If you’ve been to an arcade or living room lately, you know that video games have come a long way since the days of PAC-MAN. What you might not know is just how closely the technology behind the scenes looks like the PC under your desk, and how the battle to capture gamers hearts has evolved since the emergence of consoles and mobile phones.
At the OEM CTO Summit (part of DellWorld 2011), I bumped into Andy Eloff of Raw Thrills and sprung at the chance to talk through the world of modern Arcade gaming. If you’ve played Big Buck Hunter, Dirty Drivin or Frogger, you’ve played a Raw Thrills machine.
Josh: What makes Raw Thrills distinct in the market?
Andy: Our company is owned and operated by a passionate game designer, Eugene Jarvis, an early employee of Atari. He designed Defender, the bestselling arcade game of all time. We are committed to making great games as a first priority, so we keep a small staff and get high technology leverage. While have built a great business, we are not working for the money. This is a blending of passion and hobby.
Josh: High technology leverage?
Andy: Yes, we prefer to leverage other people’s technology investments so we can hire only brilliant people, Dell’s technology included. It would take another team of people to recreate the entire technology stack from scratch, and there are only so many great minds on the market. Soon you end up diluting your staff, commitment and talent – especially if the budget stays the same.
We have 70 employees including 11 engineers, and that team shipped 10,000 games last year.
Josh: Describe the inside of an arcade game for us.
Andy: The brain is a Dell computer. It manages the inputs, outputs and controls. Everything else is a USB peripheral that plugs into the box. This includes custom electronics attached to computer to control motors, coin meters, switches, etc.
Josh: You are a Dell OEM Solutions customer today, but you used to be a whitebox customer. What happened to cause the switch?
Andy: Whitebox vendors had hit-or-miss quality, and we got tired of trying to manage quality on the backend. We have found Dell’s quality to be incredible, which keeps us focused on making better games rather than troubleshooting failures.
Operators expect to be able to operate games for 10 years. This means we have a huge install base dispersed around the world, and travel time to and from games are expensive. Minimizing downtime keeps the operator happy and keeps our support costs low.
Since transition to Dell, we have drastically reduced service calls to operators.
Josh: How do you decide what technology you want to develop yourself vs. purchase from a vendor like Dell?
Andy: Gaming is always pushing the limits of today’s technology. We are always trying to stay one step ahead. You see a new area to improve, you develop the technology at a high cost, then component vendors catch up to these needs, lowering your costs but leveling the playing field. Then you repeat the cycle.
For example, game manufacturers used to have to create their own 3D graphics hardware because standard graphics were not impressive enough for games. Yet, eventually custom electronics became a losing battle as 3D graphics became standardized. Now it’s hard to get much payback with inventing even better graphics. There’s a very large group of people who can’t tell the difference between a Wii and a PS3.
That’s where Raw Thrills came in. We realized that off the shelf PC components could handle the needs of video games, including not just game logic and graphics, but other functions that make the game more immersive. Rather than spending time on custom computing hardware, we spend time on coming up with the mechanics to make a racing game’s seat move in a realistic fashion to complement the game play. Or we spend time working on motion capture.
But the cycle continues; Xbox and Wii are now looking at motion and outside the box as well.
Josh: Yes, the innovation seems to be around the mechanics of gameplay. Which new technology is the most exciting to Raw Thrills because of the impact it could have on gaming?
Andy: That’s easy. Immersive virtual reality is what we are watching now. This includes motion control, autostereoscopic vision (3D/dual vision) and allowing the player to interact directly with the environment.
Josh: I can’t wait to see what you have up your sleeve. Thank you for your time, Andy.
Andy: The pleasure is mine. I look forward to seeing you again soon and at the next OEM CTO Summit.