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Q&A: Emergent's Geoffrey Selzer On The Next-Gen Battle

With Emergent's Geoffrey Selzer recently suggesting “PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360 could force the gaming industry into economic chaos,” we sat down to with the Gamebryo engine exec, whose tech powers games like Civilization IV and Oblivion, to lea
Geoffrey Selzer, CEO of Emergent Game Technologies, developers of the Gamebryo engine, recently spoke out in a press release suggesting that “PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360 could force the gaming industry into economic chaos”. His comments come at a time when industry analysts hold wildly contradicting views on what the outcome of the current console marketplace battle will be. Selzer, however, notes that he is not attempting to pick a winner, instead displaying a concern for what the impact of the recently released next-gen machines will actually be. “These next-generation consoles introduce a new level of technical complexity for the companies that are struggling to meet the ever greater demands of the gaming consumer,” he says. “At a time when the cost of game development is skyrocketing, the winner may not be the best box but what game engages the consumer’s imagination.” Gamasutra spoke to Selzer, whose tech powers games like Civilization IV and Oblivion, to learn about his views on the next-gen landscape, and where the industry needs to go in order to escape financial chaos. Gamasutra: Do you think the console market is big enough to support three consoles? Geoffrey Selzer: At least for now the short answer is yes, but I think something larger is at stake here. We’re seeing an all-out war for the living room, not just for console dominance. Microsoft has made a strong play for the market, but we’re still in the beginning stages of this war, and Sony is clearly on the move. The PS3 is trying to be the entertainment appliance for the family. Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 reflects Microsoft’s commitment to creating an online ecosystem, and they’ve captured a large following very quickly. Nintendo has a great short/medium term strategy with the Wii, but the jury’s out on where it fits in long-term. When you look at the market in this way, other variables come into play. What role does TiVo play here? Or the PSP? iPod? Zune? Blu-Ray and HD? I think we have to consider where the consoles fit in the context of our audience’s entire entertainment ecosystem. The battle lines are still being drawn. GS: What do you see as the biggest issue stemming from the technical complexity offered by the PS3 and Xbox 360? GS: Technical complexity lies at the intersection of two fundamentally disruptive trends in our industry: the growing scale of games, and the rapid migration to online. In that context, the challenges of making the best use of the power of the Xbox 360 and PS3 raise the stakes even higher—to provide the depth of content that consumers demand on these new consoles without breaking the bank. For these reasons, I think the ability for developers to compete on an even playing field has been compromised by the steep financial demands of making a game. Standardization of tools and processes will help level the playing field—and that would be a change for the better. GS: Do you think engines like Gamebryo offer developers some solutions to financial issues stemming from the complexity involved in working with these systems? GS: Absolutely. Developers should be focused on creating the most fun, creative and compelling games possible—not, for example, on the nitty-gritty details of multicore engineering. With standardized tools like Gamebryo they can more efficiently allocate costs to optimize their content. Companies like ours have a team of engineers working full-time to make sure our technology is completely optimized for next-generation development. Doesn’t it make sense to outsource the toughest technical challenges to teams like these? Our framework approach goes far beyond a runtime engine, of course. The more you can standardize processes, tools and engines across platforms, the easier it will be for developers and publishers to create more compelling content, regardless of platform. That’s what will help our industry grow. GS: Which companies are using Gamebryo at the moment, and what kind of feedback do you get about the positives of using the engine for next-gen development? GS: Right now there are more than eighty games being made with Gamebryo. Some of the best-known developers include BVG, Bethesda, Firaxis and Mythic. I think if you talked to each of them, they’d echo what I’ve already said: that you really need to know what you’re doing to get the most out of next-gen technology, and that the smartest approach is to buy technology like ours that’s already outfitted for next-gen development. GS: Do you feel the industry needs to pick one "horse to bet on"? GS: From a software and tools standpoint, I think it does. Standardization is a positive step. In terms of consoles... not yet. Technology standardization and middleware have changed the game, making it so that we don’t have to pick a single console. And I think that’s healthy. In past generations, competition has resulted in superior products for consumers. This is not another VHS v. Betamax case study. In that situation, you had identical content on both machines. In our industry, different games are offered on different consoles, and the quality of the games offered on each console makes all the difference in terms of consumer adoption. We’re seeing enough innovation on each of these consoles to warrant their existence. GS: Do you think consumers will be picking one console over the others? GS: Historically, gamers have chosen consoles based on the games they offer. It’s all about who’s got the best content. Today, the gaming market has matured in a way that has resulted in many different audiences looking for many different types of games, so we may see more console-based audience specialization, a la Nintendo. If I knew where this was heading I’d be a stock-picker, not a technology provider. Our job is to make sure that wherever the industry goes, we’re supporting the development community with the tools they need to make great games. That’s why our system architecture is build around the principle of flexibility. GS: What impact, if any, do you think the adoption rates for the next-gen consoles will have? Would it be better for the industry if consumers became multi-console users? GS: There’s something very interesting lying just beneath the surface of this question. As these consoles mature, we’re finally seeing innovative new forms of content emerge. Consider the explosion of online Live Arcade content. The Wii controller. Episodic content. Cross-platform MMOs. Single gaming experiences on multiple platforms. I think we’re seeing an explosion of new forms of content, and the consumer will continue to be the beneficiary of this. Developers are testing all sorts of new content on different platforms, and new patterns are emerging. If someone has a single console that has all the games that want, they’re not going to buy another console. But if they can do something totally different on a separate console, multi-console homes really begin to emerge as a force. GS: What effect do you think software adoption rates for next-gen consoles will have on the industry? GS: This has a profound effect on the industry. If there are some absolutely dominant titles available on just one platform, that affects the market considerably. Unique content directly influences platform sales. On the other hand, if the hit titles in the early wave are multiplatform, that will steer things in a different direction. Regardless, next-gen consoles will be content-driven, and we’ll see different types of content for different types of consumers. The creativity of developers and publishers, along with the adoption rate over the next year or so, will shape the industry for the next 5-10 years. GS: What do you believe the "demands of the gaming consumer" are right now, and what problems do these demands raise? GS: What we’re witnessing now is the rise of several new gaming consumers—all of whom have unique demands. So when we’re talking about the gaming consumer, we’re actually talking about some very distinct new groups—casual gamers, “hardcore” gamers, and a fat slice in between. They’re all looking for innovative gameplay and content. If I were making games right now, that’s what would keep me excited about making games. Regardless of audience, we believe games are the natural inheritor of the community aspect of the Internet—this area is just going to explode. Anyone concerned with the demands of the gaming consumer should be acting today to address the challenges presented by the online migration. From a technology perspective, we’re certainly devoting a lot of our time to this. GS: How bad do you feel the "economic chaos" that you suggest the industry could face might be? GS: Without technology standardization there will be an increased concentration of power in the hands of the few who can afford to play big. If standardization doesn’t begin to occur across the board, economic concentration is likely. And with economic concentration, creativity will suffer. Games are bigger, harder to make, require larger teams and larger budgets than ever before, so this is a serious concern for us. Are most developers addressing the massive scale of development today? Do they have an online strategy? We’ve got to challenge the fundamental assumptions about how to make a game if we want our industry to remain creative and profitable in the face of what we believe is massive change. We view what we’re doing as leveling the playing field. GS: Do you think the online marketplaces that each of the next-gen consoles feature offer any solutions to the problems that the industry faces? GS: Online presents one of the greatest opportunities to the games industry—just look at Xbox Live Arcade. It’s extremely successful for Microsoft, and it’s extremely popular with their audience. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Online games offer the ability to find out what your players want, how the game is being played, where it’s being played, what players are willing to buy, and so on. These games can generate a tremendous amount of useful data—information which is of critical importance in fine-tuning the game experience to make more enjoyable and profitable games. With online, we’ll start seeing new financial and creative models all at once. Micropayments, episodic content, expanding worlds and the like. That’s why a huge part of our strategy is to design tools that are optimized for online development and data collection. For us the question is: what’s next? And how do we help developers and publishers get there? GS: Why do you believe that capturing consumers' imagination is more important than providing technical might? GS: Technology is just a manifestation of imagination, and not vice versa. Fun, stimulating games are the goal, and technology is just the tool that helps us reach it. Right now, what we’re seeing is consumers buying into the promise of new technology. But when that initial excitement dies down, it all comes back to content—will our content deliver on the promise of the technology? If the answer is no, we’ve got some very challenging times ahead. But I feel good about this, particularly as we see more and more developers turning to us to handle the heavy technical lifting for new, creative forms of content, while they focus on the creative process. GS: Where do you think the industry needs to go from here? GS: I truly believe we’re standing at the precipice of a creative explosion. Think back to what happened to the 3D animation industry when tools like Max and Maya matured – there was an explosion of quality content. But if we want to see that happen in our industry, we’ve also got to determine how to manage the massive scale and complexity of making games. Today’s model isn’t going to hold up much longer. If we can do that, we’ll be able to take our place as the inheritors of the entertainment throne—because that’s what I believe is at stake. We’re not there yet, but we can get there. What’s really exciting to us is that as the only tools company looking at the market from an architecture infrastructure point of view, we think we’re in a unique position to deliver tools that address these problems while enabling new levels of creativity. We’ve got modular, flexible tools that are rock-solid from an engineering perspective, and built on a foundation of customer support. GS: Finally, which console do you think will prove most popular with consumers? GS: That’s like asking an arms dealer which side he’s on! It’s going to be a hell of a fight, but keep an eye on content and how it’s delivered, because that’s where this war will be won or lost. Personally, I wouldn’t bet against any of them. I do, however, love the smell of napalm in the morning.

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