Game Development Needs Data Pipeline Middleware

In 15 years I’ve worked at 7 different game studios, ranging from small to large, working on many different kinds of projects in a variety of roles.

At almost every studio, there was some way for the game to load data at runtime that controlled how it behaved – such as the damage a weapon would do or the cost of an item upgrade.

The studios that didn’t have this setup could definitely have benefited from having it. After all, this is how game designers do their job!

Sometimes though, this data was maintained via excel spreadsheets (export as csv for instance and have the game read that). That is nearly the worst case scenario for data management. Better though is to have an editor which can edit that data, preferably able to edit data described by schemas, which the game also uses to generate code to load that data.

Each studio I’ve worked at that did have game data each had their own solution for their data pipeline, and while they are all of varying qualities, I have yet to see something that is both fast and has most of the features you’d reasonably want or expect.

We really need some middleware to tackle this “solved problem” and offer it to us at a reasonable price so we can stop dealing with it. Open sourced would be fine too. Everyone from engineers to production to content people will be much happier and more productive!

Required Features

Here are the features I believe are required to satisfy most folks:

  1. Be able to define the structure of your data in some format (define data schema).
  2. Have an editor that is able to quickly launch, quickly load up data in the data schema and allow a nice interface to editing the data as well as searching the data.
  3. This edited data should be in some format that merges well (for dealing with branching), and preferably is standardized so you can use common tools on the data – such as XSLT if storing data as xml. XML isn’t commonly very mergable so not sure the solution there other than perhaps a custom merge utility perhaps?
  4. The “data solution” / project file should store your preferences about how you want the final data format to be: xml, json, binary, other? Checkboxes for compression and encryption, etc. Switching the data format should take moments.
  5. There should be a cooking process that can be run from the data editor or via command line which transforms the edited data into whatever format the destination data should be in. AKA turn the human friendly XML into machine friendly binary files which you load in with a single read and then do pointer fixup on.
  6. This pipeline should generate the code that loads and interacts with the data as described in the data schema. For instance you say “load my data” and it does all the decompression, decryption, parsing, etc giving you back a root data structure which contains compile time defined strongly typed structures. This is important because when you change the format of the data that the game uses, no game code actually has to know or care. Whatever it takes to load your data happens when you call the function.

Bonus Points

Here are some bonus point features that would be great to have:

  1. Handle live editing of data. When the game and editor is both open, and data is edited, have it change the data on the game side in real time, and perhaps allow a callback to be intercepted in case the game needs to clear out any cached values or anything. This helps iteration time by letting people make data changes without having to relaunch the game. Also needs to be able to connect to a game over tcp/ip and handle endian correction as needed as well as 32 vs 64 bit processes using the same data.
  2. Handle the usual problems associated with DLC and versioning in an intelligent way. Many data systems that support DLC / Patching / Schema Updates post ship have strange rules about what data you can and can’t change. Often times if you get it wrong, you make a bug that isn’t always obvious. If support for this was built in, and people didnt have to concern themselves with it, it’d be great.
  3. On some development environments, data must be both forwards and backwards compatible. Handling that under the covers in an intelligent way would be awesome.
  4. The editor should be extensible with custom types and plugins for visualizations of data, as well as interactive editing of data. This same code path could be used to integrate parts of the game engine with the editor for instance (slippery slope to making the editor slow, however).
  5. Being able to craft custom curves, and being able to query them simply and efficiently from the game side at runtime would be awesome.
  6. Support “cook time computations”. The data the user works with isn’t always set up the way that would be best for the machine. It’d be great to be able to do custom calculations and computations at runtime. Also great for building acceleration data structures.
  7. You should be able to run queries against the data or custom scripts. To answer questions like “Is anyone using this feature?” and “I need to export data from our game into a format that this other program can read”
  8. Being able to export data as c++ literal data structures, for people who want to embed (at least some of) their data in the exe to reduce complexity, loading times, etc.

It should also be as fast and lightweight as possible. It should allow games to specify memory and file i/o overrides.

Localized text is also a “solved problem” that needs an available solution. It could perhaps be rolled into this, or maybe it would make most sense for it to be separate.

As another example of how having something like this would be useful, on multiple occasions at previous studios, people have suggested we change the format of the data that the game uses at runtime. For instance, from json to a binary format. In each case this has come up so far, people have said it would take too long and it got backlogged (ie killed). With data pipeline middleware that works as i describe it, you would click a few checkboxes, recook your data and test it to have your runtime results. That’s as hard as it SHOULD be, but in practice it’s much harder because everyone rolls their own and the cobbler never has time to fix his shoes (;

Anyone out there want to make this happen? (:

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About Demofox

I'm a game and engine programmer at Blizzard Entertainment and have been making games since 1990 (starting out with QBasic and TI-85 games) My shipped titles include: * Heroes of the Storm * StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm & Legacy of the void * Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (PC) * Gotham City Impostors (PC, 360, PS3) * Line Rider (PC, Wii, DS) I also like hiking, making music, learning cool new stuff and attempting the impossible.