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Interview: Bigpoint's Adventures With Unity

Interview: Bigpoint's Adventures With Unity

October 25, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander




[Gamasutra speaks to Ruined Online developer Bigpoint about why Unity's the team's best bet -- and the pair share advantages, disadvantages and best practices for working with the popular middleware.]

Bigpoint has recently begun showing media a demo of its upcoming game, Ruined Online, a multiplayer online game set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. The team has been working particularly with Unity Technologies on the project, and has learned quite a lot about the rapidly-growing engine on the way.

"They've done a really great job with the technology," CEO Heiko Hubertz tells Gamasutra -- but there's still a barrier. "On the other side, we still have a big issue with this kind of technology, because you still have to download a plug-in," he points out. "That's something we have to figure out in our next year as soon as we launch a Unity game."

The plug-in Unity requires players to download and install is small, but to Bigpoint, it could form a big barrier. In the MMO market, accessibility is everything, and that extra step could deter consumers. And players who want to play from work or from internet cafes where downloads are regimented or forbidden might lose out entirely.

Bigpoint feels that it can help -- with 150 million users across its games, it expects to drive familiarity with and adoption of the client for users much more quickly: "There will be millions of users who will have it installed already then," Hubertz suggests.

But short-term barriers are worth it to Bigpoint, they say. "Flash has a 90, 95 percent installation rate, so it's much easier to use Flash, but we don't want to develop any more of the casual games," explains Hubertz.

"We only want to develop high-quality 3D games. For that reason, we have to use Unity, and in the long-term the core and hardcore gamers will not have an issue anymore to download and install a plug-in in the future if they know with Unity it is a high-quality product."

"For the MMO space in general, we have seen many now choose Unity and will develop games with Unity at the moment -- you never know what happens if other engine developers decide to launch a web client for their engines," Hubertz added.

Some have, in fact; Trinigy has added the WebVision development framework to its Vision Engine to try to capture more of the browser gaming market. But Hubertz says as far as Bigpoint goes, "everything is about Unity in our space."

Although the browser-based online gaming space is "just one segment, I think it's the fastest-growing segment," says Hubertz. "The reason for that is simple: access to easy development, no high budgets, and the microtransactions business model is the next big thing in the space. There is still a market for retail products or downloadable client-based games. But browser is the fastest-growing."

Especially as rapidly-evolving development tools allow MMO companies like Bigpoint to attack the perception that browser MMOs must be especially limited in scope or low in quality compared to downloadable and retail peers. Of course, the gap will never entirely close, suggests Hubertz -- for example, consoles will always be "much higher-performance devices."

"In the PC space, I don't know if ever the gap will be closed, but it's definitely getting very, very small in the future, and especially through streaming technology and better bandwidth," he adds. I think in the PC MMO space, there's not that big gap."

But there are some keys that teams who want to use Unity to compete in that market should know, says Bigpoint. Art director Alan Blouin says that it's not that the production process changed on implementing the tech. Some things get easier: "It resembles established 3D software," Blouin tells Gamasutra.

"It actually kind of throws an artist back into debugging mode," he adds. "In the old days, you'd hope for programmers to debug, fix and scale art down for you, but all the tools are in your hand with the budget tree," he says. "In my opinion it allows us to do good 3D games without the interference of creating new tools."

"On the other hand, if you are pushing the tech of Unity itself, and start coming up with, say, more complicated shaders, that's really not inside the engine itself... you can expand and create your own subset," he says. "The learning curve was less than two weeks, and we made a conscious decision not to really use any of the provided art tools."

Making an engine on one's own and developing one's own art tool extensions off of it are "crucial," according to Blouin, in avoiding the sameness in look that can sometimes threaten titles made with a popular or rapidly-expanding engine.

"I'm hiring guys that have years and years of console experience," Blouin explains. "They've already done those kinds of things, where you actually want to emulate. In this particular case, we didn't want to do that."

With Ruined's cel-shaded, comic-bookish art style, he says, the team aimed to create something that would look "fresh" and very different to MMO players. "In doing so, we were able to get our engineers here on board... we made sure that the engineers understood the software very quickly, were able to fly with it and write outside of it in less than a month. That's really outside the toolset that Unity provides."

But although the Bigpoint team might have found it easy to get up to speed working with Unity and making it their own, Blouin cautions against assuming it's a simple ramp-up for just anyone. Ruined's team is comprised of console veterans, and Bigpoint itself is a mature company with a specific focus.

"There are times we're using Unity in our daily creations and come to a complete standstill, because the engine or the toolset won't go where we want it to go," he says. "This is where it's going to differentiate us from other, younger companies."

Those with less experience who hit tech roadblocks might scrap their ideas or go in a new direction. "We start hacking," Blouin says. "Tracking, fixing what's wacky, or we have a good conversation with Unity themselves and we are able to fix roadblocks along the way and move forward."

It takes an experienced company to be able to adapt to the challenges, he suggests -- and console experience is an inestimable help, as many of the integrated toolsets are familiar to the console world and becoming available to the web for the first time.

And Bigpoint has one more reason to use Unity: A key engineer it hired was involved himself in the development of the Unity tools, and brought his inside-out familiarity to the team to help serve the end result.

Ultimately, the company sees Unity as its most viable option to compete in the MMO space, but cautions that it's no straight ride: Experienced veterans, an adaptable pipeline and the willingness to build out the technology should form the keys to developers' success, the Bigpoint team says.


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