Electronic Art’s Game Changer

 

Frostbite_engine_logo_2016During 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.

There are 41 comments.

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  1. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Thanks for writing about this. I’m looking forward, for my part, to a new birth of RPG games.

    • #1
  2. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    I’ve mentioned before that I don’t game, but my eldest plans to be a professional game designer/developer. Thanks again for sharing this kind of info, Aaron.

    • #2
  3. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Will the third-party engines die out if the big publishers are all using in-house solutions? Will the big publishers license their engines to indies? Is there not already a Renaissance of games? Is there any game that needs an advanced engine that really works on iPad, console and PC?

    • #3
  4. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Will any of this affect the penchant for Publishers to release 50% of a game and then charge us extra for DLCs after the fact?

    • #4
  5. Chris B Member
    Chris B
    @ChrisB

    Jamie Lockett:Will any of this affect the penchant for Publishers to release 50% of a game and then charge us extra for DLCs after the fact?

    Yes, building everything in a single engine will enable publishers to churn out half-finished games faster, and with lower quality control budgets. They can assume that the game will have all of the same engine related bugs as all of the other half-finished games and therefore don’t have to test for them.

    • #5
  6. Joe P Member
    Joe P
    @JoeP

    Ehh. I know little of the Frostbite engine, but I’m skeptical that this is a great idea.

    I mean, sure, in theory, you could save big bucks by having your own engine, making everybody you publish use it, and fold in everybody’s improvements to it. It sounds like a good idea if you have enough users of the engine and enough programming talent at a cost-competitive price.

    But, in reality, it’s very hard to write a truly versatile game engine, in terms of supporting every use case. The best games are often very different from each other. Those differences can be very hard to support with the same piece of software. I mean, the Unreal engine is pretty versatile, but it’s mainly used for shooters because  that’s what it was originally made for. There are some Unreal strategy games, I think. One of them is actually really good (the XCOM remake), but there aren’t many of them.

    It can be a pain to try to use a piece of software designed to do X for slightly-similar-Y, because you often have to adjust Y to fit the assumptions of X, and that can drive you insane. It’s usually easier to write software designed to do Y. Eventually, even if EA is successful, X will be “all the games EA publishes today” and Y will be “some new game that will make someone else rich.”

    • #6
  7. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Joe P: But, in reality, it’s very hard to write a truly versatile game engine, in terms of supporting every use case.

    It has been a gradual process getting to this point, so there has been plenty of feedback from EA’s developers on individual needs and adjustments made in that regard. But I would not be surprised if Frostbite Labs grows and subdivides into teams devoted to the needs of specific genres and platforms. Perhaps, rather than one great game engine that covers everything, there will be variations of each engine with optional plug-ins (music software).

    Or perhaps this will prove to be a failed experiment.

    • #7
  8. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Well, I hope the experiment works out!

    • #8
  9. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    I heard a story on the radio yesterday in my car about gaming. That adults (mostly men) are spending a lot of money on these things, and as the virtual worlds they create expand, there are more things to buy – Google and others are encouraging the push with glasses that put you in the center of your virtual universe.

    Just a different thought, but grown men who play games is akin to adult coloring books – I don’t mean to offend anyone – the younger guys I can see – but it also fuels addiction – to more electronics and less communication with the real world – am I wrong here? The story talked about a guy who spent his $50K nest egg on weapons that go with some of these virtual universe games – only in the last 10 years or less have we had the iPhone and Facebook etc. Now I challenge you to see anyone who isn’t constantly checking it – kids especially.

    • #9
  10. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    I could never get the elevator to work in Myst.

    • #10
  11. KCrary Inactive
    KCrary
    @KCrary

    How is this different from the Unreal engine that powers most games today?

    • #11
  12. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    genferei:Will the third-party engines die out if the big publishers are all using in-house solutions?

    The industry is booming, so there are always rising independent developers occupying the middle ground between publisher affiliates and start-ups with complete autonomy and innovative technical goals. There are also degrees of publisher affiliation, from being a subsidiary developer to partnering with a single-game contract. I expect licensed engines like Unreal will remain popular.

    genferei: Will the big publishers license their engines to indies?

    Good question. EA could follow the example of Epic Games, which originally focused the Unreal engine on its own projects but has spun licensing into another revenue pillar. The biggest publishers tend be more exclusive.

    genferei: Is there not already a Renaissance of games?

    Absolutely. As I said, this has been a gradual shift. And it’s far from the only force changing game development.

    Because games are so different from films, it’s difficult to compare the industry’s maturity with the history of Hollywood and TV. Perhaps someone would like to take a shot.

    genferei: Is there any game that needs an advanced engine that really works on iPad, console and PC?

    Some games are scaled very well between platforms of different strengths and control schemes. Open world games are showing up even on powerful smartphones now. My early impression of Subnautica is that it was ported well from PC to less powerful consoles.

    • #12
  13. Fred Hadra Podcaster
    Fred Hadra
    @FredHadra

    I myself am not a “gamer” – last system I owned was no less than N64 – but this seems like a good thing to me, perhaps with some caveats.

    Is it fair to call this a “democratizaion” of the game development industry? Is this going to be open-source in any way?

    Seems kinda like platforms for smartphone app developers, or, perhaps more closely related to something like WordPress, giving “anybody” a big leg up in creating a nice looking website while allowing more knowledgeable programmers and developers the ability to customize, configure and improve.

    Or am I off base with that comparison?

    If not, I’m guessing this will lead to increased amount of gaming content being produced and released, probably lowering costs. That sounds like a good thing. Also probably means the market will be glutted with crap, but that will inevitably result in a “flight to quality,” and the top creators/producers will once again emerge and shine.

    Thanks for sharing this summary, Aaron. Not following the industry, its unlikely I would know about this otherwise.

    • #13
  14. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    KCrary:How is this different from the Unreal engine that powers most games today?

    The major difference is that it’s shared in-house. As the movie and TV industries consolidated into a handful of big publishers, the game industry is consolidating. Not only does this mitigate costs and foster more interaction between developers, but it also leads to industry standards… much like Hollywood studios settled on a variety of technical standards like CinemaScope and VistaVision.

    • #14
  15. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Fred Hadra: Seems kinda like platforms for smartphone app developers, or, perhaps more closely related to something like WordPress, giving “anybody” a big leg up in creating a nice looking website while allowing more knowledgeable programmers and developers the ability to customize, configure and improve.

    Exactly. Game design still requires technical knowledge in programming. But the bar for entry is being lowered all the time, while simultaneously the high bar is being raised. Quality and scope is increasing at the top while amateurs are empowered to try their ideas.

    As you say, that results in a lot of mediocre works. But many good indie games have risen through the crowd to become hits. And, as happened with novel writing, the breadth of participation enables ever more refined subgenres without upsetting the most popular trends.

    • #15
  16. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    This news isn’t that big of a deal.  There are real costs to licensing the Unreal Engine, but they are a tiny fraction of the overall cost of making AAA games.  If EA is truly employing a team dedicated to advancing the features of the engine, then they are eating up much of the savings unless they are going to do a crappy job.

    • #16
  17. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Frank Soto: If EA is truly employing a team dedicated to advancing the features of the engine, then they are eating up much of the savings

    Think of it this way, Frank. How much more writing would get done around here if instead of self-editing we just pushed all editing onto you? ;)

    • #17
  18. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Aaron Miller:

    Frank Soto: If EA is truly employing a team dedicated to advancing the features of the engine, then they are eating up much of the savings

    Think of it this way, Frank. How much more writing would get done around here if instead of self-editing we just pushed all editing onto you? ;)

    Almost no editing would get done.  Which seems to fit the analogy.

    • #18
  19. cirby Inactive
    cirby
    @cirby

    There are always differences in gameplay between genres – that’s a given. However, there are far more similarities for A-list titles. Physics will generally be similar (gravity, explosions, other effects), and reasonably sane gameplay will use similar techniques (WASD for moving, mouse for looking, buttons for attacks, et cetera). Most of the major games tend to use similar command structures for secondary commands (R for reload, G for Grenade, number keys or mousewheel for weapon select) already.

    The biggest differences will be style, which means art and rendering engines – and those can be extremely customizable. You could make a game like the Battlefield games, and with a swap-out render and art style, make something more like Borderlands or Overwatch.

    With a flexible I/O system and a good server database, you could also make full-blown MMOs or MMOFPS titles, since most of the graphics work would be client-side.

    • #19
  20. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Fred Hadra: I myself am not a “gamer” – last system I owned was no less than N64

    Ahh, the N64… back when I still enjoyed Nintendo.

    The major publishers would say you are a gamer but you don’t know it yet. Odds are, you play games on your smartphone. Maybe it’s a 3D simulation like Deer Hunter or maybe it’s just classic Solitaire or Candy Crush. Some app-style games are more profitable for publishers and more addictive for gamers than console and PC games.

    I don’t completely agree with the CEOs on this. It’s like lumping together people who regularly go to movie theaters and people who just watch replays of classic movies on TV. Those demographics don’t always overlap. They require different revenue models and might prefer different features.

    Even so, the technical advancement of phone games and introduction of apps to HD-TVs will help game publishers to unify the markets. If you’re already playing a 3D adventure game on your phone, why not play it on a TV?

    If Microsoft achieves its goals (don’t laugh), you will eventually start a game on one platform and continue it on another. You have seen those commercials for pausing a movie on a TV and continuing it on a phone? Same concept.

    • #20
  21. Joe P Member
    Joe P
    @JoeP

    Aaron Miller:

    Joe P: But, in reality, it’s very hard to write a truly versatile game engine, in terms of supporting every use case.

    It has been a gradual process getting to this point, so there has been plenty of feedback from EA’s developers on individual needs and adjustments made in that regard. But I would not be surprised if Frostbite Labs grows and subdivides into teams devoted to the needs of specific genres and platforms. Perhaps, rather than one great game engine that covers everything, there will be variations of each engine with optional plug-ins (music software).

    Or perhaps this will prove to be a failed experiment.

    Right. I think once you reach a certain point with that, the cost-savings motive goes out the window, and you’re potentially right back where you started.

    But, I dunno. I mean, it depends on how risk averse EA will be. The last time I played one of their games, they seemed to be moving in the direction of “make everything a CoD clone”, so it may work for them.

    • #21
  22. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    cirby: The biggest differences will be style, which means art and rendering engines – and those can be extremely customizable. You could make a game like the Battlefield games, and with a swap-out render and art style, make something more like Borderlands or Overwatch.

    Right. Here are two games by EA both using the Frostbite engine. The first is Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, which focuses on dynamic lighting. The second is Battlefield 1 (again), which focuses on destruction physics.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRXkqN_FDvo

    Not only are the graphical styles very different, the gameplay concepts are like night and day. However, both represent the increasing popularity of “open world” games which set players in giant playgrounds and offer them the freedom to interact creatively.

    • #22
  23. Joe P Member
    Joe P
    @JoeP

    Front Seat Cat:I heard a story on the radio yesterday in my car about gaming. That adults (mostly men) are spending a lot of money on these things, and as the virtual worlds they create expand, there are more things to buy – Google and others are encouraging the push with glasses that put you in the center of your virtual universe.

    Just a different thought, but grown men who play games is akin to adult coloring books – I don’t mean to offend anyone – the younger guys I can see – but it also fuels addiction – to more electronics and less communication with the real world – am I wrong here? The story talked about a guy who spent his $50K nest egg on weapons that go with some of these virtual universe games – only in the last 10 years or less have we had the iPhone and Facebook etc. Now I challenge you to see anyone who isn’t constantly checking it – kids especially.

    That’s only a minority of players of a small subset of games. The majority of grown adults playing games do so as responsibly as grown adults who have other hobbies.

    I mean, it’s no more adult coloring books as TV is adult fairy tales.

    • #23
  24. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    I think Frostbite will work out fine from a technical stand point, but not a fiscal one.  I’m always skeptical when any company has been outsourcing an aspect of their business and then brings it in house under the guise of it’ll save them money.

    It just rarely works out that way.  Giving up the expertise of those who only build engines and the diffusion of costs across the entire industry in return for a relatively small team you’ve just created, and a relatively small number of studios that are under your roof to diffuse the costs simply seems unlikely to add up.

    • #24
  25. Ulysses768 Inactive
    Ulysses768
    @Ulysses768

    Has it been confirmed that Frostbite will support Vulkan?  I personally can’t get too excited about anything that runs only on Windows10.

    I cling to the faint hope hope that if I can keep Windows and OS X out of my house my kids will learn more about computers.

    • #25
  26. Joe P Member
    Joe P
    @JoeP

    cirby:There are always differences in gameplay between genres – that’s a given. However, there are far more similarities for A-list titles. Physics will generally be similar (gravity, explosions, other effects), and reasonably sane gameplay will use similar techniques (WASD for moving, mouse for looking, buttons for attacks, et cetera). Most of the major games tend to use similar command structures for secondary commands (R for reload, G for Grenade, number keys or mousewheel for weapon select) already.

    Right. This is the single largest complaint about the “A-list titles” today. It’s fine if a company wants to make games only like that, but they’re leaving money on the table for somebody else to pick up if they do.

    The biggest differences will be style, which means art and rendering engines – and those can be extremely customizable. You could make a game like the Battlefield games, and with a swap-out render and art style, make something more like Borderlands or Overwatch.

    With a flexible I/O system and a good server database, you could also make full-blown MMOs or MMOFPS titles, since most of the graphics work would be client-side.

    The programming of graphics and rendering also happens to be the hardest work to get right. The work that you avoid doing by using someobody else’s engine. If everyone is going to customize that, then you lose the cost-sharing benefit of this engine.

    • #26
  27. Polyphemus Inactive
    Polyphemus
    @Polyphemus

    This is interesting from the perspective of EA itself.  Do you know if their vast number of games tended to have proprietary engines or were some of them using one of the licensed engines like Unreal or CryEngine?  I would think most were proprietary so I guess this gives them some cost and time savings down the line.

    Not sure that this is all that big of a deal for the industry as a whole except that it offers another option down the line if they decide to license it. What you are explaining about the democratization of game design through licensing the engine has been rapidly apace for quite a while as you mention.  The significant developments in that area have been in the last few years where the competition between Unity, Unreal, CryEngine, etc. has led to much lower barriers to entry – in licensing terms – for Indy, and medium sized developers.  This may add to that but mainly impacts EA for the moment.

    • #27
  28. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Polyphemus:This is interesting from the perspective of EA itself. Do you know if their vast number of games tended to have proprietary engines or were some of them using one of the licensed engines like Unreal or CryEngine? I would think most were proprietary so I guess this gives them some cost and time savings down the line.

    Not sure that this is all that big of a deal for the industry as a whole except that it offers another option down the line if they decide to license it. What you are explaining about the democratization of game design through licensing the engine has been rapidly apace for quite a while as you mention. The significant developments in that area have been in the last few years where the competition between Unity, Unreal, CryEngine, etc. has led to much lower barriers to entry – in licensing terms – for Indy, and medium sized developers. This may add to that but mainly impacts EA for the moment.

    Most games do not use proprietary engines.

    • #28
  29. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Jamie Lockett:Will any of this affect the penchant for Publishers to release 50% of a game and then charge us extra for DLCs after the fact?

    That controversy is overblown. Facilitating easy activation of an optional feature isn’t equivalent to selling someone an incomplete product. Nevertheless, it’s annoying for a customer to know that a dormant feature could be activated with the flip of a switch.

    In any case, streamlined development doesn’t eliminate the potential for poor production management. A good project director is willing to push his team but also nail down the final feature set early enough for thorough debugging and polish. Even with the best pace of development, a bad director can make the mistake of allowing his team to begin what they don’t have time to finish before product launch.

    The problem can also result from publisher mismanagement. If the launch window is suddenly moved forward to please the marketing team or to compensate for financial losses involving other projects, then the developer is forced to take shortcuts.

    • #29
  30. Polyphemus Inactive
    Polyphemus
    @Polyphemus

    Frank Soto:

    Most games do not use proprietary engines.

    Probably true in general but I was talking about EA in particular.  Maybe they do too but I kind of doubt that there are a lot of EA games using Unreal or something. Their vast sports franchises, for instance, would be using something of their own.

    Anyway, I agree with you that this announcement about Frostbite doesn’t sound like a “game changer” to me. More of an inside baseball kind of thing.

    • #30

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