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Darkworks' Arragon Explains French PLAY ALL Initiative

Would the industry be better off united under one middleware standard? Five French developers recently formed the Play All consortium with the aim of developing its own cross-platform toolchain standard, and Alexis Arragon, of member studio Darkworks, rec
Five French developers -- Darkworks, Kylotonn, Load, White Birds Productions, and Wizarbox, with the support of French engineering schools -- recently announced they have united to establish the Play All consortium, which aims to secure the development of its own cross-platform toolchain standard. The five companies will set up a common game technology company and technology center dedicated to housing the middleware project, and plan to assemble a team of more than 40 engineers over the next 2 years. The center has the support of the French Ministry of Industry -- to the tune of a €6.5 million ($9.5 m) funding effort - out of a €13 million ($19 million) global budget. Explained mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë, "The city [of Paris] needs to provide attractive conditions to foster capital formation and job creation in the human services industry, the biotechnology sector and cutting-edge digital technologies. Paris has shown itself to be extremely creative in relation to Web 2.0, the video game industry, and strategic technological sectors, such as Internet research, and I am extremely keen to promote awareness of the 'Paris brand' in this field of innovation." Play All is also supported by Microsoft's IDÉES program, aimed at promoting the growth of high-potential software companies in France. Alexis Arragon, head of new projects and partnership development at Darkworks, manages partnerships for the new initiative, recently provided Gamasutra with the group's manifesto on collaboration and middleware standards: "For the first time, the industry is talking about collaboration a bit more than competition. And they are probably talking about Play All, a band of five French development studios which agreed to work together on technology and regroup their workforce in order to create a full-fledged development tool-chain, to be used later for the upcoming titles of the companies involved and disseminated widely among engineering schools or other willing-to-participate subsidiaries. Games' budgets as well as production teams skyrocketed in the last years -- that is no news. Few studios are now able to spend time developing internal technology, even less when they are already under contract with a publisher eager to check the content in progress, whereas proprietary game engines were flourishing in almost every studio only a few years ago. What's new then? Not much but middleware. Developers still work for publishers, but the production constraints are so tough nowadays, and the risk so high given the amount of money on the table, that most likely your publisher asked you (if you are a developer, that is) to use one of the widely adopted game engine middleware on the market, capitalizing on knowledge already available among developers and artists, or maybe one of its own middleware solutions. While middleware is a great solution because it lifts critical work off your hands, it still is a risky business for both its providers and clients. The former need to release games with their own software to recoup their investment (from €5 to €10m) while the latter can sometimes feel trapped using proprietary software. This is even more true when it comes to technology acquisition. One example: Renderware. Once acquired by EA, many developers could no longer use their tool-chain which still contained proprietary software, now non-exploitable. Game middleware is still in its infancy, and only development companies can provide efficient work tailored for other developers' needs. Well aware of those issues, Darkworks, Kylotonn, Load Inc., White Birds Productions and Wizarbox placed their bet on collaborative work. As the video game is being recognized as a cultural medium around Europe and especially France, they crafted their strategy under the Play All project. Play All's key objective is to answer game developers' needs, providing a reliable and durable solution to the industry. It is motivated by securing access to the market, need for shared costs of development and need for standards in the industry. A legal entity by the name of Play All IP has been created as the only licensed vendor of the Play All platform, which manages IP from the software developed by the different teams. If any of the partners suffer financial issues or even bankruptcy, the Play All project would still remain unharmed and the others would not lose what has been done so far. Technically speaking, the Play All middleware targets a wide range of platforms, from PC to Xbox360 and PS3, not forgetting about Nintendo Wii and DS, Sony PSP and PS2 and even the XNA platform. While not only focusing on the FPS genre, the undertaken work clearly targets action-adventure games with slight variation added in to support each studio's track record legacy. Five different work packages were designed to cover the main aspects of a next-gen production tool-chain: asset management, core engine functionalities, tools, multi-platform libraries and support. Recent headlines from the middleware market clearly influenced the Play All members to emphasis their support, documentation and more generally speaking, reliability plans. Specifically, tech teams from each partner work at a common office and will take care of the support, which is critical to the success of middleware solutions. Everything is being made to provide a professional level of service to the Play All adopters. Backed by the Parisian competitive cluster Cap Digital, the initiative received a warm welcome from French institutions. With most of the 14 partners - ranging from game developers to smaller-sized middleware companies and engineering schools - settled in Ile-de-France, the region's agencies and French Ministry of Industry are supporting Play All with a €6.5m funding effort - out of a €13m global budget. The founding objective of the project is thereby already realized with institutions fueling the local games development sector. Video game studios are granted access to funds for innovation: while sharing the cost for a durable platform, they already plan to develop internal prototypes using the Play All middleware and heavily promote the platform externally." [Alexis Arragon started working in the video game industry at Darkworks with Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare and an undisclosed project with a Japanese publisher, specializing in Artificial Intelligence. He was then coordinator of client-server communications at Dassault Systèmes for three years, and now back in the industry, he’s responsible for collaborative strategic projects and partnership development at Darkworks. Among other projects, he is in charge of [email protected], a European project bridging the gap between video games and grid computing, and manages partnerships for PLAY ALL initiative. To contact Play All, please send an email to [email protected] or visit http://www.playall.fr/.]

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