British game infrastructure company Improbable keeps doing the improbable. Today, the company says it has raised an additional $50 million in funding from Chinese game giant NetEase as part of a strategic partnership to enable more games with massive worlds.
Improbable already raised eyebrows when it raised $502 million in May 2017 from SoftBank. NetEase is taking a “small equity stake” and will develop and publish games using SpatialOS, Improbable’s cloud-based development technology.
SpatialOS marshals the power of cloud computing and distributed platforms to enable even small studios to develop games with giant worlds. It offloads the task of marshaling servers and other technologies to make a large interconnected online world, so that even indie game developers can create massively multiplayer online (MMO) worlds.
NetEase will announce its first game using SpatialOS technology later this year, and Improbable is pursuing new business opportunities with video game developers and publishers in China and the Asia-Pacific region.
“This is primarily a story about a big commercial partnership with NetEase,” said Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable in London, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s quite usual in large-scale commercial partnerships for the bigger company to invest a small amount in the technology provider like us. It makes sense in that NetEase will be building completely new games on our back, which is very unusual in the industry for an epic company to do that with an external business.”
Improbable and NetEase previously announced a strategic partnership in February 2018. Narula said the additional money isn’t needed, but it should help the company expand into Asia. Improbable has about 300 employees now, but most of those are in London.
Narula believes SpatialOS will be used to create games existing tools couldn’t produce. It helps developers and studios design, build, and manage games that go beyond the limits of a single-server architecture. SpatialOS technology is open to all online game developers and publishers worldwide, with a free-to-try version available.
The first Improbable-based game to hit has been Bossa Studios’ Worlds Adrift game, which is in Early Access on Steam. In that game, players can create flying islands and visit worlds in the clouds of a cartoon-style universe.
“It can take a frustratingly long time for the games to be developed,” Narula said.
At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo, Automaton showed off Mavericks: Proving Grounds, which is a realistic shooter game where players can engage in battle royale matches with 1,000 players, compared to 100 players in Fortnite or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Getting that many players in a single server, or game world, is a challenge that SpatialOS was designed to solve, Narula said.
“It’s very exciting and we are getting good traction in the industry,” Narula said. “I would still say we are very early. There are many more announcements to come this year.”
Narula said the important features that SpatialOS enables the “table stakes” for games now. He said with the rise of battle royale, everyone wants hundreds of concurrent players in a single, dynamic world with persistent artificial intelligence and real-world physics. SpatialOS enables all of those things by default, Narula said.
“Persistence, large scale, and higher player count are popular with developers,” he said. “And everything I have described is not possible on other platforms.”
Narula said its partnership with Google enables the company to offer small teams the ability to try out SpatialOS at no cost. And Bill Roper, a seasoned game developer, works for Improbable, and his job is to inspire developers how to develop games based on SpatialOS. Those are important initiatives for Improbable, Narula said.
This strategic investment connects Improbable with one of the world’s most successful developers and publishers of online games. NetEase’s networking expertise and knowledge of the huge and growing Chinese games market are exceptional.
“This is just the beginning of our plan to make our SpatialOS technology more accessible to developers in China and the Asia Pacific region. China has more than 500 million players, the largest in the world, and it represents the biggest opportunity for SpatialOS,” Narula said.
Founded in 2012, Improbable received $20 million in a first round from Andreessen Horowitz in March 2015. Horizon Ventures led a $30 million follow-on round in July 2015, which included Temasek Holdings. And SoftBank led the huge $502 million round in May 2017.