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Interview: DeLoura On The Rapidly-Evolving Tools Space, New Divergence

Gamasutra catches up with veteran Mark DeLoura, who recently left a short stint at Google -- brimming with fascinating perspectives on the rapidly-evolving tools space as new platforms emerge.
Mark DeLoura hasn't yet announced his next project since he left his post as Google's developer advocate after just a few months -- but it's clear he's still excited about game development, particularly on the indie side. He's recently joined the advisory board for Mixamo, a relatively new online 3D animation service that lets developers map and customize animations from an online library directly onto their own rigs. The animations are derived from motion capture data, and recently the service added a character creator. DeLoura says he was drawn to become an advisor to the company because of its low barrier to entry for developers of all types: "I think it's super interesting for independent developers as well as commercial developers -- although I get a lot more excited about the indie side," he tells Gamasutra. "It focuses on some similar things I've concentrated on -- trying to make game development simpler and less expensive for people." DeLoura says this has been a long-term goal of his: Expanding solutions offerings so that developers can employ the simplest and most efficient solution needed. In the case of Mixamo, he says he likes the fact that independent developers could go to Mixamo's site and purchase and customize animations they need in the format required for their product pipeline, even without art skills or without a designated animator on staff. For small teams with limited resources, such solutions can be very valuable, DeLoura believes. Being able to pick and choose tools, he says, is "a Holy Grail -- let's say I'm going to use Unity as a simple development environment, use something like Evolver or TurboSquid to get characters, and then use Mixamo to create the animations. You'll probably need some art somewhere, like environment art." "Maybe someone should create a company that specializes in environment art," he determines, after a thoughtful pause, revealing a thought process that is as efficient and resourceful as his personal philosophy holds that game development should be: See a gap in the process, offer a solution that doesn't require anyone to spend on more complex solutions covering areas that are already handled or not needed. "I suppose there's Google Sketchup," he amends. "It's still around, although... I think it's more for creating buildings for Google Earth. I've seen a couple of developers in AAA use it for pre-production." The Right Solution At the same time, DeLoura says development is too complex to advocate either an entirely holistic or an entirely modular tools solution. Rather, developers should seek to combine their options in a way that best meets their need. "I'm not sure, for indies in particular, that there's a broad enough environment of models such that you could just put a lot of pieces together and have a system that works well as a whole," he muses. "Maybe one thing people should do as a community is to find interfaces between modules that would encourage agile development," he suggests. Open-source solutions and individual modules "are not really designed to work well together," he continues. "As an indie it's still easier to go with an all-in-one, like Shiva or Unity or Torque for example. Unless you want to go with an open source engine like Ogre." Tools and solutions for developers are clearly very much at the immediate forefront of the veteran industry consultant's mind, much in the same vein of his career to date -- he's provided CTO-level tech consulting for numerous companies, and regularly writes and speaks about game engines and middleware. "There's definitely more and more interesting stuff going on," he continues excitedly. But one strange divergence is standing out to him: "It's curious to see the bifurcation between the tools for professional developers and tools for indie developers," DeLoura observes. For example, there are numerous integration solutions proliferating in the indie and digital spaces that let developers integrate their games and apps with social networks, monetization platforms and other infrastructure tools. "In the professional development world, none of those tools are [crossing] over," he says. Breaking Away From AAA AAA development has "had an active system for middleware for years," DeLoura adds. "I would love to see more flow back and forth. The ideal scenario would be to have tools that have versions that are designed for AAA, and then more inexpensive or feature-lite versions for indie, mobile and casual." Many of the middleware giants, like Crytek and Epic, are already starting to offer lower-priced non-commercial licenses of their respective CryEngine and Unreal Engine to indies and students. But as DeLoura notes, there's something of a tools wall rising up between the mobile, indie and social worlds and the AAA worlds -- and much of that depends on the fact that iPhone apps and Facebook games, for example, have completely different business models than console software. For example, Facebook integration for Xbox Live, or low-priced paid DLC, are considered lifecycle extensions for traditional software -- but a social platform and virtual goods are quite literally essential to the success of a Facebook game like FarmVille. iPhone developers have increasing flexibility in their game app monetization strategies, and thus we see more sophisticated games on Apple platforms. But did the targeted tools enable new business models to emerge more strongly, or did tool development evolve to meet the needs of new business models? "That's a good question," DeLoura muses. "I think it's probably the case that tools follow business models; tools manufacturers are not going to put a bunch of investment into something unless they believe there's a significant user base for it." Fast Changes, Big Shakeups But toolmakers and service providers in rapidly-emerging spaces have reason to be very cautious. When key platforms like Facebook, iOS and Android are under the purview of a single organization, things can change on a dime. Numerous companies invested in tech that needed a plan B once the platform-holder began to offer its own dominant solution. For example, many companies were founded with the intention to provide virtual currency platforms for Facebook game developers. Now that Facebook Credits exist, their fate looks less assured. And in another arena, Aurora Feint, with its OpenFeint SDK that developers use to add social features for iPhone, also comes to mind. "I can think of maybe five social network SDKs that immediately jump to mind... that once GameCenter came out from Apple, now they're porting over to Android," DeLoura says. The rapid migration of tools providers to support new platforms is often attributed to those platforms' growing popularity among developers. But it can also mean there's little room for competition in the space the providers initially emerged. And when tools providers make it easy for developers to release for multiple platforms, new formats often the unintended beneficiary of initiatives by market leaders to control development on their hardware. But this holistic environment, where the natural trajectory of tools development often inherently creates a multiplatform development space, DeLoura again sees a failure of the trend to translate significantly into the AAA space. "Look at social games like FarmVille," he says. "Arguably, your farm is user-generated content, although not completely since you're effectively using LEGO bricks to generate everything." "On one hand, that user-generated content piece has sort of found its way into everything," DeLoura continues. "But on the AAA side, you see less of it. There used to be a mod scene, but now you see less of it." And again that tools wall benefits indies: "The people who, before, would have done a mod, are doing iPhone games now," he suggests. "It would be fantastic to see a broader range of tools and libraries that focus on games from the larger companies, but it does seem like in absence of that there's this ecosystem generated that provides the opportunity for all sorts of businesses to pop up." Rolling Out Right "The sad thing is when you see new businesses pop up, and then a company decides to make their own or buy one, and they absolutely decimate the competition," DeLoura reflects. While he has no specific knowledge of how Apple and Facebook engaged with the development community when they rolled out their respective social networking and platform monetization solutions, DeLoura says smart companies still allow their developers to maintain some control over what aspects of the new feature sets they choose to integrate. Platform holders "don't want to squash someone if later they decide to come out with their own kit" for a given feature, he says. For example, when PlayStation 3 integrated a lot of similar functionality to what developers once gained from GameSpy's online SDK, DeLoura, who has worked with Sony, says the company aimed to ensure there was still room for GameSpy. "There was still a huge opportunity for those guys to have a business -- they were just able to focus on the fundamentals less and do more advanced features." "It's an intricate problem," he muses. And concluding, he declined to discuss in depth about his brief time with Google other than to reiterate what he already said on exiting the job: that it wasn't a "perfect fit". But speaking to DeLoura, it's evident in his enthusiastic tone that the complications and needs of developers in a rapidly-evolving landscape are a beloved area for him -- and it's likely he'll continue pursuing opportunities that allow him to address this space in a way that makes him feel effective.

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