A New Milestone - An exclusive look inside Italian developer Milestone

A New Milestone - An exclusive look inside Italian developer Milestone
Florence Beaumont

By Florence Beaumont

July 18th 2017 at 2:40PM

Not only has the studio changed engine, but it's been a full service for Milestone over the past five years. Develop sent Sean Cleaver to check out one of the biggest, and perhaps riskiest, evolutions in racing games development.

Where the older, historical part of Milan gives way to the newer, modern buildings and offices, you’ll find the offices of Milestone. On the street of Via Olona, you can turn one way and see the walls and buildings of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, the terracotta roof tiles and the spires of the Duomo di Milano. Turn the other, and you’ll find the newer tenement blocks, the offices and the science museum that has a Cold War submarine, the Enrico Toti, sitting outside it.

Milestone is at a turning point as a studio. Over 20 years, it has established itself as a racing game developer. Heavy investment in technology and expansion of licences and IPs are seen as the next step. Just as the studio sits between the old and the new in Milan, it hovers between its history and its future and the team is ready for the risks ahead.

Milestone is at a turning point as a studio. Over twenty years, it has established itself as a racing game developer

 

The studio is renowned for its experience in racing game development. However, beyond its notable game releases and the notoriety such experience brings, not much is known about the studio outside of its native Italy.

Now Milestone is expanding, trying to build new IPs on top of its established licensed franchise entries, and looking to future proof its technology with Epic Games' Unreal Engine. Milestone wants the world to know who they are.

The studio isn't just looking to show off the improvements that come with a new engine, but a whole new ethos. One of the things you'll hear a lot if you speak to anyone from Milestone is that the company has undergone a reinvention that was like starting from scratch. A change in upper management has seen a switch from relative comfort and satisfactory returns, to greater risk and even higher reward.

20 years is a long time in the games industry. In order to appreciate Milestone's plans for the future, we must first look to its past.

 

HISTORY

The studio originally started out under the name Graffiti in 1994. During that time, the studio released a game called Screamer, an MS-DOS racing game that brought the same style of arcade racing that the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were offering at the time. The series grew with the release of Screamer 2 and Screamer Rally as Graffiti became Milestone in 1996, and the games moved away from the arcade styling to the more simulation based titles that the studio is now known for.


The first licensed game came in the form of Superbike World Championship, published by EA.
It was Milestone’s first foray into the world of motorbikes. For the next few years, the company concentrated on this until enteringa partnership with Infogrames and starting to develop games specifically for consoles.


At this point, Milestone was gaining notoriety as a racing game studio and also started to take on work-for-hire projects. Licences from Alfa Romero and TV show The X-Factor all helped, although the team itself stayed relatively small. The team also managed to continue its work on superbikes with SBK 07 and started working with MotoGP.


At this point though, Milestone was beginning to hit problems.

 We have to invest in technology. Technology is the core of a video game


 Irvin Zonca, Milestone

A big leap was about to be made with the next generation of consoles, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Milestone, like many other studios at the time, found that developing for these new machines was a struggle. Despite the teething problems the studio experienced, Milestone took on new licences and returned to four wheels with World Rally Championship in 2010.


The R&D department worked on building and honing the engine that had served them for many years. But the quality of games the team was delivering was, on reflection, not what it could have been thanks to the limitations of the engine. The company is now very honest that the management vision at the time was constricting the studio’s ability to deliver that quality.


Irvin Zonca is the head of game design at Milestone and has been at the company for 12 years. Develop spoke with him last month about the switch to Unreal Engine and the challenges it brought to new IP Gravel. This time, we’re talking frankly about the studio’s history. We start with the biggest change he’s seen during his time at the company.


“It’s probably been the management,” Zonca explains. “Because until five years ago we had another manager. I was just the head of a very small group of gameplay designers, just three or four people. The former manager wasn’t thinking big enough. He was just reiterating what we were doing, he wasn’t considering expanding the company. He wasn’t considering taking risks, and so on. So, everything was quite plain. It was not easy at all, but we had to ask ourselves, ‘Where are we heading? What do we want to do? Do we want to keep up with our competitors or not?’.


“The first iteration of our engine is from back in 2010,” Zonca says. “It was already the child of
a previous one that was created years before. It was an engine that was getting old in almost every way. We couldn’t create open worlds, the shaders were not great. It was quite old. Not flexible at all. It was okay for 15 years ago, maybe not even for ten years ago, but we talked with them and we said, ‘We have to invest in technology. Technology is the core of a video game’. So this was the key, but the manager wasn’t listening to us. He wasn’t eager to impress our customers.”


One of the founding members at Graffiti. Ivan Del Duca, stayed with the company until 2001. He’s not long returned to the company as a technical director, but while he was working elsewhere he was becoming dismayed at the products that Milestone was producing. “When I was external to the company, I was a bit worried because there has been a period where I was not quite satisfied as a gamer by the products that Milestone made,” he tells me. “And this was one of my fears before returning to Milestone. Would I have the opportunity to make some changes to improve the quality?”

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