Playing for Keeps

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.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

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 experiences 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 perfected.

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 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 a 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.

After leaving EA and striking out as an independent, Reis discovered there was no programming language he could rely on to develop his own video-game projects. He had a big idea: just like at any other video-game company, why not create his own programming language?

“I got a grant from the B.C. Innovation Council and created Ergo, my own programming language for video games,” says Reis.

Another big idea Reis incorporated into Ergo in 1995 was to distribute processing power to run the program across a network of computers, at least a decade before the rise of “cloud computing.” But best of all, says Reis, Ergo dramatically simplified and reduced the amount of coding required to produce a video game.

LucasArts, the pioneering video game company founded by George Lucas, heard about Reis’s creation and invited him to work in the San Francisco Bay area  to help refine their own in-house programming language.

“While working on video-game titles such as Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, I ended up creating a new programming language for LucasArts called Chewiescript (named after the Star Wars character Chewbacca) that was designed for practicality, performance and scalability,” says Reis.

At LucasArts, Reis came up with yet another big idea: he found a way to continue to reuse his video-game programming language and avoid reinventing the wheel each time he moved to a new game studio.

“One of the first things I did when I went to LucasArts was I wrote an IP-licensing agreement,” he says. “So, throughout my video- game career, with every company I worked at and every project I’ve been on, I would license the tech. That’s not something that was generally done when creating video-game scripting languages.”

This one big idea has meant that, as a programming language, SkookumScript incorporates 20 years of evolution and hard work. And now Reis and his team are ready to take on the world.

“About 40 per cent of the $100-billion global video-game industry is devoted to gameplay development costs,” says Reis. “Software development is expensive, so SkookumScript offers a chance to free up resources and also free up creativity by allowing those ‘light coders’ to try out ideas and refine their games.”

So far, Reis and Agog Labs have set up a deal that incorporates SkookumScript into Unreal Engine, a game-development tool that’s used to create about 20 per cent of all games. There are also plans to integrate it into the two other industry-standard game engines.

A Big Vision
So what’s Conan Reis’s next big idea?

“We plan to scale up to a 60-person games studio, based right here in Victoria,” says Reis. “We want to take crazy ideas and turn them into awesome games that showcase our technology.”

At the moment, thanks to the partnership with Unreal, SkookumScript is being used in 97 countries by developers from hundreds of studios.

“But,” say Reis, “we are just getting started.”