Taku Murata, General Manager of Square Enix's Research and Development Division, introduced the Game Developers Conference to the company's Crystal Tools - the evolution of the previously named 'White Engine', and a company-wide technology platform for the creation and delivery of games to current gaming systems.
Current target systems are the Playstation 3, PC, and Xbox 360. Murata mentioned that there is currently some support for the Wii, but he did not list it because it currently is not fully supported by all the tools in Crystal Tools.
In The Beginning
Work on Crystal Tools can be traced back to Final Fantasy Tactics, which utilized real-time preview of assets on an attached Playstation as well as the development kit. With the next game developed by that specific team, Vagrant Story, the developers had to deal with a fully 3d world rather than the 2d/3d hybrid world of Tactics.
This necessitated the further use of tools to pre-visualize, and the team had a unified tool to create real-time cutscenes, preview textures, and audition post-processing effects.
These earlier teams comprised much of the development of Final Fantasy XII. This latest game featured a large volume of assets and an even larger team size, full of developers with diverse skill sets and disparate levels of skills. To address this, the developers used many separate sets of tools for each different set of needs on the team.
While Final Fantasy XII was released in 2006, the search for tools and some sort of company commonality can be traced back a couple of years to 2004, when the company tried to decide on a common 3d data format. Previously, each development team in the company would decide on the format that was most optimal for them.
However, these were often derivations. They decided that if they were going to be changing the formats, why not make a brand new company wide format? The group of people that discussed this eventually led to the creation of the company's Technology Division in 2005.
The Technology Division started the Technology Development Platform Project as the company's first attempt at a company-wide technology.
Because of the fact that it was a project, it did not have any dedicated members; people were involved would come and go while they continued work on the company's diverse game development projects. Despite their belief in the project, it didn't have the sustained man power to continue having a significant effect.
The Research and Development Division eventually took the place of the Technology Division. Established in 2006, its goal was to develop the company wide technology platform.
Unlike the previous project, the R&D Division had the luxury of dedicated members like Taku Murata, who took on the role of General Manager. The end result is the release of Crystal Tools 1.0 in September of 2007. The current version used throughout the company is version 1.1.
Crystal Tools was designed to cater strongly to the demands of Square Enix's developers. In a list of requests from Square Enix's developers that Murata presented, "Extensive use of character close ups" and "Stylized expressions" topped the list. Murata noted that the engine was tuned to deliver a very "cool" look or "anime-like" look to its visuals.
Accurate physics, for examples, were expressly not a priority of the tools, but the ability to create "cool looking" motion was.
This suggests some of the philosophical differences that might exist between the platform's design as compared to other middleware tools in use throughout the industry.
Another item on the list of requests was a "Detailed division of work." Like previous games, the tools are not part of one tool but are in fact many separate tools, each made to cater to the design of a specific type of developer.
Murata showed some examples of the Character Viewer tool at work, and later he showed the Cut Scene Editor, which he suggested allows the user to approach the individual assets in the game as a film director would.
All of these tools exist separately, much as traditional tools like Photoshop or Softimage exist and work together, but separately. Each of the tools communicates with a central communication server called GRAPE2, and the communication server talks to the target platform.
This structure is, again, a contrast to the design philosophy seen in other tools; Unreal, which has multiple components for editing of various game parts like audio and cutscenes, differs as each editor is simply a part of the UnrealEd tool.
While the development of this platform went well, Murata noted a few places where it could have gone smoother.
Despite the fact that separate game teams working on each of Crystal Tools separate tools led to a boosted speed of development, the separation held back the development of the game framework layer. Also, he would have liked to have a technical writer earlier on in the platform development process.
He ended the lecture by answering questions on the difficulty of incorporating the development platform into the company. There was some resistance to the tools from veteran developers who felt they were too strongly targeted and younger developers.
Also, many developers, especially artists and designers felt that despite the separation of tools, there were still many features and parameters which were unneeded.
Still, this does not change that fact that Crystal Tools is Square Enix's platform for the coming generation of games and will find significant use in the years to come.