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We interview EA Tiburon about their innovative game Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online powered by Unity 3D

Back in early August we were invited to attend a Unity 3D party and info session which left us intrigued with this new technology. By the end of the two days we had one major question on our minds: Is Unity 3D the future development platform for Mobile, Browser, PSN, Wii and XBLA?

Well obviously the people who developed the technology and invited us to the party say "Of course it's the future!" But what do 3rd party developers think of this platform? Well, we thought we'd ask one! And who better to talk to then Tiburon, the Electronic Arts studio that developed the most recent Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online using the Unity 3D engine.

We got to sit down for a little Q&A with the games producer Greg Rinaldi and find out what his take is on the Unity 3D platform.

Q: Where did the idea come from to deploy "EA SPORTS Tiger Woods" via a web-browser rather than retail?

A: Many factors contributed to our decision to release Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online as a browser-based product.  Our retail PC product was seeing little growth and we felt that the static nature of a disc-based game afforded us very little in terms of innovation.  We needed to take the franchise in new directions that would allow us to harness the power of the internet as a delivery platform for interactive media.  Creating Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online as a browser-based experience, where all of the content lives on a server, rather than on the client PC, gives us a lot more control and affords us with the ability to update and add to the experience on-the-fly.  We are approaching Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online as a service rather than as a static experience; meaning that the title will evolve with the audience and content will be driven by what our users want the most.

Q: How did you learn about and/or make the decision to use Unity 3D?

A: We’d heard some rumblings in the development community about Unity 3D, but what really left an impression was when we saw the jungle environment demo on their website.  We were blown away when we saw such high-quality 3D visuals being rendered inside a web browser, and after some deeper investigation into the engine and tools, the development team was sold on the technology.

Q: Coming from a retail console culture, was Unity 3D a hard sell internally? Or was everyone pretty keen on using it?
A: The development team was eager to get our hands on the technology and we were pretty confident that we would be able to harness the Unity 3D engine to create an online version of Tiger Woods PGA TOUR.  We spent some time working with the Unity 3D engine and toolset to build a functional prototype of Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online.  The results surprised everyone and generated a high level of confidence at the studio that we would be able to deliver a product that meets the high watermark for quality here at EA SPORTS.

Q: How much of the existing art and code assets from original "Tiger Woods" were you able to use, and how much did you have to develop from scratch?
A: We developed our pipelines in such a way that we were able to leverage many of our art assets from our Tiger Woods PGA TOUR console products – specifically course art and assets, which allow us to have the same level of quality and attention to detail as our console brethren.  Of course, because Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online is a streamed experience, we needed to optimize the art assets in such a way to allow quick download times for our users.  Currently, on a high speed connection it takes under a minute to load course assets when starting a game.  As for code, we’ve taken a novel approach to how the game code for Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online is architected.  On the console products and prior PC products, all of the game code lived on the client.  This is not the case for Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online.  Many of our decisions were driven by the game being streamed from a server.  Due to the need to maintain security while providing a seamless, portable streaming game experience, we’ve moved many key game functions to the server, reserving a minimum of game logic for the client.  This allows us to control the experience more closely while significantly reducing the risk of cheaters or hackers having access to game code or assets.

Q: To give a sense of retail console development vs. online browser development: How was the budget, team size and development cycle for the project effected by using Unity 3D?

A: Using Unity 3D allowed us to have a much more efficient budget, team size and timeline than we would have had if we’d decided to build our own solution from scratch.  Unity was an excellent jumping off point and allowed us to get to a playable prototype in about a month’s time with a team of approximately 5 people.  By the time we launch Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online, we’d have been working on the project for about a year with a team of about 15-20 developers. 

Q: Having now worked with Unity what was your overall experience (positive/negative)?

A: We’ve definitely had an overall positive experience using Unity 3D for Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online.  It’s a surprisingly powerful game engine considering that we’re able to run a game with the quality level of Tiger Woods PGA TOUR inside a web browser.  Whenever we demo the game for a new group of people, they always come away impressed and a little shocked at the technology that powers the experience.  Additionally, the level of support we’ve received from the Unity 3D team has been invaluable.  It’s obvious that they really care about their clients as they have made a huge impact on our project and continue to provide excellent customer service.

Q: One thread in the Unity forum has to do with client vulnerability from hackers online - was this an issue?

A: The nature of PC titles is that they are always vulnerable to some type of exploit from unscrupulous individuals.  Where Unity 3D and Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online are able to combat this is that we have moved most of our game logic to the server.  This means we can much more accurately monitor user activity and take action against cheaters and hackers.  It’s going to be much more difficult for people to cheat and hack our title than with other client-based PC titles.

Q: Having played the new update (V3) and seeing the addition of new courses, avatar customization, etc. I suspect the title will likely move to a micropayment model a la "EA Battlefield Heroes" upon release.  Can fans look forward to a freemium scenario or will there also be a subscription fee?
A: At the moment we’re planning to offer Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online as a subscription-based experience.  We feel that this is currently the best way to ensure that we can provide the highest-level of service to our customers.  While subscriptions are our priority for launch, we are also exploring other options to expand the experience to larger audience with a variety of payment options.  I can’t reveal too many details on these alternate options, but we will be announcing more details on our business model in the coming weeks leading up to our commercial launch.

Q: Do you feel that "Tiger Woods Online" signals the future of gaming - more specifically - the migration of 3D multiplayer games from the console into the cloud?
A: It definitely feels as though we’re at the dawn of a new era in gaming and in fact, in digital media as a whole.  The trend lately seems to be leaning towards more and more digital content migrating into the cloud.  Music, movies and now games are readily available to anyone with a solid internet connection.  This is a by-product of the proliferation of high-speed internet access and will only get more prevalent as hardware improves and bandwidth increases.  However, I strongly feel that there is still a place for consoles and will be for the foreseeable future.  In the case of the Tiger Woods PGA TOUR franchise, each product offers its own unique experience based on its delivery method.  The Xbox 360/PS3 titles give you an incredibly immersive, realistic experience that you can play on your giant HD-ready TV.  The Wii gives you that tactile golf experience where you can swing a virtual club in your living room.  Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online provides an anytime/anywhere portable gaming experience you can play at home, at the office or at the airport…basically anywhere you have a solid internet connection.  Also, Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online allows users to suspend and resume their game at any time; an essential feature for time-conscious players who need to squeeze in their golfing fix between meetings, chores or other daily activities.  With the online product, you don’t have to make time for the game…instead the game fills the spaces in your life.  Similar to the way people use Facebook or Twitter to pass the time when online, Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online will have a similar place in the lives of our audience.  That said, I should also mention that this is still a fully-featured Tiger Woods PGA TOUR product.  So if you have hours to spend playing this title, that in-depth golf experience is there for you as well.

Q: What is the future for Tiburon and do you feel "Tiger Woods" and Unity will shift the business model of the company?
A: While I can’t speak to the overall business model for EA SPORTS, it is obvious that Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online does represent a new direction for us on the PC/Mac platform.  If this title is a success, I’m confident that other titles in the EA SPORTS stable of games will follow suit. 

Thanks Greg!

So there you have it. A big thanks to EA Tiburon for taking the time to get back to us. We hope that any developers (or future developers) out there find this information useful. If you have used the unity platform before let us know your thoughts in the comments below.