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Tech Times: Roaring good times for small video-game studios

Published:Monday | January 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Sri Shivananda
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Roaring good times for small video-game studios

(TNS)

SEATTLE Jesse Rapczak left his job helping design the HoloLens headset, one of the most ambitious Microsoft projects in decades, to chase a simple premise: Nobody has made a great dinosaur video game.

A year later, his bet has clearly paid off.

Rapczak's team, five people working in the Seattle area, a few dozen more working as far afield as Egypt, created "Ark: Survival Evolved." It has sold more than 2.4 million copies.

The crazy part? It's not finished.

"It took a lot of people by surprise," Rapczak said. "Us included."

Welcome to the new world of game design, where a pocket-size office full of coders, artists, and a good idea can produce a hit in a few months.

With the recent holiday season's surge in video-game sales under way, blockbuster titles produced by big studios, some at a cost of more than $100 million, topped the charts. Those are the likes of Electronic Arts' "FIFA" or "Madden" sports series, Activision's "Call of Duty" or Microsoft's latest "Halo" sci-fi shooter.

But with the help of increasingly sophisticated game-building software and easier access to distribution tools, independent studios are playing a more prominent role in the business.

The number of publishers creating games for Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox platforms last year was up 49 percent from a year earlier, according to EEDAR, a video-game market-research company in California. Steam, a computer-game distribution platform owned by Valve, is on track for a 62 percent increase in its own game tally, EEDAR estimates.

The Seattle area has been a focus of the video-game industry for decades. Nintendo's North American unit and Microsoft are neighbors, the anchor tenants of a community also home to big studios like Valve, Big Fish and PopCap. A host of smaller studios are clustered in a few Seattle neighborhoods, along with a small-but-growing network of virtual-reality companies.

Game developers, hardware makers and related companies directly employed 17,400 people in Washington state in 2013, according to a study by the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County and the Washington Interactive Network industry group. Companies in the industry statewide brought in more than $19 billion in revenue that year, the study showed.

PayPal's command-centre guru Sri Shivananda

(TNS)

SAN JOSE, Calif. Don't get too hung up on Sri Shivananda's LinkedIn job description "Responsible for the horizontal technology foundation, software development infrastructure, operations and identity infrastructure," yada yada yada. Those are just really geeky words. What's important is that with his company's split this year from eBay, the VP of global platform and infrastructure for San Jose-based PayPal helped build and will soon run a cutting-edge command center that will coordinate a whole mess of global e-commerce transactions, every single minute of every single day.

How big of a mess? Try 12.5 million daily payments in 100 currencies, serving over 165 million users across 203 markets. Those are the kind of numbers PayPal is putting up with its worldwide online payment system, an increasingly popular alternative to old-school things like checks and money orders.

Talk to the Indian-born Shivananda and he'll very personably decipher for you the many things he and his team do at a place crammed with computers, monitors and braniacs of all description, a place he likens to, well, "think mission control at NASA."

Q: So you got the computer bug and later you came to the States to get your masters in mechanical engineering at Ohio University?

A: I had two jobs on campus, both in computer labs, so that continued to further my hunger to learn more and more about computers, do simulations, write code. I was 23, married, and my first job was in Detroit with Ford, but my wife and I didn't fancy the weather so we moved to Austin, Texas, which had weather like I had grown up with.

Q: You eventually ended up with eBay in Texas when in 2000 it bought the company you were working for?

A: Yes. I started as an engineer at eBay and worked in different areas of software. But then eBay decided the Austin office was too small so they closed it. I applied for six jobs with eBay in San Jose and didn't get any of them. I did, though, get the seventh. Tough start, but it gave me the character for pursuing bigger risks and opportunities over my career.

Q: So you liked working with eBay. And you ended up in a number of different position during your time with the company?

A: I was an engineer for awhile, then (systems and enterprise) architect for a few years, and then I got into people management and running a technology organization. In 2013, we decided to bring together the platform and infrastructure teams at eBay and PayPal. We spent 14 months doing that, and then when the two companies split up, we had to reverse course.

Q: That must have felt a bit like whiplash pulling two companies' teams together for more than a year and then abruptly changing gears and having to focus on the PayPal launch?

A: It was the right decision for both companies. And the lessons we learned during the integration work helped us with the split. We first had to understand what we were bringing together, and then that knowledge showed us what we needed to do once we split up. We had to create a big white space between the two companies and there were a lot of unknowns.

Q: Do you ever think how much PayPal is a part of this unfolding future of money?

A: It's very exciting. When you look at the innovation of money over time, you see that it's been relatively slow, leading up to where we find ourselves today. There's a lot of activity now around how to exchange money electronically. What we're trying to do is not only help streamline that experience for consumers, but also enable vendors around the world to better conduct their business across borders, because the world has become one large virtual shelf where you can now buy anything from any merchant anywhere in the world.

That's an amazing opportunity for even the smallest of players, but we need to help them get money for the goods they're selling. We are uniquely positioned to help in that space, and the real opportunities are just beginning. We did $235 billion in payments in 2014 and there is room for a lot more than that in the future. We're just getting started!

Why 360 video is the next big thing in tech

Jefferson Graham

(TNS)

LAS VEGAS - The world is one big round place, and the problem is, we've been looking at a cropped view of it for way too long.

But thanks to new technology advancements in cameras and online algorithms, we can now zap open our smartphones and see all around usin front, back, to the left and right, above and below, in full spherical, 360 view.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, which ended last Saturday, 360 video and virtual reality (VR) was the big talk of the show, from huge concerns like YouTube and corporate parent Google, to Facebook's Oculus Rift and camera makers GoPro, Ricoh and 360Fly. VR and 360 is hereand set for bigger things in 2016.

"It's like everything else, you want to see everything, you want to hear everything," says Matt Sailor, the CEO of ICrealtech.com, which introduced three VR ALLie brand 360 cameras at CES.

With 360, viewers "get to be completely engrossed, and go to places they've never been," adds Andy Peacock, from camera start-up 360Fly.

The biggest news of the show was the introduction of the $599 Oculus Rift VR headset, which went on sale last Wednesday with pre-orders that won't be filled until June. With the Rift, gamers will get a much wider and expansive view of their worlds than they've ever seen before.

Not just games

But beyond VR for gaming, much talk at CES also concerned 360 for photography.

In a speech last Thursday night, YouTube's Chief Business Officer Robert Kyncl talked about how VR was going to dramatically change the mobile viewing experience.

We currently watch 1.5 hours a day of digital video, he said, compared to 5 hours daily for TVbut he sees digital video surpassing TV within four years, with VR being a huge driver for the shift.

"On YouTube, we made a big, early bet on 360-degree video because it is the first type of video that actually gives you a better experience on mobile than you can have on desktop or on your TV," said Kyncl. "And since we know mobile video is exploding, formats that lend themselves to mobile storytelling will grow along with them."

What's been holding back both filmmakers and the average Joe from diving into 360 in a big way is the limitations of how 360 video gets made. To get the full view, you usually need to use a bunch of cameras tapped together, and then "stitch" or piece the views together in video editing. That process can take hours, days, even weeks.

Several camera manufacturers looked to solve that issue here, with small, consumer grade cameras that are way easier to use, can be toted around, and promise to eliminate the stitching issues.