Fun and games with consoles

When it comes to computer games New Zealand is almost wholly a consumer: it ranks second in the world for ownership while only 10 or so companies in the country actually develop games.

When it comes to computer games New Zealand is almost wholly a consumer: it ranks second in the world for ownership while only 10 or so companies in the country actually develop games.

The biggest is Wellington-based Sidhe Interactive, which develops for the Nintendo GameCube, Sony PlayStation (and 2), Microsoft Xbox and the PC.

Sidhe — pronounced shee and named after a mythological race of Celtic people — was formed in 1997 by Mario Wynands (pictured) and fellow Victoria University students Stuart Middleton and Tyrone McCauley. From a staff of three it has grown in six years to 30 people and now turns over millions of dollars a year. Wynands says the company has doubled its revenue in the past few years.

Sidhe’s 30 staff are split 50:50 between artists doing animation and building 3D models, and programmers writing code for different platforms.

Programmers at Sidhe primarily use C++, which is supported across most gaming platforms, and the Microsoft .Net environment. They also use proprietary tools from Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft.

“If you’re developing for the PC and console at the same time it can be a challenge to make things look great on both,” says Wynands. “The hardware is so fundamentally different; for example, the controller mechanism on one uses a keyboard and mouse and the other uses a game pad.

“There are also issues between different display types. The way a PC creates graphics is very different to the PS2. That’s why typically you see very different games on the two.”

However, this is diminishing as an issue with the advent of middleware that provides a common interface across platforms. Also, as consoles become more powerful, the differences between them are becoming negligible.

“It’s coming down more to marketing between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo than the specific abilities between the platforms themselves.”

Within games there is a greater range of sub-systems than you’d find in most software. Apart from the controller, user interface and menu there can be a 3D drawing engine for polygon manipulation, a physics engine which handles how objects move in the game’s world, a disk-access system that optimises load, a sound and music system and artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is used in most games to regulate the actions of computer-controlled entities and the gaming environment. The AI component in Sidhe games is incorporated into the standard C++ environment. Although some software applications use an AI-centric language such as Prolog, games need very fast processing so AI has to be within the same executable as everything else.

The company uses AI in its latest title, NRL Rugby League 2004, which it is developing for Australian games publisher Home Entertainment Suppliers. AI controls the actions of characters who fulfill short-term, immediate goals and also a sort of “team consciousness” which controls the overriding strategy of the team.

A major obstacle for anyone getting into console development in New Zealand is the start-up cost. While it’s relatively cheap to develop for the PC, because of its ubiquity and openness, to create a game for a console requires a licence from the hardware company that allows you to join its development programme. Only licensed companies can buy the software development kits — which are about $US10,000 each.

“A lot of people are under the impression that Sony pays you to develop a game, but it’s almost the reverse,” says Wynands.

He estimates that to start developing a PS2 or Xbox game requires $50,000 in hardware and software to equip a team of seven or eight people.

“Then you either need some dedicated people willing to work cheaply or you have to pay employees. To build a team and a demo you can easily spend $500,000.” Wynands and his partners worked on games in their spare time and had day jobs as software developers. They saved and borrowed money to get a start.

Another issue in New Zealand is finding skilled staff. Of Sidhe’s 30 staff about 22 were hired straight out of university because no commercial work exists here that could have given them the necessary skills and experience. Entry-level programmers are paid from about $34,000.

To help address the skills gap the New Zealand Game Developers Association, of which Wynands is acting president, and industry players such as former Weta CTO Jon Labrie, of Blister Interactive, are working with tertiary education providers to develop computer gaming courses.

But the biggest challenge to local companies is getting their voices heard above everybody else, as most of the opportunities are overseas, says Wynands.

“We’ve spent several years building networks in the US, Europe, Australia and Asia. It’s a highly competitive market and you have to get in people’s faces.

“One advantage we have is that some games now cost up to $US35 million to develop, not including marketing, so publishers are looking to New Zealand and the savings it can offer.

“But we don’t want to have that as our only talking point and we don’t want to be a bargain-basement factory. We’ve had to play the cost-value card quite heavily, but we’ve built enough of a portfolio of quality products that publishers are now saying it’s not only cheaper but the quality is just as good, if not better, and we’re getting it in a smaller time frame. It comes back to those critical points of difference — creativity, technical edge and value.”

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