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The technology behind games development revealed

How Australia is developing a games industry

Despite a lack of attention in past years, the Australian games development industry is increasingly punching above its weight and is contributing more to the economic prosperity of the country than its profile would suggest.

According to the Game Developers' Association of Australia (GDAA), the industry body responsible for growing the profile of the Australian interactive game industry, the sector is a dynamic and sophisticated one driven by strong creative and management talent, advanced technology, and 30 years' games development experience.

It is also one which is supported by strong domestic demand for interactive entertainment. According to the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (iGEA) and analyst house GfK, the Australian video game market in 2008 was double the size of the domestic box office and more than 40 per cent larger than the DVD film industry.

Based on sales figures, the interactive games industry grew some 112 per cent between 2006 and 2008. Video game sales in 2008 were worth $1.96 billion, a 47 per cent increase on 2007.

In many ways the recent success of Queensland developer Halfbrick mirrors the wider success of the Australian games development industry. In July the studio was lauded by the state's premier, Anna Bligh, for having its title, Age of Zombies, named the number one Playstation Minis download.

"That's an incredible achievement for a Queensland company when you consider the sheer size of the international market for companies producing Playstation games," Bligh told an industry IT luncheon held during the month in Brisbane.

"The talented Halfbrick team is also responsible for creating the international best seller Fruit Ninja, which has sold more than one million copies and been on the iPhone games global top ten list for weeks."

This success of this industry in no small part rests on its uniquely IT-intensive approach to business. In fact one could say that IT is the business. Here we chat to some of Australia's premier games development companies about how they use IT to get the job done.

Blue Tongue Entertainment general manager, Kevin Chan, says the studio is heavily reliant on a large number of tools and packages for creating games. On the art side, these include Photoshop, 3DS Max, Maya, and ZBrush. Programmers use Visual Studio, and also proprietary software from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Level designers mostly work in a proprietary level editor tool.

Besides software, there is also specialised hardware to support including development kits from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo 3D monitors, and a grid of PCs that the company uses for distributed processing work, such as distributed compilation, asset packaging, and graphics rendering.

"The biggest challenge is the variety of users/software/hardware that IT needs to support," Chan says. "Additionally, most people on the team are very tech savvy, so IT doesn't usually get requests for simpler things like 'How do I set my default printer?' However, it means that the problems that do find their way to IT are usually the ones that can't be easily solved."

The issue of support is something Creative Assembly systems administrator, Matthew Pawlowski, can sympathise with. Not only does the IT department need to support a myriad of commercial and in-house applications, but it must also support the individual platforms and applications of games console vendors such as Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft. It often also has to do so with a lack of publicly available resources or community help.

"There is a lot of support out there on the web for general IT stuff, but when it comes to games specific stuff, there isn't much," he says. "The games industry is very niche. There is no 'guild of game developer IT administrators' and one of the driving concerns is that when you are striving to get a next generation title out there, there really is no roadmap.

"The IT guy has to knock up things which are proprietary to your studio and if you leak that to another studio -- information on how your internal IT is set up -- then that could be an advantage to them."

A classic example of this, Pawlowski says, is the build system -- the engine which combines a code base with digital assets such as videos, models, music, and game characters to create a build of a game.

"Because you put in all the hard work researching, prototyping and optimising that build platform you wouldn't want to share it with anyone as they could get it for free and it would be an advantage for them," he says.

THQ Asia Pacific, IT manager Heath Cox, says hardware -- high-end PCs, multiple displays, development kits, games consoles and the like -- are present in such high quantity at the studio that managing power and air conditioning are a big part of supporting the business.

"Our Australian Studios average eight to 10 power points per desk and when supporting 90 to 120 staff, IT need to ensure that ample power and air conditioning is available in the building," he says. "Heat output from all the equipment and PCs often requires us to upgrade or install more air conditioning units to keep the working environment at optimal temperature. The building must have ample power which requires IT to ensure there is enough power to cater not only for the studio now but also for future growth."

The studio's back-end requirements, namely, storage and networking, are also quite different to your average corporate environment, Cox says. As games increasingly shift to high definition the studio's storage requirements have grown significantly to the point where managing storage is now one of the company's biggest challenges. "We have implemented a NAS storage device that allows us to grow the storage as needed and are just about to add another 28TB into our network," he says.

"We shifted to this about two years ago from servers with direct attached storage. IT manages the storage requirements and allocates new space as needed. As resources can be used from older projects it becomes a balancing act of what is still needed and what can be archived off to tape and as data storage is costly IT need to keep track of this on a regular basis."

On the networking side, THQ uses Cisco gear and runs gigabit switches and cabling across its Australian studios. Internet connections range from 20Mb / 20Mb to 40Mb / 40Mb Ethernet links.

"Four years ago we started with 4Mb connections and as time has gone by we have progressively upgraded the links on an 'as needs' basis," he says. "As game builds are sent back to our US counterparts on a regular basis we need to have high bandwidth available at all times. Due to the size of game builds and the amount of time we send builds across the links we need to have unlimited downloads / uploads which comes at a high cost to the business."

2K Marin Canberra Studio general manager, Anthony Lawrence, says a solid network is essential for supporting the front-office function of collaborating -- primarily using videoconferencing -- between the studio and its US offices.

"We've got about four videoconference units within the studio and we pretty much book those out most of the time," he says. "Fairly standard stuff, whether that be PC-based for a one-on-one conference, or a camera in a meeting room hooked up via phone link to a large television.

"It's just really dependent on what the requirements of the communications are, whether we need to look at whole-level or whole-programming teams talking together, or simply the art directors at the studios talking one-on-one."

The Creative Assembly's Pawlowski says the studio has also made great use of virtualisation, not only to consolidate back-office hardware, but to quickly scale and respond to the changing needs of its staff.

"A department head might be trying a new technology out and it needs a head server to talk back to, or a producer might say they want to try some new project managementt software, or the testing department might need new bug tracking software," he says.

"The advantage is that I can go to the vendor, get a trial version of the software off the internet, and run up a virtual server in 30 minutes instead of waiting two weeks for a quote, another two weeks for it to get here, then install the software. An additional bonus is that if they find that the software didn't serve their purpose, then there's nothing lost but a bit of time."

IT managers must not only support the business, they have to help it innovate if it is to keep ahead in a the marketplace.

Plastic Wax, a Sydney-based animation studio and post--visual effects house with its own 60 seat studio and in-house motion capture facility, recently turned to a cluster-like render farm setup -- IBM's iData Plex technology with Windows HPC -- to help process high quality graphics.

"Our render farms are basically large clusters," IT manager, Terry Mickaiel says. "We have dedicated servers for both 3D and compositing rendering. Our render management software allocates the tasks to machines where they rendered the frame and save it to a shared drive."

The farm has effectively cut rendering times by up to 50 per cent, and also cuts down on corrupted files during the rendering process. Productivity has also increased around 30 per cent.

Having the additional processing capacity has also meant that the company can accept a larger number of projects because it can more easily support the addition of more staff and contractors. [[leftquote: The vast majority of games are written in C++, or Flash but that hasn't stopped the studio turning to Python and Lua]]

"By using [the render farm], we have more opportunities to refine our work and improve it," Mickaiel says. "We also now have the time to integrate last-minute feedback from our customers."

The Creative Assembly's Pawlowski says innovation is a big part of keeping the company competitive as well as making the most of available resources. During the creation of a recent build system the studio cottoned on to the idea of using the high end graphics cards in its desktop PCs as a major component in the build system.

"These cards are designed for games, not crunching numbers," Pawlowski says, "but someone worked out a way they could be used to crunch a certain set of numbers in a certain way that was much faster than your average CPU could."

While the vast majority of games are written in C++, or Flash, Pawlowski says, that hasn't stopped the studio turning to the Python and Lua languages to make the most efficient use of staff time.

Lua, in particular, has provided an avenue for the company's less technical staff to make low-level changes to a game, freeing developers to perform more complex changes.

"You might have a character in a game who you are supposed to follow around a level," Pawlowski says. "You could waste a programmer's time and have them do 'this, this and this', then you change your mind... or, the programmer just embeds a Lua interface in the game, then a designer can come along, quickly learn Lua, and then rescript that character as you desire."

The Creative Assembly has also made use of distributed computing, predominantly for the compilation of game assets. The set up enables the company to fully utilise the high-end gaming PCs distributed to staff who, at a given time, may be carrying out tasks no more CPU-intensive than browsing the Web.

"The agent takes one person's job, splits it into 20 or 30 chunks and distributes it among the workstations," Pawlowski says. "Each user may only be using 10 per cent of their CPU, so this agent will make use of the remaining 90 per cent at no disadvantage to each of the workstation users.

"We are also moving away from having a single, fast CPU to a multiple core setup -- four cores, eight, 16 eventually -- where programs are forced to distribute things in threads. That is similar to a cluster environment, but I can't see us investing in a supercomputer cluster."

As for competing with a globe full of rival game developing nations, Blue Tongue's Chan says the breadth and diversity of the market means that local developers are likely to find a space in which to do well.


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