the official GDC world tour will be the Russian Game Developers Conference in October, in Saint Petersburg. Mere columnists aren’t allowed to partake of such delights - at least not until they have completed their weekly dispatch... Still I’m not going to get too involved in the details of the London conferences until I’ve had time to digest them some more. You can check out the rolling news from Simon, Jill and the team at Gamasutra itself, of course. Stuck In The Middle Instead I’m going to backtrack to Monday and the launch of a Middleware Group by European development trade body Tiga (pronounced ‘tiger’ not ‘tigger’). Originally set up to create a collaborative environment for the UK’s independent game developers, especially with respect to interacting with government, Tiga has morphed, now taking into account publishers’ in-house studios, as well as European development companies, and European government. So the expansion to middleware and tools companies would seem to be a good move, especially as the past 12 months has seen a resurgence of European companies offering game-related technology, tools and services. And a couple of such companies were highlighted in the launch (as pictured in a cut-and-paste stylee from left to right), with business development director of Irish technology company Instinct, Mike Gamble, and CTO of ‘brain the size of planet’ outfit Geomerics Jules Davis heading up the industry side of the launch, alongside Tiga CEO Fred Hasson. The goals of the new body are fairly sensible to begin with. As Gamble pointed out, there are few direct European competitors in the space, so it makes sense just to get companies talking to each other about the pressures they experience, because most middleware companies are small (less than 20 staff) and generally underfunded. And with governments all over the world looking to increase investment in high technology and creative industries, there’s certainly an opportunity, both on a UK and a European level for Tiga, to represent the needs of middleware companies in terms of getting tax breaks on research and development activity, as well as what’s called technology transfer between industry and the Ivory Towers that are university research departments. I Want My RenderWare There are some underlying, complimentary trends within the middleware industry too, that should help the group. After dealing with the shock of EA’s removal of RenderWare from the market, developers and publishers looking towards nextgen development are demanding much more inter-operability from thirdparty tools. Initiatives such as the Sony-kick-started Collada as well as Autodesk’s FBX file format and the OpenGL graphics standard, which is now being spread across PlayStation 3 development as well as hundreds of portable devices, means we’re entering more of a plug-and-play environment that the providers of physics, artificial intelligence, networking and audio engines need to be able to slot into. Also interesting in this context was Mark Rein’s discussion of Epic’s Integrated Partner Program at GDC London. With the company’s Unreal Engine 3 now signed up by the majority of the top Western publishers (EA, Sony, Microsoft, Midway, Ubisoft et al.), it’s become a defacto standard, which smaller middleware companies can use in order to hone their technology integration, as well as make easier sales into. Rein said ten companies had been signed up the program that will mean the partners make sure they remain up-to-date with released builds of the Unreal 3 Engine, as well as providing high levels of support to developers. Companies announced as part of the scheme include networking provider Quazal and AI company Engenuity. Show Me The Money Still, knowing more than most about the middleware market (I am a martyr to the cause), I’m reminded by a concept put forward by the Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett. One of his more interesting assertions concerns the profitability of the airline industry. For while aircraft manufacturers (business to business operations) have made plenty of cash, in terms of military aircraft development, but even making commercial jets, the airlines themselves (consumer-facing businesses) are marginally profitable at best. In comparison, the computer games business (consumer facing) is certainly profitable, but I do wonder whether the middleware market isn’t closer to the airline business, in terms of its longterm profitability. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but people who know about these things tell me the middleware business (excluding offline tools such as 3ds Max and Maya) is worth about $100 million in revenue per year, most of which is accounted for by Epic and the Unreal Engine. Profits from that amount for any company other than Epic are thought to be almost non-existent. The global consumer games business, on the other hand, is worth around $30 billion (software and hardware) per year, with profits of over $1 billion - a staggering difference, especially considering the amount of investment that’s been put into middleware companies over the past decade. Still, let’s hope both Tiga’s Middleware Group and the cluster based around the Unreal Engine 3 makes some sort of difference for the technology companies concerned. Talk to them and it quickly becomes clear, they’re as passionate about what they do as any developer is about a single game, and if only for that reason, they deserve their small slice of the wider success of the industry. Middleware companies (Epic aside) - it’s time to get yourself together and start making cash. [Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK, but for this week only is commuting to work on the Victoria underground line. It reminds him why he works from home.]

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