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Product Review: NXN's Alienbrain 5

On a day-to-day basis, game developers must deal with many different file types, each of which may appear in a dozen different forms or stages within an art pipeline, and unless the team is well organized and eternally vigilant, keeping track of all this inherent complexity can be an absolute nightmare. Alienbrain attempts to straighten out this dire state of affairs.

Chris Corry, Blogger

January 30, 2002

11 Min Read

After spending a few weeks with the latest version of NXN Software's flagship product, Alienbrain, I find myself returning again and again to the same conclusion. These guys have taken the complicated and daunting task of enterprise-wide asset management and made it . . . sexy?

That's right, sexy. Alienbrain is a beautiful and altogether elegant client/server solution for managing a game project's files and multimedia assets. And version 5.0 moves the product toward NXN's ultimate goal of fully digitizing the entire production pipeline. While not without its flaws, Alienbrain comes closer to organizing and managing the entire cradle-to-grave life cycle of a development team's collective output than any other product. In fact, were it not for the product's 24-carat price tag, I'd be completely comfortable recommending Alienbrain as a must-have product for any development team. As it is, however, the story is a bit more complicated.

As you're no doubt aware, keeping track of all the resources required to build a contemporary game title is a huge task. On a day-to-day basis, game developers must deal with many different file types, each of which may appear in a dozen different forms or stages within an art pipeline. We need to worry about source art files, sounds, scripts, exported art, preprocessed art, postprocessed art, bundled art, platform-specified art . . . you name it. Even a relatively small title typically needs to deal with thousands of different files, and unless the team is well organized and eternally vigilant, keeping track of all this inherent complexity can be an absolute nightmare. Alienbrain straightens out this dire state of affairs, helping team members coordinate the modification and creation of new assets in a controlled and methodical fashion.

At its core, Alienbrain is built around a version control engine that has been specifically designed to handle the media types commonly used in the development of interactive titles. In other words, Alienbrain is tuned to deal with exactly those sorts of large binary files that bring other version control systems to their knees. In fact, you can place any sort of file that you want into Alienbrain and it is likely to handle the data with aplomb. The main client's elegant user interface allows for rapid, real-time previewing of most standard file formats without resorting to external viewer programs that need to be spawned in a separate window. For those not-so-standard proprietary file formats that we all find ourselves relying on from time to time, Alienbrain has a robust and comprehensive plug-in architecture for referencing external viewers or, for the more ambitious among you, custom-built viewers that integrate seamlessly into the client. Overall, the main, artist-oriented Alienbrain client is a model of flexible user-interface design. While it can, at times, threaten to overwhelm you with its inherent customizability, virtually every user is assured of being able to set up the interface in whatever way he or she desires.

Alienbrain supports all of the standard version-control features and then some. The software tracks the history of a file as it evolves over time, encouraging users to associate comments with each new version and allowing effortless rollbacks to previous versions. Version rollbacks are nondestructive; the previous, rolled-back version of the file becomes the new tip of the revision tree, and you can still access any previous version. The main client even offers a fancy visual version comparison feature that, for certain supported file types, lets you compare multiple versions of an image file side by side. You can check files in and out directly from within common applications such as Photoshop, Maya, and 3DS Max, and the client even extends the Windows shell namespace, allowing you to manipulate version-controlled files directly from an Explorer window.

There are a few lapses. The Alienbrain server is only available on Windows platforms, and overall the whole product has a very Windows-centric feel to it. Macintosh (OS 9.x or higher) and Linux clients are available, but they provide only basic functionality such as check-in, check-out, and previewing. For text and source code files, Alienbrain does provide rudimentary differencing and merge facilities, but because NXN relies on the Windiff and WinMerge utilities, these features are far from best of breed. And although projects can opt to allow or disallow multiple check-outs on a per-file-type basis, some programmers might complain about the lack of support for branching and version pinning. While the requisite integration with Visual Studio is well done, a source-code-oriented version control system such as Perforce may still be a better choice for programmers. At the very least, if you do decide to commit your programmers to Alienbrain,
you'll want to invest in a beefed-up utility such as Araxis Merge to help with differencing-related tasks. The good news is that NXN makes it relatively easy to substitute a third-party merge application, so a motivated project manager is likely to find a way to get the entire team using Alienbrain.

If the Alienbrain client is our sexy femme fatale, the server is her well-muscled bodyguard. Alienbrain's server-side databases support robust user-management tools that provide a tremendous degree of control over user rights and feature access. For example, you can easily set up a group that allows check-ins and check-outs but disallows file deletions from a project. The Alienbrain administrative user interface is well designed and powerful, allowing you to configure projects and monitor server performance in real time from any machine on the network.

Alienbrain is also a marvel of customizability. Beyond the aforementioned chameleon-like abilities of the client, there is almost no functional aspect of the program that cannot be modified through scripting or with a bit of programming elbow grease. Much of the Alienbrain client is actually implemented in JScript (Microsoft's take on JavaScript), and while there's a lot here to wrap your head around, once you've mastered the landscape of the programming environment, you can perform some remarkable modifications. One customization example that particularly impressed me was a script that hooked the client's "Post_CheckIn" event and used an external utility to process the newly checked-in file into a platform-specific format. Such functionality could ensure that users always had locally processed, platform-native resources that were ready for use. Because files can have custom properties associated with them, and because these properties are all exposed to the scripting system, the customization possibilities are nearly limitless. As if this level of control weren't enough, NXN also supplies an SDK that lets Alienbrain users modify and extend the product using C++. If all this talk of scripting and programming intimidates you, NXN offers a variety of consulting and customization services - at an additional charge, of course.

With version 5.0, Alienbrain is moving beyond simple asset management by incorporating tools to help manage and track the production process. As an art resource moves through an approval process, Alienbrain can attach a status to the file, indicating the current state of that file. For example, an artist can create a bitmap file with a status indicating that the file is still a "Work In Progress." Once completed, the file can be marked as "Awaiting Sign Off," after which time a lead artist can review the work and either approve it as final or bump it back to the artist for modification. Alienbrain can be customized to accommodate your company's specific development workflows, while an innovative color-coded reporting feature makes tracking and reporting progress a cinch. These features are likely to be a godsend for projects with complicated production processes.

Alienbrain offers a host of other features that I haven't the space to describe fully here. These run the gamut from an extensive reporting engine to an integrated instant messaging system to a secure, VPN-like feature that allows remote clients to access off-site Alienbrain databases safely and securely.

Make no mistake about it, Alienbrain is a large, sophisticated system that performs well and promises a tremendous amount of value to those customers brave enough to tackle it head-on - and to those customers with deep pockets. My biggest complaint about Alienbrain is its price tag. This is a powerful product that has much to offer, but a typical installation using the full-featured Power Client will cost approximately $2,000 a seat. You can purchase a less expensive, lower-fidelity Base Client for people like programmers, who don't need all of the Power Client's bells and whistles, but at the end of the day you're still looking at a significant expense for migrating an entire team to Alienbrain. On top of the high price, NXN Software has an utterly bizarre policy of not providing prospective customers with evaluation copies. In an industry that's used to paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for state-of-the-art 3D modeling tools, maybe some of the larger studios can roll the dice and justify an expense like this with little or no hands-on experience. Most companies, however, cannot. If Alienbrain cost $750 a seat, I have little doubt that it would become a de facto industry standard. As it is, it's a terrific product that will sadly remain out of reach for most of us.



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About the Author(s)

Chris Corry


Chris Corry was the lead programmer on Star Wars Starfighter. He joined Lucas Arts three years ago after a seven-year stint in the 'real world' helping to manage large R&D teams building distributed object-oriented architectures.

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