As Agencies Keep Adapting, Game Engines Emerge as an Effective Tool to Keep Work Going

The Mill is finding success using platforms like Unity and Unreal

a man dancing
The Mill used game engines for a Google Pixel 3 ad featuring Childish Gambino.
Google

Key insights:

Agencies continue to morph their processes as they navigate an uncertain future. Most notably, as the COVID-19 crisis rapidly unfolded, production has taken a hit. Shoots were either delayed or canceled. And though it’s admirable that agencies and brands continue to find ways to create, a steady diet of stock imagery and user-generated content may wear out its welcome.

For their part, production companies are also continuing to search for the best way forward. In the case of The Mill, the team has found itself getting into a rhythm early in the crisis. A global outfit with six offices spread around the world, the company—and its engineering team, specifically—moved mountains quickly. In about seven days, the entirety of The Mill’s workforce became fully distributed. But the question remained about how not to lose a beat with clients.

“The first conversation with clients was, ‘Can you keep doing what we already have you on?’ and ‘Can you keep going?’ The answer to both was yes,” said Boo Wong, The Mill’s global director of emerging technology. “The next ask was whether or not we could take on more work. And the answer to that was also yes.”

While The Mill relies heavily on some of the most powerful production tools in the business, such as the Adobe suite of products, the agency found that game engines like Unity and Unreal are proving to be essential weapons in its arsenal. Since large-scale productions are shelved for the time being, smaller teams were shifted to design and animation-centric work.

The main benefit of using game engines for production is that they can render content much faster than more traditional tools. For its part, The Mill has extensive experience using the platforms on entertainment projects for musical artists like Lady Gaga and Cashmere Cat. In the brand world, the technology is behind work for brands like Chevrolet, Monster.com and, more recently, a spot for Google Pixel with Childish Gambino, including animation and character modeling by Nexus Studios.

According to Wong, the agency’s experiential clients that usually work in more physical spaces are looking to develop virtual activations and digital experiences. In this scenario, game engines could prove to be beneficial in creating new ways to connect with consumers sheltered at home.

Augmented reality and virtual reality are natural connections to game engines,” she said. “What’s interesting is that VR is still a nascent area. Despite all of the noise about it a few years ago, it’s struggled. In some ways, with people at home, this may be a good time for us and our clients to consider what to do on that platform. When it’s used effectively, it’s an incredible tool to get a community together.”

But where The Mill may squeeze the most juice out of game engines is in its collaborative environment. Unlike other production platforms, work is done in real time and allows clients to be part of the process, instead of the more common practice of work being sent back and forth for feedback and approvals.

“This is something powerful on a normal day,” Wong noted. “Now, it’s particularly important and critical as it lets clients interact with us in real-time.”

Looking ahead, all agencies are noting what is working well in fully distributed workforces. It’s still early in the process, but Wong believes there is plenty to learn as more and more output emerges from what has become production’s “new normal.”

“A month from now, I’m sure we’ll see some amazing stories from The Mill and other agencies,” she said. “It’s exciting, even in such a difficult time, to see where these grand flashes of innovative thinking can come from.”

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