Playing for Keeps
April 2, 2017
A Victoria tech firm is setting out to transform the multi-billion-dollar video-game industry with its superpowered programming language, SkookumScript - and it's catching the attention of some pretty big players.
CONAN REIS HAS A BIG IDEA: from his headquarters in Victoria, he wants to revolutionize a global industry that generates at least $100 billion a year and employs at least 10 million software developers. That industry is video gaming, and Reis and his team of "mad scientists" at Agog Labs have developed a programming language, SkookumScript, that makes it much easier to create video games, while saving time and money and increasing creativity.
After a journey that has taken him from Port Alberni to the heart of the video-game industry in San Francisco and back to Vancouver Island again, Reis says his solution for the industry is definitely not an overnight success.
"SkookumScript is the result of two decades of work," he says from his home office in Victoria (Agog Labs is a distributed company). "We developed it because of horrible experience we had making games."
SKOOKUM MEANS "IMPRESSIVE"
This innovative programming language is specifically designed for video-game development. It's called "skookum," Reis says, because as a scripting language it is powerful and easy to use. And there is nothing else like SkookumScript right now in the video-game industry.
"When you design a game, there are all sorts of things you're creating at the same time, such as music, world-building and 3D action, as well as the actual gameplay: the story, mission, logic, stage direction and AI [artificial intelligence]," says Reis.
Some sort of programming language has to pull everything together when video games are being designed so that gameplay can be tested, adjusted and perfect.
The problem, according to Reis, is that video games have never had a specialized programming language for dealing with gameplay. Instead, game studios have traditionally written their own scripting language, from scratch, for each game. When the game is completed, the programming language never gets used again.
"It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to use an out-of-the-box language like C++ to build a tool or scripting language that assembles all the components of the game to test gameplay," says Reis. "On top of that, only the people who build the tool know how to use it."
This means video-game designers, producers, and other "light coders" have to rely on engineers who know how to code in order to make and test even the tiniest changes to the game. While SkookumScript, which can be used even by people without a coding background, can save video-game developers time and money, as an easy-to-use authoring tool it also helps foster creativity.
"SkookumScript makes it easy to test and make changes during the development process," says Reis. "Designers no longer need to work with an engineer to try out ideas and perfect a game."
A FIRST FOR THE INDUSTRY
The big question: why hasn't anyone else ever thought of this before?
"In the beginning, whenever I told anyone I wanted to create an entirely new programming language, they said I was crazy," says Reis.
"When I was working on different video-game projects, it was as if people were using shovels to dig ditches, and they just wanted better shovels to dig ditches. When I showed them the equivalent of backhoe, they were amazed."
Reis has developed technologies and tools for the video-game industry for more than 20 years. After graduating with a degree in cognitive science ("My focus was on artificial intelligence," he says) from Simon Fraser University in 1995, he was immediately hired out of his co-op term with mega-gaming company Electronic Arts (EA), Canada, which has a large development campus in Burnaby.
"EA had their own programming language they used to develop games, and I discovered it was much easier to use than C++," says Reis.