Working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Jon Favreau, Nev Spiteri has created some of film and gaming’s most incredible visual sequences. Now the CEO of Wevr has gone all in on building software to enable others to create their own virtual worlds — and to do so seamlessly via the cloud. The goal is to help creators spend more time creating, and less time configuring, updating, and debugging.
On this episode, we dig into the unique needs that 3D world creators have, why version control is so critical to them, and how the pandemic led Wevr to move fully into cloud-based collaboration. Nev also peers into the future to share how augmented, virtual, and mixed reality, combined with the latest generation of AI, might change our world in “strange and seemingly bizarre ways”.
Listen to Nev Spiteri on Crafted, Artium’s podcast about great products and the people who make them.
Full transcript below — but we recommend you listen for the best experience.
Nev Spiteri: Creators want to spend their time creating and less time dealing with the infrastructure and the tooling, and we believe that we’re enablers.
Dan Blumberg: That’s Nev Spiteri, CEO of Wevr, an award-winning interactive software studio that’s been breaking new ground in gaming and visual effects since 2010. Nev is both a computer scientist and a creative, and not only has he built tools to create special effects, he’s also directed incredible visual sequences himself, collaborating with the likes of Steven Spielberg and John Favreau. When he formed Wevr with his co-founders, the idea was to create a new type of studio for 3D content, but what he ended up doing was developing a whole new way to collaborate.
Nev Spiteri: As much as a company, we’ve been involved in creating these projects and experiences, we’ve been equally very excited about the underlying technology that enables creators.
Dan Blumberg: On this episode, we dig into the unique needs that film and game developers have, why version control is so critical to them, and how the pandemic led Wevr to go all in on cloud-based collaboration with Wevr Virtual Studio. Plus, I ask Nev to peer into the not-too-distant future of augmented, mixed, and virtual reality.
Nev Spiteri: If you combine that with what’s happening with generative AI, you can really see the opportunity within five years where people can very much customize their reality in very strange and seemingly bizarre ways.
Dan Blumberg: Welcome to Crafted, a show about great products and the people who make them. I’m your host, Dan Blumberg. I’m a product and engagement leader at Artium, where my colleagues and I help companies build incredible products, recruit high-performing teams, and help you achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone.
Nev Spiteri: My fascination around animation and digital content creation really started with my first video game that I played when I was 11 years old, and that’s where I really got the bug around the possibilities of creating digital products. I went to college, studied computer science, and my first job out of school was working for a company called Wavefront in the early ’90s. Wavefront is best known for the software called Maya, which is a 3D animation system that is still one of the industry standard animation platforms in use today 30 years later. I still remember my first day on the job at Wavefront, and it was just incredible to be using these early silicone graphics machines and seeing the capability and what’s possible in terms of digital animation. This was really the early days of what used to be called flying logos in TV commercials, when computer graphics was really being used for the first time. This was before Jurassic Park and before a lot of the big boom of animation in movies in the early ’90s.
Dan Blumberg: After Wavefront, Nev, moved into some high profile projects with the Rolling Stones Universal Studios in the Apollo 13 movie starring Tom Hanks.
Tom Hanks: Houston, we have a problem.
Nev Spiteri: That was really my first foray in creating digital visual effects for all of these outer space shots that were part of that film, and I really got the bug of how cool it is to be able to create imagery that couldn’t be done otherwise, couldn’t be shot with a regular camera in the real world. So these were some of the early formative years, which eventually really led me to become super passionate about games and real-time 3D type of experiences.
Dan Blumberg: Nev worked as a digital FX supervisor, and until 2008, he directed video game development at Electronic Arts.
Nev Spiteri: Wevr was found in 2010. It was really the culmination of the previous couple of decades of my journey in animation, feature film, visual effects work, and then crossing over to real-time computer graphics and working in video games. The impetus for forming Wevr was really around the possibility of developing a new kind of digital studio that is creating new kinds of real-time 3D content. It could be games, it could be interactive story experiences, eventually VR, et cetera. There was one specific product in particular called TheBlu, which was essentially our first movie or the first product that we wanted to develop as a studio.
TheBlu, essentially, started as a digital ocean simulation with different 3D species that are swimming around from computer to computer across the internet. The founders, Scott Yara, myself, really had a deep passion for the ocean and wanted to really celebrate the beauty of the ocean. The passion that the founding team had was really around the possibility of using technology and how technology’s advancing our capabilities to create stories and interactive games. That was a really exciting sequence of steps where, after Electronic Arts, I was like, “Now is the time. Here’s the opportunity to go chase this dream that I had since much earlier.” And that’s how the journey began. The through line here is that in as much as a company we’ve been involved in creating these projects and experiences, we’ve been equally very excited about the underlying technology that enables creators, designers, animators, 3D modelers to create products like this. That was what led us as a company to always be thinking about not just the game and the experience itself, but what’s the underlying technology and platform that enables it.
Dan Blumberg: Lots of creators work on these projects. There are game designers, software engineers, 3D artists, sound designers, story and narrative creators, shaders, QA, and that’s just to name a few.
Nev Spiteri: The process of figuring out how to all be on the same page, how to make the music together, if you will, is quite challenging, actually. COVID exacerbated that and has actually forced many game teams, including ours and companies, to better figure out what processes you need to be able to bring it all together. Like anything else, it’s a lot of communication and streamlining the means of communications. Then beyond that, it’s really about how you share progress, whether you’re the art team iterating on the worlds and the characters and wanting to be able to share how that’s coming together versus the engineers who are building the various game mechanics versus the designers who are testing out certain play concepts. Ultimately, it comes together in what’s referred to as the build, because a game ultimately is, it’s not just a sequence of images like a movie. It’s actually a piece of software, and so the build is where it comes together.
The main through line of how all of this work collaboration gets baked into the thing that everyone gets to play test is a whole series of tools and infrastructure, the core of which is what’s referred to as version control software. Git is very well known, probably the most popular version control software in the world. There’s a platform called GitHub that tens of millions of developers around the world use, and at the core of that is version control, which allows various creators on the team, as they’re making new versions, it’s all being checked in, and you’ve got this automatic tracking of all of these different versions that are available online, and then the code and the assets.
It all gets built through a compilation process, and you really want to try to optimize that and automate as much of that in the cloud because you have multiple team members working from different locations, and so you want to have, as much as possible, really tighten the loop from when a creator is making a change or an improvement and seeing the end result and being able to play it when you’ve got people around the world doing that together.
Dan Blumberg: You built a lot of these tools for yourself over the last decade plus at Wevr, and I’d love to understand how you then made the decision to take the software you’d built internally and make it available for others and create a whole new business line.
Nev Spiteri: Yes. Like most other game studios or game companies throughout the world, we had to build our own pipeline. We had to use some combination of off-the-shelf software, this version control tool, this issue tracking tool. We had to set up our own servers and make things essentially work. That’s a process that all game teams have to go through. You have to set up your own pipeline. There’s lots of inefficiencies there and lots of challenges that are introduced in the course of building a game because it’s easy for things to break. Right before COVID, we as a company were working on a very large project with Warner Brothers, a Harry Potter virtual reality project, and that was a three-year-long project. In the course of doing that, as COVID hit, it became really apparent to us that there’s a whole bunch of optimizations and improvements that we needed to make the production process better.
We started building out various components with version control, with build automation. We have over 80 plus contractors that were distributed in various geographic locations, and we started to really understand how to make this better. As the project shifted and we came out of COVID, it really became very apparent to us that there’s a gap in the market. That the same problems we were encountering, every single other game team that we knew was also going through the same pain. There was a little bit of an aha moment with which Marcel, I, and Anthony had that this tooling and this infrastructure really could be made available as a service, and there’s probably a really exciting business here to go after. A couple of years ago, we started to test the hypothesis, so we started to move down the path of saying, “Okay, how do we now really productize this service and go through all of the motions of typical agile software development to really turn this into a robust and ongoing SaaS platform?”
That’s when we engaged with Artium and really wanted to partner with a company that can help us, A, get a team accelerated and in place that is really optimized towards building software as a service. That was the beginning of us building out Wevr Virtual Studio, as we came to call the platform and virtual studio. The name tries to capture this whole thing that we’ve been talking about. It’s all of the services you would expect if you were in a game studio, but it’s all virtual. It’s all available in the cloud. A game team that is starting out today doesn’t have to worry about on-prem hardware, how to cobble together all of these various tools. They can sign up for Wevr Virtual Studio and, at their fingertips, have access to a lot of expertise and infrastructure from decades plus of game development experts.
Dan Blumberg: How did you identify your early customers, do the validation work that you just described, and know that there was really truly a market for what you were considering building?
Nev Spiteri: There was a combination of things. One was our own bruises, our own, literally, pain that we’ve experienced for many years. That was a really strong motivation to go after something better. Secondly, we had some hunches based on our personal network, and then we obviously wanted to go a step further and validate that.
Dan Blumberg: To make sure they weren’t just drinking their own Kool-Aid. Nev and his team set up early access to their platform, did a few posts on LinkedIn, and got a conversation going.
Nev Spiteri: There were two themes which were emerging. One is, the feedback we were getting was like, “Yeah, we’d like it to be easier. We want something that allows us to go faster.” So ease translates to speed, and the second was cost, because the reinventing of the wheel ends up requiring your team to build out your own in-house expertise and dedicated resources. So if you just look at it from a cost basis perspective, we can be way more efficient by optimizing one platform and really being focused on the platform that services those needs. That signal was strong enough for us to be like, “Okay, let’s keep going.”
Dan Blumberg: On your website, you say one of the things that Wevr Virtual Studio premises is to lower the technical bar required to get set up. Could you elaborate a bit on that?
Nev Spiteri: I think there’s this general notion that when you want to set up your game studio, that all you got to do is go to the Unreal or Unity site, download the engine, and you’re done. You’re good to go. In a sense, that is true. These engines are incredibly powerful, most amazing pieces of software. The fact of the matter is, though, the minute you actually start to build your game and you are involving, “Oh, you now need to bring on your next person, the second person on the team, or the third person.” And if you are working remotely, you very quickly realize that there’s a bunch of things you have to start to think about, including configuring your computers with the right versions of software and, “Okay, I’m going to use Perforce. I have to pay these per-user license fees. We’ve got five people on the team and only one engineer on the budget, and now their whole time is going into fixing the build and supporting the other team members. Oh, shit.”
All of those elements, we solve out of the box. That’s what we mean by we’re lowering the barrier to entry because it is now possible and we’re seeing more and more, especially younger folks who are growing up wanting to become game designers. You quickly want to be focused on making the game itself, and you perhaps haven’t had to deal with all of the infrastructure requirements to actually get it going.
Dan Blumberg: You also advertise on the site that one of the goals is to bring DevOps best practices from web development to real-time 3D development. I wonder if you could just expand a little bit more on what some of those best practices are and what that means in a 3D or XR context.
Nev Spiteri: Yes, so that’s actually a very important theme. Over the last decades, there’s been this incredible evolution in best practices around what’s now generally called DevOps, and at the core of DevOps is CICBCD, continuous integration, build, and deployment. It’s a set of software development practices that have developed that really optimize the process and allow you to reduce error, increase velocity, collaboration, a holder. There’s a whole set of benefits. Now, in game development, it’s been much slower for those practices to get adopted, and even five years ago, I would say most game teams, if you talk to them about what’s CICBCD and DevOps, it’s like, “What do you mean? What’s that?” And that’s really shifting now, and a lot of devs, they are growing up on GitHub, but there’s a whole bunch of nuance and specific complexity that is unique to games.
Even the automation of the build process itself and getting these engines to run seamlessly in the cloud with the right configuration, there’s a whole set of complexity that is not addressed in the traditional web DevOps stacks. That was part of the gap in the market that we felt like if we can solve this, we can really catch up and provide a DevOps solution that is industry standard, best-in-class but specifically tailored for game development.
Dan Blumberg: It’s the overarching value prop here to just give creators more time to be creative.
Nev Spiteri: That’s definitely the one-liner that co-founder Anthony often uses. It’s like, “Yeah, creators want to spend their time creating and less time dealing with the infrastructure and the tooling.” And we believe that we’re enablers. By the way, we’ve been talking a lot about games and game development, but the reality is that 3D, in general, is being much more broadly adopted even outside of the gaming industry. More and more so across automotive manufacturing, simulation, education, training. These industries are also now using 3D virtual worlds as part of their showcasing their brand, improving their manufacturing and design processes.
Game engines are really eating the world. Game engines are now being used across multiple industries, and the shift to spatial 3D is happening. There’s a lot of talk about the metaverse, which is a very ambiguous term for a lot of people, but really, if you boil it down, it’s simply that the internet is evolving, it continues to evolve, and in the next evolution, there is more 3D on the internet. The point being that software development and game development in general is shifting towards 3D. These game engines are going to be used more ubiquitously. So the opportunity here is to provide optimized methodologies of development that really are for any application of 3D game engines, not just games.
Dan Blumberg: We’re recording this a day after a new season of The Mandalorian just came out. I know it’s a TV show built on a game engine.
Nev Spiteri: Yes. Season three launched Wednesday. Creator John Favreau, we had the good fortune of working with John for many years on a project called Gnomes & Goblins, and yes, the Unreal Engine is used in the production of that show. All of the major studios are producing several TV shows that, now at the core of the pipeline, is a real-time game engine, and that’s been a running through line in our development, so it’s a pretty exciting time to see that’s all coming together.
Dan Blumberg: Running a studio where filmmakers, game developers are paying you for the creative work that Wevr has done for years is a pretty different business than creating a software as a service company. What surprises did you encounter as you stepped into this new line of business?
Nev Spiteri: That was a very important and deliberate transition, and it is a transition. It’s not a switch that you can flip overnight. That is really, really hard to pull off to be successful at both businesses because they are two very different businesses, as you say. We felt it was too ambitious to try to do both, so we felt like the right thing to do is to actually switch to transition, where are now our core focus of the company is entirely about the about the Wevr Virtual Studio platform, and we have some of the benefits of having worked directly in that space ourselves and collaborated with these other creators and creatives. That just carries forward very nicely because there are customers, and we can now service, work with, and collaborate with way more creators, teams, and game teams than we could before when we were just focused on a handful of things ourselves.
Dan Blumberg: I’d love to look ahead into the future a little bit more. We’ve talked a little bit about XR, or the various enhanced realities, and I’m curious, what do you see in the VR, AR, XR space that feels like science fiction today but is going to be totally commonplace in a few years?
Nev Spiteri: Great question. Five years ago, we were one of the early teams that had access to some of these early VR headsets, and when we put this thing on, people really thought it was magic. Really like, “What the hell is going on? I’m now in the ocean, and there’s this giant whale swimming.” People would take off the headset. People still have that experience today when they try VR, some of them for the first time. But the point being that it was and still is largely a category of tech that, if you explain it to someone, they think you’re talking about science fiction. Where we are now relative to where we’re going to be in a few years, I think that in the next five years, there really is a quantum leap in mixed reality.
Being able to walk through the world five years from now, or at least parts of the world, maybe your own living rooms or certain specific areas where you can do search and replace on reality in real time, search and replace on reality in real time to me means, “Oh, the cars are red.” No, the cars are blue now because I want them to be blue. That sounds like science fiction. What are you talking about? But if you combine that with what’s happening with generative AI, you can really see the opportunity within five years where people can very much customize their reality in very strange and seemingly bizarre ways.
Dan Blumberg: I was just going to say I’m equal parts excited and terrified by what you just described.
Nev Spiteri: It is a little disconcerting, let’s put it that way.
Dan Blumberg: What’s next for Wevr? How are you building towards what you see coming in the future?
Nev Spiteri: I think for us right now, it’s less about being too future-focused. Really, what excites us today is, we have the beginnings of a really solid platform that solves some real problems for creators today. We’re all about like, “Hey, let’s make you productive today, tomorrow, and next week.” This really needs to be able to be in a loop where you’re working with real game teams and customers and evolving very much based on what customer needs and requirements are, and we’re on that path.
Dan Blumberg: Awesome. Nev, thanks so much for taking the time today. This was really fascinating.
Nev Spiteri: Awesome. I enjoyed it too. I don’t often get to talk about stuff. I spend most of the time doing things.
Dan Blumberg: Okay. I hope it was cathartic.
That’s Nev Spiteri, and this is Crafted from Artium. At Artium, we love partnering with creative people like Nev to build their visions of the future. If you are building something new, let’s talk. Our goal is not only to help you build great software but also to recruit high performing teams and to help you achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone. You can learn more about us at thisisartium.com and start a conversation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like today’s episode, please subscribe and spread the word because first-time Crafted listeners can hardly believe their ears.
Nev Spiteri: People really thought it was magic, like, “What the hell is going on?”