In Real Life

The Middle Men: How One Australian Studio Helped Build 128 Games

Gamebryo isn’t exactly a household name but for Sydney’s Epiphany Games, Gamebryo is everything. It’s the game engine they helped build, the engine that keeps them afloat. It’s the engine they’re using to create the game of their dreams. You can fight for funding, you can seek outside investment dollars, but Epiphany’s founder Morgan Lean did things a little differently. He tried to build his game, and then sold the technology he created in order to do it. This is the story of a man who tried to make one game, but ended up being partially responsible for 128.

Morgan Lean is not ashamed to admit it. He keeps a scorecard. He keeps count. Morgan knows exactly how many games have been built using the Gamebryo engine. Using the tech he helped design and create.

128. A big number. 128 games have used the technology Morgan helped build. The technology that keeps the Gamebryo engine at the cutting edge. That keeps his company up and running, keeps multiple developers employed. The technology that’s helping Morgan and his studio Epiphany build the video game of their dreams.

And it all happened mostly by accident. But you could say it started with design.

Games design.

The Eureka Moment

You could also say it started with a house. With a resignation. A creative impulse.

Morgan Lean had a dream. A crazy dream in hindsight, but a dream tangible enough to convince him that quitting his secure job building games for Disney was a swell idea. Morgan wanted to build an MMO, at the peak of World of Warcraft’s popularity. In order to do this he dragged a group of industry friends along with him and got to work.

“We didn’t know how we were going to go about it,” admits Morgan

The year was 2006. Morgan and his team of developers crammed into his house, and started work immediately. One of the people who joined was Sam Jensen, lead game designer at Epiphany

“At that point we were actually quite garage,” he admits. “We were in a house!”

The team worked hard. They worked long hours. Morgan admits he had to kick people out of his house at midnight. Sam practically lived on the couch. They both remember Adam Parquette, Epiphany’s concept artist, painting game art on one screen whilst waiting for stuff to happen in World of Warcraft.

“It was quite casual, but we were really dedicated,” says Sam. “We were pulling crazy hours.”

It was around this time that Morgan began evaluating different engines, deciding which tech would best suit everyone’s needs. He checked out Gamebryo, an engine originally built in 1997 that’s still used today.

“We were evaluating a very early version of Gamebryo, I think it was the version that was used in Morrowind. It didn’t have a terrain engine.”

And that was Morgan’s eureka moment.

Morgan Lean wanted a terrain engine. In order to build his MMO he needed one. So he built it, then successfully integrated that terrain engine into Gamebryo. Purely because the existing tools didn’t quite cut it.

Morgan continued to experiment, he built things, he played around with the engine he created. For the sheer hell of it he tried to make things explode.

“We were just like, ooh, this does stuff the thing we’re using doesn’t do,” says Sam.

“We were rendering millions of triangles of terrain and we were messing around with it, blowing things up and we thought this is pretty cool,” continues Morgan.

“Then we thought, hey, this is a pretty good terrain engine.”

Doing Things Better

Morgan and his team at Epiphany liked what they had built, so they took their super explodey terrain engine to the folks who owned the Gamebryo engine. ‘Here is something we can do that you can’t,’ they said. ‘We’ve figured out a way to do things better.’

Emergent, who owned Gamebryo, were impressed. They asked Epiphany if it was possible to integrate the work into the Gamebryo engine they licensed to other developers. In return Epiphany would receive a percentage royalty each and every time someone used Gamebryo.

“Building that Terrain engine basically funded our company,” says Morgan.

The Gamebryo engine is most famously used in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas but during 2009 and 2010, the tech was licensed out to multiple different developers. The royalties flew in and before they knew it, the folks at Epiphany had a significant amount of cash at their disposal. They decided to invest back into the company, and self-fund the first step towards building game they’d always wanted to make. That game was Frozen Hearth, an RTS set in a universe the team ultimately want to evolve into — yep — a fully fledged MMO.

The dream was still alive.

“Gamebryo did a lot of sales in 2009-2010 and that basically pumped money into the company which enabled us to do a bit more hiring and do a bit more planning,” says Morgan. “It let us do all the pre-production on Frozen Hearth and gave us a war chest to do it.”

Sam Jensen puts it more concisely.

“Basically we built the tech we needed, then sold that core tech to Gamebryo. Which means we’re getting paid to build the tech that we actually use in our game.”

They’ve been going through the same process ever since.

Black Magic

Epiphany’s level designer is frustrated. All he wants to do is build a bloody waterfall. How difficult can that be? Nigh on impossible it turns out. Especially if you want to build a waterfall on multiple different planes. Especially if you want your waterfall to look ‘cool’.

“We wanted a waterfall because waterfalls are cool!” Explains Sam.

But they had a problem.

“Our Waterfalls weren’t looking cool.”

Cool waterfalls as a problem is simple to define, but tough to solve in practice — water in waterfalls isn’t static, it moves, it falls. In order for waterfalls in Frozen Hearth to look serviceable the team had to find a way to make the water ‘move’. This was the issue.

“To fix this we needed some way of having the water look like it was flowing. We wanted to be able to control that and have it happen,” says Sam.

Morgan and his tech team worked on a solution. “Maybe there’s something we can do,” they said, and there was. As a designer Sam isn’t sure what goes on over in the tech side of the office, but he suspects there’s wizardry at work.

“They went back to their desks, waved some magic around their computer, killed some chickens or did whatever it is they do over there, and came up with a solution.

The solution was elegant and completely artist driven. The team created a completely new piece of technology that allowed artists to simply place a body of water in the game world, and draw the direction of the water flow. Artists could draw curves, they could make water appear to fall.

The level designer could now make a waterfall that looked cool.

“It’s genius,” says Sam. “There are actual magicians over there. It’s black magic they do.

“It’s just in the terrain tools now, you just place the water then draw it.”

Epiphany has now added this tool to Gamebryo — a piece of technology that will now convince more developers to use that engine. The issues Epiphany has, the problems the team solves internally, will now help multiple other studios build their own games, solve their own problems, and Epiphany is paid handsomely for the service. This is the process; this is how Epiphany works its black magic.

Osmosis

“A lot of this happens by osmosis for us,” explains Sam. “We’re innovative because we need to be innovative, we need to find solutions that match our budget. And it just so happens that when we build those things they’re usually the kind of tools that other studios can use.

“This kind of thing happens because of who we are.”

Making waterfalls look cool is one thing, but Epiphany’s latest piece of technology, codenamed ‘Hydra’, is a genuine game changer. Frozen Hearth is an RTS, and Hydra was designed to allow designers to completely build and tweak all aspects of character creation in the most seamless accessible way possible.

Hydra has the potential to be every bit as important for Epiphany as its terrain engine was, and its conception was borne of similar circumstances.

“We broke Excel,” laughs Morgan. “That’s basically what happened. We said ‘we have to build something that’s better than Excel for doing this’. So we spent three months building this kick-arse piece of technology.”

The appeal of Hydra is difficult to quantify, it doesn’t allow you to quickly build massive game worlds, like Epiphany’s terrain engine, what it does is save time, massive amounts of time. And for small to medium sized studios where time is arguably the most valuable commodity, a piece of technology like Hydra is invaluable.

“With Hydra, it was immediate,” says Morgan. “I just knew straight away — this is going to save people 80% of their time.”

The Waiting Game

The next step is simple — release Frozen Hearth. Send Frozen Hearth and the Hydra technology into the wild, and wait.

“We want to get Hydra in front of our community first,” explains Morgan.

The concept is simple — allow the mod community to experiment with Hydra and observe. Identify the initial weaknesses of the engine through user feedback, fix those issues, and then package the Hydra technology into something worth integrating into a bigger engine.

“Once we get it to that point, it’s basically a product you can sell.”

Epiphany is a small studio. The have no sales team and no desire to hire one. It is their goal to create video games, the middleware created in that process is simply a convenient by-product — it’s vegemite, a unique business model that allows Epiphany to function independently.

“We’re happy to sell our tech someone else who has a sales force,” says Morgan. “They’re promoting it and if they’re selling our product along with it and a little bit of money comes back to us, that’s smart. We don’t have a sales manager and we don’t want to hire a sales manager, we just want to make really cool stuff. We want to make cool games, we want to make cool tech, we want to do things that are interesting to us as developers.”

Early next year Morgan and Sam will trawl the halls of the Games Developers Conference in San Francisco. They’ll network, they’ll attend conferences, they’ll meet with the kind of people who want what they’re selling. They’ll work 16 hour days. Sam refers to the whole process as “speed dating for game companies”. They’ll walk up to stalls, they’ll say, ‘this is what your engine is doing wrong and here’s why we can do it better.’ All this will be done with the express purpose of selling the Hydra technology.

But this is not the endgame, it is simply the beginning.

“We’re planning to make an action RPG next. Then we’re planning to make our MMO,” says Sam.

“Because I do the strategic planning for the company, I’m already trying to think two years ahead of where this game is,” adds Morgan.

Eventually, if all goes to plan, Morgan will finally get to make his MMO.

Frozen Hearth is on sale now, head here for more info. You can also vote for Frozen Hearth on Steam Greenlight.


Have you subscribed to Kotaku Australia's email newsletter? You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.