Last September Square Enix established Shinra Technologies, a New York-based venture fronted by former Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada that aims to build a streaming game platform intended to render sprawling, persistent game worlds on remote datacenters and make them accessible to large numbers of players.
Shinra representative pitch their nascent service as a place for developers to build large-scale multiplayer games without having to worry about networking code or the hardware limitations of contemporary consoles.
"The game's running in one place, and you're just adding a 'viewport' for each new player," Shinra's dev relations chief Colin Williamson explained to Gamasutra last month. "You’re not going to have to worry about synchronizing gamestate across 32 clients with spotty connections and questionable bandwidth."
Shinra has already begun beta-testing its platform in Japan, but it's using NTT East's fiber-optic network to do so; it's yet unclear how the platform will fare in other regions. The company has already launched an accelerator program to entice developers onto its platform, but a proper CDK ("Cloud Development Kit") isn't expected to be openly available until summer.
In an attempt to shed more light on the venture I sat down with Wada at GDC today to talk about where Shinra came from, and what developers should know about making games for the platform. What follows is an edited version of our interview, which was conducted with the aid of a translator.
Can you give me some practical examples of what you’re hoping to see developers do on Shinra?
The biggest advantage is that you can create some games that you can’t create on modern consoles or PC. There are several things in terms of technology: in terms of CPU, GPU and memory, Shinra is much more powerful than existing consoles and PCs.
For developers, it should be much easier for them to develop on Shinra’s platform. You will also be able to use more AI more easily on Shinra, and you can build networked games without needing to develop networking technology.
So do you intend Shinra to be a platform, or a technology integrated into development, almost like middleware? What are you doing to make life easy for developers who are already making games using engines like Unity or Unreal?
Shinra is a platform. We’d like to make it easier for developers to bring their games to Shinra, so we are already negotiating to make it so.
You’ve been talking up the importance of networked games for nearly a decade; what drove you to launch Shinra?
Since around the time of 2005, I felt that networking was becoming the important element in gaming. My perspective then was that we could provide a new type of fun using the network; new elements of game design were starting to emerge because of networking technology.
However, for cloud gaming like Shinra, our goal is to use the network — the cloud — as an environment. Instead of just bringing your games to the cloud, we want to make it possible to make extremely high-performance games because the game itself can be processed on the cloud side. So even simple terminals can play games with a degree of performance that was previously unthinkable.
Latency seems like the primary drawback to that technology. How do you tackle that?
We intend to launch our services first in Japan and the U.S., where the communication environment is very good and high-speed. We intend to expand to regions where there is good communications environments, so we are not currently thinking to just suddenly do global deployment; in five to six years, where there all be better high-speed communications available around the world, then we can think about global expansion.
Fair enough. In a recent presentation at NYU, you spoke about technological breakthroughs that enabled new types of game design — game saves enabling long-form RPGs, for example. How do you see Shinra changing what’s possible in game design?
In terms of what I’d like to see, well…game design in general is sort of a simulation of reality, even the ones that aren’t “simulation” games. So like, 25 or 30 years ago, when computer games initially appeared, the goal was to make images, graphics and animation that were closer and closer to reality. Networked gaming also brought games closer to reality, because it allowed people to see other players moving around.
However, one thing that still isn’t reality yet is a fully-realized game world — worlds players can explore like nature. So for example, when a tsunami or tidal wave happens [in a game], it just happens as a scripter writes it to — when the script triggers, the tidal wave happens, and not before. With Shinra, we can change that.
It sounds like you’ve built Shinra to facilitate big, computationally-driven experiences in big, open worlds. What about developers who want to build smaller, more scripted games?
What I just mentioned is a large trend in game development, and I think Shinra will become one of the biggest breakthroughs in that field. But all kinds of game designs are possible; small games can also utilize the performance capabilities of Shinra.
[Shinra co-founder and SVP of technology Jacob Navok jumps in here.]
Navok: It’s true that to use Shinra to its complete potential, you will create games that are very large or very multiplayer. But I think there are benefits even for smaller developers.
Let’s say you couldn’t fit all the animation cycles for a character because of the RAM limitations of a console; we can offer you more RAM. It’s true that a lot of Shinra games will look very large and big, but I think that, even for independent developers, we’ll help them to realize their visions in a much easier way.
So what is Shinra doing to support its platform? Are you developing games that take advantage of your tech, or funding other developers to do so?
Navok: We recently announced our Prototyping Accelerator, and we are supporting studios like Camouflaj from both the engineering and financial perspective.
But it’s not as simple as first-party and third-party; we aren’t selling hardware here, and we aren’t looking to create an army of IP. What Shinra wants to do is create a “funnel” of great cloud gaming content, so we’re working with studios now on everything from prototyping to full production. We do look to bring other parties into the picture, including publishers for developers.
We also have our CDK coming online later this year, so we’ll open things up for any developer who wants to build for the system as well. We expect closed availability on that in April, and we’re aiming for open availability in the summer.
How can developers expect to make use of Shinra as a distribution platform, in a practical sense?
Wada: I want to shorten the distance between developers and players. For example, if a game is created to be moddable, then players can contribute to it like a developer. That’s something I’d like to do, eventually. The ultimate thing I’d like to do, which will still take some time, is to shorten the distance between the developer and the player so the player can participate in the game development process.
You’re not alone; many game companies seem to be embracing user-generated content as an important part of game development. What do you think that means for developers?
I think the game development process is going to be significantly changed by this, because…let’s say you want to develop a AAA title: it’s no longer just one person creating that. It’s almost like a factory; a huge process that requires you to organize how to create a game before you can actually make it.
So these days, the organizational management skills necessary to make a game has become more important than the ability to actually create a game. So that aspect, I’d like to shift more towards the side of game creation.
As we move forward, do you see consoles going away entirely? Shinra seems geared to such a future.
Since I joined this industry in 2000, most of my predictions were correct. Except one: I didn’t think PS4 or Xbox One would exist. I used to think game consoles would disappear.
I thought that, because sales of game-specific devices like consoles were decreasing and more general-purpose terminals (like set-top boxes, smartphones and tablets) were increasing, I thought they would cross in 2010 [Wada holds his arms up in an X to imitate a line graph where a rising and a falling line cross paths] and consoles would go away.
But also, the game console companies did not change their business models, even as other device companies have expanded. That was really bad, and that’s why I think they have been shrinking.
So that’s why I wanted to make something on the cloud side that was very specifically specialized to gaming; I think that, more and more, consoles will not be single-purpose gaming devices.