Codeshop: Ensuring Small is Beautiful

Codeshop: Ensuring Small is Beautiful

Everyone loves downloadable games, don’t they? They’re small, cheap and disposable chunks of fun; much like the original wave of arcade games the industry grew out of in the ’80s. It’s not called Xbox Live Arcade for nothing.

For developers, however, smallness, cheapness and disposability are all restrictions to be overcome. Of course, there’s no shortcut when it comes to making a fun game. That’s always been down to creativity and experience. But when it comes to dealing with small and cheap aspects, these are an area in which middleware companies are looking to provide a helping hand.

For one thing, such is the explosive growth in the number of developers making downloadable games that it’s a market few can ignore. It also provides an opportunity for some of the less established middleware vendors, notably those offering simple (yet still complete) engines to build a reputation with the emerging developers likely to be producing the breakout console hits of the future.

One such middleware company is Vicious Cycle Software. Based in North Carolina, just down the road from the engine powerhouse that is Epic Games, it’s part of that resurgent trend: the game developer turned tools supplier. So after five years making games and working on its own internal tools, in 2005 it took the decision to make them available to other developers. Initially, the focus was placed on supporting the then just released PSP, a platform Vicious had experience on, thanks to its then ongoing work on titles such as Puzzle Quest and Dead Head Fred.

But in the meantime, as well as adding the prerequisite Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii console support, developers making downloadable games have become a focus for the company, with US developer Frozen Codebase, which consists of former members of Raven and Radical, most recently signing up to use Vicious Engine for its XBLA game, Elements Of Destruction.

“We never really considered developing an in-house engine for our XBLA or WiiWare titles,” explains Ben Geisler, founder of Frozen Codebase. “If we worked on 2D titles, an in-house engine might be feasible, but we like to focus on fully 3D downloadable titles, so it really doesn’t make sense to have a dedicated game engine group. As we scale up to retail triple-A games this may change, but the middleware option really makes sense for short-play games.”

Indeed, demonstrating the range of technology now available, Frozen Codebase seriously evaluated five engines before choosing Vicious Engine. Previously it had used GarageGames’ Torque 360 engine for its first release, Screwjumper. “We switched to Vicious for our new game because of technical infeasibilities,” explains Geisler, somewhat cryptically.