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Q&A: Digini Reveals Subscription-Based Blade3D XNA Engine

Digini has announced Blade3D, a new subscription-based development environment for Xbox 360 and PC, based on Microsoft’s XNA platform - the company's Jon Grande and Tony Garcia talk exclusively to Gamasutra about how the new model will "shake up" ga
Digini have announced Blade3D,a new subscription-based development environment for Xbox 360 and PC, based on Microsoft’s XNA platform. Blade3D features a subscription based pricing model intended to “allow everyone from novices and hobbyists to professional users the ability to easily create games.” In addition to the pricing model, Digini have also announced the public availability of the “Industry Preview” release of Blade3D, following an open beta which began last year that included over 8000 users globally. When the commercial version of Blade3D is released this summer, it is to be available at a monthly rate from between $14.95 (for hobbyists) to $99.95 (for game companies, per seat). In addition to the subscription service, Digini are to release Asset Packs and Feature Packs following the commercial release of Blade3D. What was the impetus for starting Digini? Tony Garcia: Our founders, Christian and Behnaz Beaumont, started the company with the vision of democratizing the development process of building games. They spent a healthy part of their early career in the Visual Studio group at Microsoft, so they have a great deal of experience in building professional quality development platforms. After Microsoft, they started and ran a couple of software startups, the last of which was acquired by Motorola. They started Digini in 2004 and have built both the company and the product around their vision of leveling the playing field in game development. You're both Microsoft veterans, too? TG: My video game background predates Microsoft. I have been in the video game business for over twenty-five years now. I was the director of development at LucasFilm Games, before it became LucasArts. I also started the games division at Microsoft in 1990, when all they had was Flight Sim. Over a period of six years, I helped to grow from a handful of people what is now Microsoft Games Studios, a publishing organization of more than two hundred people. Jon Grande: I spent 17 years at Microsoft, starting as an intern in the mid-80s. In 1993 I moved into the Microsoft games division, working for Tony when Microsoft’s games organization had less than 30 people. Over the subsequent 12 years, I owned the relationships with several of Microsoft’s top external development partners, including BioWare and Gas Powered Games. I was also involved in starting the MSN Gaming Zone, which subsequently evolved into MSN Games and parts of the Xbox LIVE Arcade group. What made the two of you want to join Digini? JG: With Tony and my backgrounds in the game development business and having been involved in the production of over 100 games between us, we jumped at the opportunity to fundamentally change the way games are made. In 1993 when I moved into Microsoft games production, the average team size was 15 people and budgets were in the range of $500K-$1.5 million. The last project I worked on was a 5-year project with a team of more than 100 people and a budget of more than $25 million. Blade3D directly counters that geometric increase in the complexity of game development - attacking the increases in cost, complexity, and required team size. This is very compelling to us and we saw a huge opportunity to really shake up the middleware business by providing professional quality tools to the average developer at an affordable price. There are a lot of great tools out there, but most of them are priced so high that independent developers and even many small studios can’t afford them. Blade3D fundamentally turns that equation on its head. Don't these different customers have different needs? How are you matching them all in Blade3D? JG: Their needs are actually more similar than disparate -- everyone needs access to high caliber tools that enable them to realize their vision quickly. Blade3D was built as a toolset to enable creation of high caliber games, and we have simply chosen to apply a business model that puts that tool set in the hands of anyone who wants to use it. If you think about Microsoft Office, as an example, the typical user probably utilizes 2% of the features in Excel, where a power user writes macros and fully utilizes the breadth of Excel’s functionality. In a similar way, Blade3D is built to “grow” with its users – revealing additional functionality and enabling deeper customization as the developer’s skills expand. How do you see Blade3D working in a game development environment? TG: Blade3D is an integrated development environment. It allows designers the ability to quickly visualize game mechanics and iterate on concepts quickly. It also enables artists to easily bring their assets into a common development environment where they can see their work in real time in the context of a designer’s game mechanics. The modular nature of Blade3D also allows developers to add functionality without fundamentally “breaking” the rest of the framework. Digini has built functionality to address the lion share of game creators needs, but will also enable integration with industry standard tools. Your website makes some grand promises for the platforms possibilities can you discuss them in more detail for example, for designers, you're promising less coding, the ability to "iterate without dependencies", to focus on game play, and even easier sandbox game design. JG: Blade3D has a visual model that designers can use to associate behaviors with objects, essentially defining and refining gameplay mechanics without the need for direct intervention from developers or artists. Sophisticated users who want to write code can do so through Blade3D’s C# scripting interface. The key message about Blade3D is that we aren’t taking anything away. Rather, we are providing access to functionality for people who have been left out of the mix by other offerings. For artists you're also promising a true “WYSIWYG” environment, too, without programmer intervention. TG: By adhering to industry standard file formats, and HLSL shaders, artists can stay comfortably in their authoring package of choice (3D Studio Max, Maya, etc...) and feel confident that their assets will look the same in the Blade3D real-time viewport. Our robust file format support, combined with an easy-to-use materials browser, makes changing shaders, textures, and lighting a very straightforward and painless process. What kind of games and projects do you see as possible using Blade 3D? TG: Blade3D has been designed to allow for the creation of games in many genres! We expect games built by Blade3D users to run the gamut from first-person shooters to casual games to RTS games and RPGs. To that end, we plan to produce feature packs for each of the major game genres, which will include all the building blocks anyone would need to create the game of their dreams. Blade3D is based on Microsoft's XNA platform. How did you find working with XNA to create a platform? JG: With XNA, Microsoft is really changing the dynamics of game creation – making it possible for independent developers to make their games available on Xbox LIVE Arcade. XNA is based on the C# programming language – a language we know tremendously well. XNA’s C# foundation enabled Blade3D’s modular programming model that makes it so effective. The figures that John Schappert disclosed in his GDC keynote (800K downloads of XNA Studio Express since its initial availability) prove that there is a tremendous audience clamoring for the opportunity to create games. Do you see the platform ever being extended for other systems? TG: There is a great opportunity with XNA, and we are committed to realizing its full potential. At the same time we know that our customers will want broader platform support combined with the same level of quality and accessibility. We are currently in discussions with most of the major hardware players, and will be announcing those partnerships in the future.

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