An interview with Mike Gamble.

What was your background prior to joining Torc?

I was in the [UK] Ministry of Defence for ten years. The latter part of that – 1988 to 1990 – was spent on early, fledgling PC work. I always had an interest in gaming, but that was where I started to gain technical expertise. I then moved to the toy industry to spend five years as a games engineer for Tonka and Hasbro. These were physical (not interactive) games – titles such as Monopoly and Risk.

1995: I moved to the interactive industry. Firstly as a producer with a small Brighton company called Epic – nothing to do with the Unreal guys – and from there to Sega, firstly as producer; later as a senior producer, working on Saturn and PC stuff.

Late 1996, I joined Microsoft as a European evangelist for Direct X – the only European employee of the Direct X group. I also came up with Windows gaming initiatives and was involved in some of the early work on Xbox, informing European media and European industry on the concept of a Microsoft-produced console.

In 2001, I took the role of Business Development Director at Mathengine. At that point, Mathengine had been successfully re-launched. Karma – the new physics SDK – had built up quite a decent customer list, including Lionhead, Sony, Argonaut, and Epic – the real Epic this time! All top drawer customers. Discussions started with Criterion about becoming their physics solution.

Prior to that, I left to join THQ as Business Development Director with a remit to source products with a European emphasis. What constitutes ‘European emphasis’? One good example would be Broken Sword 3 which had no presence in America at all, whereas Europe was very keen to have it.

After about six months at THQ, I took on the role of European product development, which at that point had one producer and was a very low key affair. I was responsible for MotoGP series, Juiced, Broken Sword 3, and signed Stalker. After three years at THQ there was a large reorganisation and the European group was struck back, so I moved on. After undertaking some contract work for Microsoft, the opportunity with Torc arrived. I spent some time over there [in Donegal], met the guys, thought they had some good technology, was offered the opportunity to join them and I did.


What attracted you to this tech?

The technology is built extremely well. Torc was originally set up because its developers wanted to build a game, only they couldn’t build one without a decent toolkit so they decided to create one themselves. The result – a very high quality toolset, combined with an extremely pragmatic approach.

Instinct Studio doesn’t provide everything – it’s an excellent toolset, a top class renderer – but it doesn’t provide physics, AI or networking. Instead, it takes the best of breed of other middleware products – Agere, AI.implant, etc. – and ensures that the customer can buy those products and integrate them in a very modular fashion. All the functionality is exposed to the Instinct toolset. It plugs in very cleanly.

Has middleware become an expanding industry unto itself, one which is likely to gain further prominence in the future?

Middleware has had a bit of a rocky road, to be honest. Criterion’s Renderware established middleware as a perfectly legitimate means of games development, particularly amongst next gen games. Also, middleware is a particularly economically viable way of working. It’s ridiculous that companies should rebuild technology per project.

However, the whole middleware concept was dealt an enormous blow when Electronic Arts acquired Criterion. Suddenly, the tools provider that provided for an enormous number of companies worldwide was owned by their competitor. Other publishers became wary of using Renderware because that would be putting money into EA’s pocket. Publishers became wary of middleware companies, just in case they were going to be bought by a rival. In the two or three years since, that situation has begun to ease and there is a new wave of middleware coming to market, of which Instinct Studio is one element. This revival will push middleware into fully legitimate games development.


Are there further potential areas of innovation in middleware?

New network-enabled consoles have opened up what was traditionally a PC model into a much wider audience. Networking middleware is important and ubiquitous. We are witnessing an evolution, as much as a revolution, of middleware. Companies like National Motion employ next gen solutions in the way they approach animation and physics, and the way they apply AI, in order to achieve realistic results.

There is constant innovation within middleware groups and teams worldwide. To some extent, Instinct’s approach to the toolset is very next gen insofar as it is allowing real-time running of the code, real-time running of the game, and real-time editing of the game. You can play through a level and adjust properties like physical objects and AI, real-time, without the need to drop out, recompile, go back in. Instinct puts control back into the more creative side of the developer. Clearly the programmer still has an enormous part to play, but a designer or creative director can change something within the level there and then. That amount of control typifies a next-generation middleware solution.

For the end user, the gamer, what will the Instinct Engine offer?

There’s nothing that a gamer will be able to point to and say ‘this was made with middleware’. The quality of the engine and the studio is top quality, so it’s more Unreal than it is Renderware. It’s more cutting edge in terms of quality of rendering, lighting, effects, etc. – and truly takes advantage of the next gen platforms. From a consumer point of view, hopefully they will just see a quality title. If you put two games side by side, hopefully a gamer identify the one made from Instinct Studio.


When does Instinct launch?

The Beta programme launches this month at the Developer’s Conference in Brighton [July 11-13]. We hope to sign up half a dozen developers for Beta. They will use the engine on genuine real-world products, gaining a reduced license fee and a much higher level of support because they will report back issues and bugs. That allows us to take Instinct from Beta through to the full final version. We are planning on commercial release for GDC 2007.

Are a few developers sniffing around already?

We are busy sorting out the meetings at the moment, and we have one live evaluation. Fingers crossed. Post-show, hopefully we will have a few announcements to make.

Your career to date has been somewhat nomadic. What are your long-term plans?

I plan on staying with Torc as long as possible. The hope is that it becomes a successful commercial company, and the product sells commercially. Of course, when that happens to a middleware company it usually gets bought by somebody else! Who can predict what will happen? All going well, I’ll stay with Torc.

What’s your opinion of the indigenous games industry in Ireland?

There is a lot of talent and there’s no reason why Ireland shouldn’t have a stronger games development presence, other than the fact that independent games development is difficult for everyone at the moment. In the UK, there has been an enormous amount of shrinkage, but Ireland does have advantages. There’s a lower cost of development and the Irish government offer incentives that makes it attractive for companies setting up.

Ireland already has quite a vibrant mobile market, so it will only take one or two successful studios and Ireland will be on the map. Microsoft do all their localisation in Dublin – that is obviously a recognition that the skills are there. Games development just seems to be slower to pick up on it, probably because the skilled Irish developers have left to the States and UK!

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