New technologies for old problem

Posted: 04.10.13

Could the game industry really be the source of salvation?

Years ago, when I worked at a publishing house I was on a committee to figure out how the company would go digital. This was a publishing company that was already more than a hundred years old. It had hundreds of titles and millions of back issues. Usually we spent the first part of every meeting staring at each other in horror. The last 15 minutes were dedicated to screaming at each other.

A big part of the problem was we didn’t even understand what was meant by “going digital.” By this time the production of the magazines was digital but there was still a great deal of paper material, and distribution was print of course. What happened to the digital version of the magazine after print? Would we have to go back and digitize all the old material and magazines? We did realize that someday we would to distribute the magazines digitally. We welcomed the economic and environmental advantages of going digital from print. We had no idea our jobs were going to disappear.

We also found out every magazine had a different policy towards archiving materials and data for published magazines. We didn’t even know where that stuff went—a file cabinet? A warehouse? Heaven? Now we were being told we’d have to develop a plan to archive that stuff and make it available for repurposing, research, collaboration.

What a laugh. We gradually began to understand the best we could do was try and have a plan for the future. To somehow ensure digital data remained as fluid as possible for practical reuse. To figure out some kind of tracking and documentation system so we’d know where everything was stored and in what format. I’m almost certain that none of that happened.

Flash forward probably about 20 years. The idea of publishing has been completely redefined and the mind boggles at the amount of content that has probably been lost as surely as silent movies went up in flames decades ago. As is well known, many thousands of jobs have been lost. And we’re looking at a new phase in media where probably more jobs will be lost, while what was the print industry is turning into something that includes music, video, and photos. Media is blending together along a great digital continuum.

Problems persist. In the great rush to digital, the system has become even more confused. Recently Adobe told us about the chaos experienced in the photography and video world as digital data exists in networks all over the place. Ironically, says one veteran, “We used to painstakingly log in every shot with metadata. Every one hated it, but now, because the content is all digital, we just bring it in, but the names are not meaningful and we don’t know what we have.” The layer of overhead associated with managing content and adding metadata has not improved for most companies, it’s gotten worse.

There are some who attribute the current problems of the visual effects industry to problems in communication and management. Companies bidding as close to the bone as possible have to know how much they’re spending on every shot and yet some of the companies are depending on systems as basic as an Excel spreadsheet. Many different companies may be working on a project and the content doesn’t even look the same. The problems get worse as the companies struggle, and sometimes when another company comes in to pick up the pieces, the same shots are redone.

The game industry and the film industry has long been plagued by kinked up pipelines as content gets munged in the process of exchanging it between software programs and different disciplines. Sharing content is a terrible problem. Knowing where the content is another problem and collaboration is as much about walking to the next cubicle as it is communicating across the world via the Internet.

The challenges suffered by the VFX industry are portentous. Things cannot go on this way. The same is true for the game industry. Most are not quite miserable enough now, but they’re getting there and companies are closing. The transition to new consoles has always been traumatic in the past. It’s likely it will be traumatic this time.

Ironically, it seems as if the game industry is busy building the infrastructure for salvation in the process of building online gaming networks. These networks must be fast, they require streamlined ways to handle content and billing. There must be a way to handle communications between customers and communications with customers. And, oh yeah, it has to be secure. If all that can be built, the same digital highways could provide a proficient path for communications between the people building content all over the world as well.

It’s interesting, or perhaps merely a tortured metaphor. History could repeat itself. It was the game industry that stimulated the development of low-cost 3D graphics chips. The game industry is taking physics from the computers of engineers and giving it to game developers who’ll to blow up virtual stuff. And now it’s taking networks away from IT and giving them to middle schoolers to play on.

The pieces to solving the complicated puzzle of more efficient digital content creation are all there. It’s just a matter of putting the puzzle together in a different way.

At least we had a committee.