San Diego Business Journal
Computer Lab Is Not Just Playing Games
Though they both deal in video games, the people working at Sammy Studios, Inc. and at UC San Diego's Experimental Game Lab may as well operate on different planets.
Carlsbad-based Sammy Studios develops video games for mass-market hardware such as Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2. The people at UCSD work with specialized hardware with tremendous amounts of power.
Sammy develops its games to attract consumers and make money in the marketplace. The people at UCSD have no such constraints, and may push the computer-game experience into the realm of contemporary art - art that can challenge a viewer's world view or aesthetic sense.
"We aren't market-driven," said Sheldon Brown, a UCSD visual arts professor and director of the university's Experimental Game Lab.
Yet the two organizations see a chance to help each other, and they are joining forces.
UCSD already provides interns to Sammy, a subsidiary of Sega Sammy Holdings of Tokyo. Sammy creates original video games and publishes internally and externally developed game titles in North America.
Recently, Sammy announced a $290,000 donation to the school's Experimental Game Lab. What's more, Sammy has agreed to provide the UCSD lab with a cost-free license to use SCORE, or the Sammy Core Engine. It is proprietary computer technology that Sammy uses to create 3-D video games for home consoles.
What UCSD is providing is "a long-term vision for our industry," said Clinton Keith, vice president and technology director for Sammy Studios. "A lot of times we're racing to get the next game out. Our vision can be short-term. We can't possibly afford to experiment with huge, virtual-reality rooms that cost millions of dollars to build in. It might not have practical application in the near-term.
And that's what our industry focuses on - what can you produce in the next two to three years?"
Video games were a $23.2 billion business in 2003, according to DFC Intelligence, a San Diego market research firm that specializes in the video game industry. The figure takes in hardware and software for personal-computer games, video games and portable games.
Keith, who leads a local association of video game developers, estimates that the San Diego region has 40 game development companies of all sizes, and 2,000 to 3,000 game developers.
Game companies face the challenge of "squeezing their vision" into the confines of the PlayStation 2 or Xbox, said UCSD's Brown. Meanwhile, he and a half-dozen cohorts have been writing games for heavy-duty computers used to create simulations for the military and the airline industry. Brown, whose 1,200-square-foot studio on the UCSD campus is full of computer equipment, recalled harnessing a Silicon Graphics Onyx platform for a project a few years ago.
A more recent project, which until recently was on exhibit at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, was called "Smoke & Mirrors." It consisted of eight networked personal computers and custom software that let six people control characters walking through a computer-generated environment. As an added touch, the system scanned images of the players' faces, and placed the faces on the on-screen figures.
It's doubtful that the next generation of commercial shoot-'em-up games will feature face-scanning technology. Yet things are changing. Analysts expect that new, more powerful versions of game consoles will be out around 2006.
"There's going to be a steep learning curve," said Keith, noting that the new hardware is expected to have multiple processors handling different aspects of the game. There might be a specialized processor to handle the way things move, another to deal with artificial intelligence, another for graphics and a fourth to handle sound. It may take developers three or four generations of products to fine-tune software to take advantage of such platforms, Keith said.
Brown, 42, who has been with UCSD since 1992, acknowledged his approaches to complex computing problems - the fact he's been there and done that - might prove valuable to industry.
The challenges facing game designers, Brown said, are classic economic questions: Is it better to throw processor resources and programmer time into one thing, or is it better to cut back there and spend resources on another problem?
"Smoke & Mirrors" featured such trade-offs. Brown said he chose to put fewer resources into sophisticated rendering technology in order to accommodate six simultaneous players.
University officials say the Experimental Game Lab will work on several projects related to next-generation video-game platforms. Specifically, they include persistent evolving multi-user online worlds, streaming media within games, on-demand asset derivation, soft body dynamics for character development, rendering techniques and prototyping technologies.
UCSD's Experimental Game Lab is part of the university's Center for Research in Computing and the Arts. The lab also receives support from software writers Microsoft and NDL of Chapel Hill, N.C.
Brown said he is talking with other software companies about possible support for the university program, which has a $200,000 yearly budget.
UCSD is not the only university that Sammy consults.
The company has a more extensive relationship with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, a school that emphasizes industrial design and visual design over technology. The Carlsbad company has hired six Art Center alumni; some have gone on to become managers.
For decades, students at the Pasadena school have tackled design challenges such as futuristic automobiles. Recently, Sammy asked Art Center students to spend 14 weeks designing the sort of video game they thought would be popular in 2015 or 2020.
"We got some very interesting projects," said Emmanuel Valdez, vice president and creative director at Sammy, noting that the exercise gave the students some insight on how the industry works and how the company develops an idea. Ultimately, those designs remain property of the school.
Sammy also works with the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Ariz., and is trying to establish relationships with other postsecondary schools in San Diego, Valdez said.