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Screenshot from Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Screenshot from Marvel: Ultimate Alliance.

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Technology

Video games

The invisible middleman of the game industry

Last Updated Aug. 13, 2007

There's a shadowy influence shaping much of what people around the world see and hear when they play the latest video games � and it's Canadian.

The days of game developers designing and producing their own software tools in order to draw the characters and create their movements have all but disappeared. Those tools have become so specialized it takes specialists to build them.

There could be a tool created for the specific purpose of making an ocean or sea look naturally lifelike, for example, or even one that is meant to make hair look as good and real as it would in a salon.

While the spotlight is usually on the big game-development studios such as Electronic Arts and UbiSoft, so-called "middleware" companies in Canada have also carved out a niche in the industry by designing those tools. This leaves developers to focus on what they do best: The games themselves.

A world leader in middleware

This symbiotic relationship between developers and tool designers isn't all that new � some middleware companies have been in the business for the better part of 15 years. But the Canadian presence in the middleware market is growing and it has been a particular boon for game developers within the nation, helping to support a fast-growing Canadian game development industry.

What has happened, as a result, is Canada is considered one of the world leaders in middleware development.

Canada isn't widely renowned for creating "game engines" (the core software that runs the game), but it is a major player when it comes to supplying the tools that do all the little things � those finer details that make games come alive.

"Canada is absolutely a world leader in this space, with room to grow as we recognize and support this emerging sector," says Roneil Reddy, president of Gekido Design Group Inc., out of Vancouver. "Some of the top-selling games in the world are made here in Canada, so it makes sense that some of the best middleware is developed here, too."

"Some of the top-selling games in the world are made here in Canada, so it makes sense that some of the best middleware is developed here, too."

— Roneil Reddy, Gekido Design Group

While there are no definitive stats to illustrate the approximate value of the Canadian middleware contribution to the revenue of the software development sector, there is an undeniably strong presence of middleware companies in Canada, says Dennis Chenard, memberships and partnerships manager at New Media BC, a nonprofit association that represents new media producers in British Columbia.

"There's a strength in innovation here," Chenard says. "Because it's such a rapidly evolving field, it's an arena where, like film and television, the technology and tools are becoming a lot more accessible, so almost anyone can begin to create their own game, or specific tool for a game. It's an area that we not only can compete at, but really excel at in this country."

Canadian players

Montreal-based Softimage is one of the longest standing middleware developers in Canada, for both games and major movies. Over the past 20 years it has played a behind-the-scenes role in films such as Jurassic Park, for which it produced the software used to create the computer-generated dinosaurs, for example. And a face-generating Softimage tool called Face Robot was used for the cinematic scenes in the game Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, which was developed in a studio in Quebec City.

Over the past 10 years, companies like Softimage have taken aim at the gaming industry because of its steady growth and its hunger for cutting-edge 3D animation tools. To produce the types of sophisticated games people have come to expect these days, game developers are in need of a number of third-party tools ranging from audio systems that make a computer-generated scene sound like the real thing, to artificial intelligence "engines" that drive the behaviour and tendencies of characters and objects onscreen.

"Building a game engine from scratch can take a long time, and developers just don't have the luxury of doing that any more," says Paul Kruszewski, chief technology officer with Engenuity, a Montreal-based middleware developer. "On a technology level, this industry is about risk management.

"But it's unlikely that developers would risk three months of development time and money for something that might not work when they can just buy a [third-party] solution."

Alberta-born Kruszewski oversaw the creation of A.I. Implant, for example, a program that specializes in generating scenes with large crowds, or urban environments with lots of street and pedestrian traffic. Games modeled after the Grand Theft Auto series, or even action titles with settings in urban locales, are examples of what A.I. Implant is designed to do.

The program took about five years of research and was nine months in development, but it was all done in Canada. It's already attracting attention � the engine is used in the upcoming game Stranglehold (scheduled for release in August), featuring Asian action star Chow Yun Fat.

Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Canadian industry builds critical mass

Kruszewski notes with so many development studios setting up shop in Canada, it acts as a magnet for game-development expertise. The middleware side benefits because of all the talented people looking to break into the industry.

Denis Dyack, co-founder and president of St. Catharines, Ont.-based game developer Silicon Knights, agrees. Dyack and his staff chose an audio tool called Wwise that was developed in Montreal by a small local firm, Audiokinetic, to help put together the musical score for its upcoming game Too Human.

Dyack says he was sold after he saw it in action at a conference for game developers earlier this year.

"AudioKinetic has created a tool set that removes much of the technical stresses and limitations our audio designers and musicians encounter when scoring a game, allowing them to focus more on creativity."

New platforms, new challenges

The challenge for developers today lies in understanding what the limits are for the new generation of game consoles, Sony's PlayStation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii.

Autodesk knows this first-hand. The software developer has been a mainstay in the gaming space as part of its Media and Entertainment Division through its two Canadian offices in Toronto and Montreal. The company's development tools have been used in popular Canadian-made titles such as Need for Speed: Most Wanted, developed by Electronic Arts' studio in B.C., and Rainbow Six: Vegas, developed by Ubisoft in Montreal.

"The new consoles have put an enormous burden on game developers, so they're looking for a more integrated set of technology to help them get over that hump," says S�bastien Lavier, senior product manager at Autodesk's Media and Entertainment division.

"We have an agreement with Ubisoft where one of our employees provides on-site support on a daily basis, so that the staff there won't run into any major problems with our tools."

That sort of intimate helping hand may just be a microcosm for the flourishing homegrown collaborations that are helping to grow the gaming industry on the middleware side.

And as games become more complex, it bodes well for Canada's increasing role as a supplier of the cutting-edge software and expertise that give video games their "wow" factor and appeal.

"Canadian companies have always been a worldwide contributor, so the more of us get involved in the industry, the better it is for the country," Dyack says.

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