Yesterday, we got our first look at a 3D social game engine that streams through Flash without the use of a plugin or download from developer Rocket Ninja in the game Wrestler: Unstoppable. The developer’s proprietary engine, Shr3d, marks another effort by developers to push the web technology that makes more sophisticated games possible.
When 3D first came to console video games, it changed both the way that players interacted with the games and the way the video games industry judged progress. An arms race emerged where the three largest console developers — Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft — spent the majority of their development budgets on creating bigger, better 3D experiences. This created an environment where game designers focused on crafting games that showcased the technology, effectively changing the types of games players had access to.
So far, the social games industry has been immune to the 3D arms race, instead focusing on an art quality arms race where developers looked for ways to create vivid, distinctive visuals that ran smoothly on Flash. We’ve seen developers explore ways to create these experiences through hiring highly specialized artists, experimenting with data storage options for art assets on client computers, and also with plugins that provide games with additional functionality like Microsoft Silverlight. Now, with Rocket Ninja’s new engine, we begin to see where the 3D arms race could make its way into social games as Shr3d creates a 3D experience without the use of plugins.
ISG interviews Rocket Ninja CEO Oded Pelled, CTO Randy Fish, and Executive Producer Neil Haldar on the implementation of Shr3d and what 3D means for the social games industry.
Inside Social Games: Wrestler: Unstoppable was originally a 2D fighting game experience. How did you introduce the existing player base to 3D without overwhelming them?
Oded Pelled: When we launched [Shr3d] on Cinco de Mayo, the game was in 3D for all users. The game by default [now] appears in 3D for all users. [The upcoming] sound features will only be for 3D, and in the next month, there’s not going to be a 2D option. There’s going to be 3D animation with sounds, or there’s going to be basically [a mode] with animations turned off.
ISG: Did you experience any early performance issues by introducing 3D into the game?
Pelled: The unique thing about Shr3d is that it works with Flash version 10 and it works with low performing machines, so we’re very pleased to [report] that we don’t get complaints about performance issues. So far.
Randy Fish: The animations are pretty small. I think most of the size of the download is actually in some of the models, in the texturing. And in the background in the arenas. I’m not sure what the total size is of an actual character, but we have a pre-loader, so by the time the match starts, you’ve got all the assets you need. The characters themselves are very small. Right now we’re relying very heavily on the browser’s caching mechanisms and that’s been working very well. Our Flash engineer worked on Shr3d almost almost completely with a four-year-old laptop that’s basically a netbook just to make sure that we’re addressing [possible performance issues].
ISG: Now that you can render everything from animations to actual items in 3D, will you add more premium decoration features as a revenue stream?
Pelled: We haven’t yet. We have 10 new [arena] venues coming in the next few months. Some of them are very, very cool. There are more venues in different locations and obviously a person will have to buy them.
ISG: A lot of social game developers are beginning to think of 3D as an arms race. What is your attitude toward the rise of 3D in social games?
Pelled: We believe that Shr3d is giving us a competitive advantage because we’re not counting on people downloading any plugin or software, like Unity, which no doubt offers significantly higher capabilities. But how many people download the client, the plugin? You’re talking about less than 1% of Facebook users. So in that race, we’re not talking about the future, [we’re talking about the present]. We’re out there with the game and it’s in 3D and it looks very impressive. And it works on low-performing machines.
So there are going to be more [developers] coming in. We believe that a lot of them will require plugins and software. That’s going to be a challenge, especially when you’re talking about a social platform with a relatively short attention span. People need to get a game — maybe from a viral share — and instantly start to play. Not [be asked] to start a download or go to this, install this.
Neil Haldar: To add onto that, I would say that a lot of developers get caught up in 3D for 3D’s sake. I think I can envison an arms race where developers are trying to build lots of stuff in 3D. More than they need to. I think the philosophy that we took with the acceleration of Wrestler has been very specific. We haven’t built the whole thing in Flash; we’ve used a lot of HTML so that it renders really clear on a low-end machine. And we remain most compatible with older machines. I think that’s the probably the right way to allow us to scale with our own technology. It doesn’t require a download.
Fish: I think from the ground up we focused on lower polygon models. In doing so, we allow the download sizes to be much smaller. So basically it’s not going to look console quality, but the time to get started is much quicker. It looks pretty good. But the emphasis was on getting people [into the game]. You don’t download a 250 megs of assets in order to get started. Or a gig. Or World of Warcraft.
ISG: Is Shr3d something Rocket Ninja would consider licensing to other social game developers for their own games?
Pelled: Right now, that’s not part of our strategy. [Shr3d] is definitely a big competitive advantage. Part of our strategy [is to be] an accelerator. The more games we come to an agreement with a developer on, [the more we’d use the engine]. Mostly likely, we would buy [the game], or reach some kind of business terms [with the developer] so that they can benefit from [our] proprietary technology. It’s case-by-case scenario. In this specific case of Wrestler, we bought the game and we actually even had the developers join the company, so it’s a full acquisition.
[Editor’s Note: What Pelled means here is that Rocket Ninja is not interested in handing over the engine to other developers to experiment with, much the way that Epic Games does with its Unreal game engine in the console and PC video game space. Rather, he’s talking about a case-by-case agreement process where Rocket Ninja would acquire or partially acquire a single game at a time to give it the acceleration treatment with the Shr3d engine the way it did for Wrestler. So far, Rocket Ninja has not announced plans to acquire any other new games.]
ISG: Just before Rocket Ninja bought Wrestler, the company announced a $3.5 million round of investment. How much of this funding went into development on Shr3d versus what Rocket Ninja spent on marketing the game?
Pelled: So far, we’ve barely even started marketing. We bought the game in December. We really started work on it in January. The last four months have been devoted to the acceleration part, which is broken into making the game 3D, introducing new mechanics, introducing new virality components […] And two three weeks from now, we’re going to open the floodgates and start to expand [marketing]. So far, not even 20% [of the funding] went to marketing.