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Tooling Around: Omegame's Menus Master

For the latest ‘Tooling Around’ feature, which profiles and interviews middleware and tools developers, we talk with Omegame associate managing director Sébastien Kohn about UI toolkit Menus Master, a product born from Delphine Studios allowing UIs to be
For the next part in Gamasutra’s ‘Tooling Around’ feature, which profiles and interviews middleware and tools developers about their products, today’s interview is with Sébastien Kohn, associate managing director and sales and marketing director with Omegame, developer of Menus Master. The product is a user interface authoring toolkit allowing for the production of 2D and 3D front ends, heads-up displays and in-game menus. Kohn points out that Menus Master began its development as in-house software for French studio Delphine, and as such is “made by video game developers, for video game developers”. “You can compose your UI with any kind of multimedia resources: images, videos, 3D meshes, Flash files, videos and so on,” explains Kohn. “You can, for instance, have a cube with a video on one of its sides, two different flash files on two other sides, and even a fully functional UI on another side.” Version 2.5 of the product debuted at Game Developers Conference 2007 and introduced, amongst other features, buttons animations and special effects, carousels, page transition animations and pop-ups. Kohn also points out that the program is designed in a way that any project can be “fully authored by artists”, without the need for the assistance of a programmer. “Programmers are only involved for the actual integration of the UI into the game, a child’s play for any video game programmer,” he says. We spoke to Kohn recently and asked about Menus Master, its development and its use in the industry. When and why was Omegame formed? Omegame was founded in 2005 to commercialize Menus Master, a complete user interface authoring toolchain. The company is quite young, but Menus Master is a mature tool. Its development was initiated back in 1997, at Delphine Software, a Paris-based video game studio, famous for the Moto Racer series, and the adventure games Out of this World, Flashback and Fade to Black. Our goal with Menus Master is to free the creativity of the artists in charge of the UI. What were the aims and goals of the company at this time? Our technical team is composed of video game industry veterans with more than 12 years experience. They faced a lot of issues during their career, but the most painful was no doubt the user interface. The original aims of Omegame were the same as they are now: provide the video game industry with a fully scalable tool, allowing them to create more efficiently any kind of high-end user interfaces, able to mix any kind of multimedia content: Flash files, 3D meshes, videos... How did you realise the need for a product like Menus Master? Menu design and user interface creation is often one of the most problematic tasks in the video game development process, as it relies on a synergistic meshing of programming and art skills. UI is also critical, as it is the first contact a player has with the game, and he has to deal with it every time he plays the game. Most video game studios have their own home made solution, but most of the time it is a solution that was rushed for a specific project, and doesn’t really meet the needs of following projects. Curiously, nobody thought about developing a complete user interface tool for the industry, probably because it’s not as appealing as real-time 3D, physics or artificial intelligence for most game developers. Fortunately, now, with Menus Master, video game developers are guaranteed they have the best tool to make the best user interface. What was the development time on the product, and what challenges did you run into in preparing the product for industry use? The development of Menus Master started in 1997, at Delphine Software, as an internal tool. There is more than 10 years experience inside Menus Master, it has been dramatically improved through the years thanks to the great feedback of Delphine Software’s (grumpy) developers. We learned a lot from them. The biggest challenge to make this internal tool a product for industry use was the documentation. At Delphine Software, people in charge of the UI could come to see the people who created Menus Master if they had any questions -- they were consequently not very worried if the documentation was light. A professional tool has to be delivered with a full documentation, and writing the documentation is a painful task. We put blood, sweat and tears into the documentation of Menus Master. Another challenge was to make sure Menus Master would work on all platforms and would support any kind of third party technologies. Up to now, we've encountered no problems. How has Menus Master developed over the time you've been producing it? It was designed from the beginning with two main objectives in mind: it had to bring a huge gain of productivity without constraining creativity, and it had to be compatible with all the platform of the market, present and future. These two main objectives remain the same. How have you acted on feedback to improve the product? Ten years of feedback from Delphine’s game developers made Menus Master a robust tool, with – almost - all the features a UI artist could dream of. For two years, our customers also gave us a lot of useful feedback that went straight into the product. Thank you guys! Why have you focused on the ability for multiple artists to use Menus Master at the same time? We didn’t focus particularly on the ability for multiple artists to use Menus Master at the same time, this was just a request from our customers. They have several artists working at the same time on different part of the UI, some on 3D meshes, others on the Flash files or on the videos. So, we added this feature. But because we like to be fully scalable, Menus Master can support any kind of asset manager per platform, and per language. How does the product work on a technical level? Menus Master is a complete toolchain for the development of game UI. It consists as an artist-focused editor, a data processing module that allows the deployment of the UI on different platforms, and an SDK for integration into your game. The data processing module generates binary relocatable files, one for each UI component: Front-end, HUDs, etc. When the game loads such a file, it puts it entirely in memory. The SDK relocates the data directly in memory and doesn’t perform any memory allocation. Several files can be stored together in memory; they can be used at will, possibly at the same time. The game, though the SDK, can interact directly with the UI, it can share variables, dynamically change element of the UI, etc. About integration, it consists of creating the drivers to link the technologies used by the game with the SDK. It is a simple task for a programmer. Menus Master’s iterative authoring process allows artists to start from a basic user interface and upgrade it until obtaining a cutting-edge user interface, without having to restart from scratch. Artists can test and try the user interface they are authoring at any time, in real-time WYSIWYG conditions, to make sure they obtain the expected result. The authoring system of Menus Master is so simple and intuitive that artists can perform last-minute changes without stress. Menus Master has a fully open architecture, based on drivers. It allows using any kind of third party technologies with it. You can for instance use your home-made cutting edge 3D engine with Menus Master, in your game, but also in the Menus Master’s editor. Artists will consequently author the UI in a WYSIWYG environment. And as the drivers are made specifically for each third party technology, you can really make the the best of it. In the case of a 3D engine, you can for instance modify and animate in our keyframer the shaders. Moreover, artists can create a user interface for several platforms at the same time, thanks to Menus Master’s unique platform specific dedicated resources system, which allows to define, for each object in the user interface, specific resources according to each platform. In one word, you create your UI once, and deploy it on all the platforms you want. Do you feel your product works best when combined with other middleware? Menus Master was made to work with other middleware. Thanks to Menus Master’s fully open architecture, any kind of third parties technologies can be used with Menus Master: 3D engines, video codecs, Flash players, sound engines. Our job is not to develop any of these technologies, other middleware companies have great technologies, and so, we let the developer using Menus Master the freedom to choose the technology they want. What are some of the more notable examples of the product's use? Delphine Software used Menus Master for all the Moto Racer series: PC and consoles versions. Several studios have licensed Menus Master, the first title using Menus Master reaching the shelves will be Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: Elements, from Ubisoft. More titles will be announced soon. Who is currently using the product? Because of legal constraints, we can’t disclose the name of the companies currently using Menus Master. What do you see as the next evolution of Menus Master? We will continue making improvements according to our customer’s feedback, of course, to make sure they have with Menus Master the best solution to create any kind of high-end user interfaces. We also have a lot of ideas for the next Menus Master, but we're not yet ready to talk about them.

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