Small developers really can create giant games. There was proof of that at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) at the booth of Improbable, a United Kingdom startup that enables small companies to create huge simulations.
Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable, told me in an interview that the company has launched its open beta for SpatialOS, an operating system and computation platform that allows developers of all sizes to create games that can tap the power of the cloud — or Internet-connected data centers.
The SpatialOS open beta kicked off on March 2, and it coincided with the integration of the Unreal Engine into the platform, allowing Unreal developers to join Unity creators to take full advantage of SpatialOS’s development tools. Improbable has also partnered with Google Cloud, which allows developers access to SpatialOS and the Google Cloud servers at significantly reduced (or in some cases free) costs.
So far, developers working on SpatialOS-based games include Worlds Adrift, the upcoming game from Bossa Studios; Chronicles of Elyria by Soulbound Studios, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game built with the Unreal engine; Seed by Klang, a game of planetary settlement set in a shared, persistent world, created by a team including former senior CCP (Eve Online) employees; Lazarus by Spilt Milk Studios, a multiplayer top-down 2D shooter set in a huge galaxy populated by artificially intelligent alien factions locked in a war for territory; and Vanishing Stars: Colony Wars by Ninpo Game Studio, a new type of massively multiplayer real-time strategy game, played across thousands of star systems, each with their own planets to battle on.
Here’s an edited transcript of my conversation with Narula.
GamesBeat: You have a booth this year.
Herman Narula: Yeah! It’s gotten bigger. It’s growing.
GamesBeat: Are you an extension of Google?
Narula: No, no. But we’re side by side, which is good. The partnership’s been great. I don’t know if you’ve seen the games that have been announced in the last couple of days, all on the partnership, but these five developers all have working prototypes. Some of them have launched on Spatial. We’re excited by how fast things are moving. It’s validated our thesis that if we can get the stack out there as a platform, developers will be able to build bigger games quicker.
GamesBeat: So, everyone’s taking advantage of the Google Cloud offer?
Narula: Oh, yes. They just use SpatialOS, but we can run on different devices.
GamesBeat: What have you announced here?
Narula: Games like Seed, by Klang, which is a massive MMO rimworld around an entire planet. The players stay there when you log off, and they have NPC behavior that’s really cool. They showed a cool playable of that. There’s Ninpo producing an RTS game about planetary colonization. There’s Lazarus talking about their newest build, which has 3,000 concurrents or something like that that they can support at once. There’s also Jeromy Walsh talking about Chronicles of Elyria, which is a more traditional [fantasy MMO] but done at scale and done beautifully well. I think they have 150,000 people already in their forums, waiting for the game to launch.
We’ve had several thousand developers sign up since we went live a few weeks ago. They’re all playing with the stack right now. There are probably more games we haven’t even figured out are on the platform yet. We keep getting people walking up to us saying, “We’re making a game on Spatial! Why don’t we know about you?”
We launched Unreal integration two hours ago, so now, SpatialOS works with the Unreal engine. It makes us work with almost everyone now. We’ve also gone into beta, so now, the stack is stable enough to start launching games. Worlds Adrift is of course live right now with thousands of players.
GamesBeat: Anything you’ve learned in particular from these launches?
Narula: Games are hard [laughs]. Developers are very demanding. Being a good partner for them is all about listening, all about being able to adapt our infrastructure to what they need. A lot of the new things that we’re doing with Unreal integration and additional features have come from developer feedback. We’re learning that if we’re good with our community, our community will invest in the stack, and that can help us build a better stack for them.
People like Klang, the company making Seed, have a lot of people who’ve worked on really big MMOs. Their technical feedback to us has been fantastic. We’ve made a lot of improvements as a result. We’ve also grown as a company. We now have a San Francisco office. There’s 150-some of us now. We’re in a pretty amazing place.
GamesBeat: I see people taking cloud technology and going in very different directions with it. One company called 1App.com was taking mobile games and virtualizing them, getting them on any device and making it easier to discover them.
Narula: We’re finding that we can interoperate with a lot of services like this. At its heart, SpatialOS is a platform for building more complex systems, whatever they may be. We’re seeing a huge uptake in VR, for example, because we’re a great way to build high-fidelity VR multiplayer games. If you’ve checked out HelloVR, it’s just a couple of people, and they made something really awesome in SpatialOS.
GamesBeat: It sounds like user-generated content will be ideal for Improbable’s technology.
Narula: Absolutely. Worlds Adrift has 3,000 player-generated islands. They actually have more people downloading the created items than even knew about the game. Back in the early days, they started pushing islands into the world. They managed to carve out really good user-generated content. Part of what SpatialOS allows you to do is update the game once it’s live. It’s a great way for developers to make more changes, add more tools, create new stuff. It grows with the community.
The future of really compelling online games — we’ve been through a bit of a winter. There was the MMO craze of the first half of the 2000s, and then people realized that it’s technically hard, and it’s difficult to make really compelling gameplay. Then, the indie boom happened, but they can’t really build massively multiplayer games. Now, we’re going to see a resurgence of online experiences, connected experiences. We’ll see people realize that it’s not about building a game for 10 years and then launching it. It’s about growing it with the community and iterating on the gameplay. We’ve taken a huge bet on that kind of game. We’re making that a big part of our strategy.
GamesBeat: We’re seeing so many advances at the same time in things like AI. Somebody was saying that really good AI may signal the death of multiplayer. It might create distrust among players about whether they’re competing with a real person.
Narula: If the AI passes a Turing test, so that a person really can’t figure out whether it’s a human or not, does it matter? It’s another life form at that point. Maybe that’s what we’ll see. Sophisticated virtual worlds and simulations could be the birthplace of AI. That would be pretty cool.
GamesBeat: The example somebody brought up was Ashley Madison.
Narula: [Laughs] If a robot actually shows up for a date with you — who knows? You could have a wonderful relationship with a beautiful robot person. Quote me on that. We’re going to see developers do more and more things that surprise us. We’ll have a significant partnership announcement in a couple of weeks. We almost had it for GDC but not quite. We’ve been empowering all these indie guys to make big games with a little team. What could a big team do with the stack?
GamesBeat: Why do you call it a “stack?”
Narula: It’s a distributed operating system. Here’s your cloud provider. We live on top of that. We manage the computation of the world. Easy to build, easy to run and do a lot of sophisticated stuff that lets us hit very big scales and cope with a lot more computation on a per-entity basis.
GamesBeat: What else, besides this feature of vastness, can you enable?
Narula: More players connecting more easily. Really fast development. Typically anything with synchronous multiplayer has been really hard to develop on many platforms. We’ve made it very easy to do synchronous multiplayer with a high rate of updates. With VR or first-person, we can make that very easy. The ability to have clients of different types all connected to the same world. VR or PC or mobile all in one world, having different experiences synchronously with each other. Being able to monitor and run a complex world easily. Being able to add more complex and valid NPCs and AI that bring the world to life. More intelligence and more depth because you don’t have to be constrained by what you can do with a single engine.
We’re being used for things like massive-scale simulation of cities. There’s a group that’s modeling telco networks. There are so many different applications that are all about creating and simulating large, complex worlds.
GamesBeat: Is that turning into real business outside of games?
Narula: Absolutely. We’re a platform, an operating system. Other verticals really just slot on top of that. We’re pretty agnostic. But, games are our focus as a business. That’s the thing we’re passionate about, the thing that’s most disruptive right now. The other stuff is cool, but it’s coming later.