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Much To Do About Content

Tuesday, September 21, 1999 by TheDoc

The other night during an IRC chat, 3D Realms' Scott Miller found himself answering a tough question, one gamers have posed for years that I long ago thought had been buried: What about Prey? The basic thrust behind the question was a simple one: When am I going to be able to play the cursed thing? Miller performed the sidestep, essentially saying the project was on hold until the design studio has developed the technology to match the concept.

A few moments later when questioned about the next-next-generation technology 3D Realms programmer Corrine Yu is developing, he said he was hoping it would be viable in two years. Two years? Add to that development time for a title that has already gone through various permutations since it was announced in 1995, and it is conceivable that, if we do see the game, it will not be until late 2001. In other words, let it go, people.

And this minor trend has unfairly drawn 3D Realms and other companies that spend considerable time developing one product a heaping pile of criticism. Perhaps if the Garland, Texas-based team had not enthusiastically promoted the game in its primordial stages -- or if the press had not been beset with writing countless previews -- this would be a moot point. 3D Realms has since wisely adopted the more reserved "When it is done" policy, which is as honest as we can hope for anyone to be. But the fact is there are talented groups of designers and programmers who seem incapable of completing and releasing a title in a well- timed manner.

What gives? A dissection of this and similar games already released reveals a catch-22 in the development community: The nature of innovation is such that it is nigh impossible for a single project to innovate across the board, both in terms of its technology and its design. The gamble is too high-priced.

The formula for creating this dilemma is simple. Ever-rising computing power is permitting developers to create increasingly complex levels of detail and realism, especially with environments, characters, graphics and interactivity. This content, which is separate from the code that defines its properties and rules, must be developed at the hand of content creators such as artists, modelers and map designers.

The more detailed the content, the more people-power required to wire the thing into being. Thus, more complex, detailed offerings require more man hours than simple games. In a recent series of e-mails I exchanged with Miller about 3D Realms slender release slate, he mentioned this is why the low-resolution, 16- color titles in the 1980s required a small team and a few months to bring to fruition. Even as recently as the early 90s, id's six developers spent seven months to complete Wolfenstein 3D. Marvel, then, at the recent announcement on the Infinite Machine website that their team, which is using licensed technology from Epic Games, is now 18-strong.

As content is therefore able to increase in detail and interactivity, the more ambitious, content-filled offerings, such as 3D Realms' Duke Nukem Forever and Max Payne, will be hit the hardest and require the most time to complete. Which leads to another problem: Since it is tough to postulate the height of technology more than two years into the future, games that require more than a two years gestation period miss their window of opportunity and appear dated upon release. This has happened twice to Prey. Had the content been able to maintain pace with the code, 2001 would be the anticipated release date for Talon Brave's third adventure.

The safest way to avoid this is by creating scalable content, which is content made at higher than normal detail levels, but that can be scaled to the proper level on-the-fly as the game runs. But creating scalable content and the code that allows for it also adds to the development timeline.

What, then, is the best path for a developer and publisher? The easy answer is to focus on either content or technology. The examples of success here are clear. Id Software has made a comfortable living off one end of the spectrum. True, the material the design team produces is top-notch, but it never tips the scales. Smooth, polished code that motivates the genre forward and slender content is their credo. Hence, the third iteration of Quake is just around the corner. On the other end of the spectrum are companies such as Valve Software with their content-rich offering Half-Life, which used technology licensed from id. The catch here is that the game might never have reached us in the timeframe it did had it developed its own technology. Valve did fold some extra code into the engine, but the title is stuffed with content from top to bottom.

The other avenue of creation is the one I referred to earlier with respect to Infinite Machine -- pour a Titanic-sized development team into a project. Of course, this also is a gamble, and I am wondering if financially-trouble GT is a little concerned about the investment. Given the talent involved, including Justin Chin of LucasArts' Dark Forces series as the lead designer, probably not. But in the current competitive environment, placing so many eggs in one bushel is certainly a strong statement of faith -- something that is probably as much a part of development strategies as anything else these days.

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