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During this week’s conference call for investors in Electronic Arts (EA) — one of the world’s largest publishers of video games, from phone apps to console blockbusters — the company announced that its development subsidiaries are all uniting in use of its propietary Frostbite game engine. This could be another big step in the evolution of the $90B game industry.
What is a game engine? In short, it’s a software foundation and toolset for building video games. From graphics and audio rendering, to physics simulations and artificial intelligence, the “engine” provides basic code (increasingly, advanced code as well) that streamlines the creative work of game design. It automates complex processes and ensures that they cooperate with each other without exceeding delegated resources.
The newest version of the Frostbite engine will probably be revealed soon. Here is a demonstration of the old version.
Only a decade ago, it was normal for each game development studio to build its own game engine; perhaps upgrading it between projects. This meant that the vast majority of the developer’s time and money was spent laying the technical foundation for the ideas that defined the creative entertainment experience customers enjoy.
Such a development model left little time for gameplay iteration: testing ideas, chucking bad ones, testing alternatives, editing and testing them again, and so on. It also left less time for debugging the software, polishing, balancing relative systems with external feedback … and finally marketing the product based on its near-finished state, rather than on a plan not yet realized.
In more recent years, it became common to license ready-made and fully up-to-date engines from third parties. This cut down on pre-production time, but also cut into profits and required adjustments of the other company’s engine to one’s own particular needs.
Now, EA has almost completed a long-term plan to develop a single, powerful, and versatile engine for all its studios with shared investment costs and in-house support.
As CEO Andrew Wilson and EA Studios Executive VP Patrick Söderlund explained in this report to investors, this enables their developers “to deliver high quality games that are highly differentiated on a feature set level, but in a way that is both cost-efficient and quick.” Whether producing a new intellectual property or porting a game from one hardware platform to another (ex: tablet PC to Playstation 4), developers can halve the time, money, and manpower required for technical support and devote those resources to bigger, better games.
Meanwhile, EA has created a designated team focused exclusively on developing and improving the Frostbite engine: i.e., pushing the limits of visual and physical simulations, as well as intelligence simulations via experiments in neural networks and machine learning. They also minimize how much direct coding is required by game designers by honing a versatile interface.
But this post isn’t about just EA. It’s about the massive game industry as a whole. Other major publishers, like Ubisoft and Activision, are probably pursuing similar strategies. This is the beginning of a new era for the industry.
The shift to improved automation and streamlined development hasn’t been sudden. Avid gamers might have noticed that virtual worlds have been getting bigger, more detailed, and more dynamic. And while publishers are consolidating, independent developers abound. Small independent studios are creating entire universes by procedural generation.
Long story short — too late, I know — expect a renaissance of games in the next decade. Programming will always be vital to interactive entertainment, but the artistic elements are now coming to the fore.