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Last week, Google teamed up with the London startup Improbable to enable even the smallest developers to develop massive online games at low costs.
Improbable has created SpatialOS, software that enables small companies to create massive, cloud-based simulations for online games, mobile devices, and virtual reality projects. In doing so, it hopes to change the economics of connected games, and tapping Google’s own vast cloud platform will result in even more cost improvements and innovations.
SpatialOS creates a distributed computing environment that enables games to access the backend infrastructure needed to create incredibly complex systems, like the simulation of an entire city, said Herman Narula, the CEO of Improbable, in an interview with GamesBeat. SpatialOS is now available for game developers who create worlds that run on the Google Cloud Platform. With this new program, Google and Improbable will partner to subsidize access to Improbable’s SpatialOS platform. This partnership aims to encourage innovation by providing qualified game developers with subsidized access to Improbable’s world-building technology, powered by Google Cloud Platform.
With these moves, Google is effectively enabling developers to experiment with the technology for free.
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Alongside this announcement, Improbable has launched its Game Developer Open Alpha for SpatialOS. Any game developer can gain access to the SpatialOS platform and development tools to test and experiment with it ahead of the full launch of the Games Innovation Program and the beta of SpatialOS in the first quarter of 2017. We talked with Narula, a computer science graduate from the University of Cambridge, about the deal and why it’s a significant opportunity for indie game developers as well as big companies.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: I want understand why the Google Cloud partnership makes sense for you guys.
Herman Narula: The big reason for this is, fundamentally we’re trying to enable new kinds of applications and new kinds of games. That means that people need to take risks. They need to try things that may not work. By partnering with Google, that leaves us free to try things and experiment and explore, all the way through development up to the point of release. It’s going to mean that a lot more people than ever before can try these types of experiences.
The other thing we wanted to do is change the mentality around online games a bit. Historically those have been challenging to create and difficult to scale. By showing how you can play with the stack one day and be deploying things the next, doing all that really quickly and with the support of something like Google Cloud backing us — we think that’s an easy way for people to begin innovating, particularly studios who are normally quite confined in what they can build.
For the bigger studios, people looking to build really big franchises, this creates and enables a different mentality when they’re developing and testing their experiences internally. They don’t need to have a commercial engine to start building games. They don’t need to be cautious about how rapidly they want to build out. They can start scaling things straight away. It’s also about building an ecosystem. This is just the first of what we hope are more partnerships.
GamesBeat: Is Google subsidizing quite a bit here, removing a significant cost?
Narula: The way to think about it is, for developers building on SpatialOS, instead of us charging the developer, we’re making it free for developers who qualify for the program. Behind the scenes, Google is making free for us, which is what makes it possible. The subsidy is very large. I can’t go into exact details, but we’re going to announce more in Q1. It’ll make a real difference to developers. It completely changes the way they can operate, all the way to launch.
GamesBeat: So Google sees a payoff down the road. If you try something out on its system, eventually you’ll use a lot of its resources and that’s when you start paying?
Narula: Exactly. We’re also going to be very transparent about what pricing looks like. For most developers, it’ll be cheaper once they start building their own infrastructure. A lot of what SpatialOS enables is much more efficient utilization of resources. From Google’s perspective, this is a unique move, because they’re saying, “Even if you’re not directly working with us as a Google customer, you’re working on SpatialOS. We’re going to promote this innovation and subsidize it.” That partnership will evolve into other things as well. You can imagine some cool services being made possible through this partnership.
GamesBeat: I know a mobile or online game company can make a game and put it on top of Google Cloud now. They can offload a lot of infrastructure to Google. If you put SpatialOS in the middle, what does the developer get out of that?
Narula: The key thing is that you can now make new types of games that you couldn’t make before. The fundamental thing is that you can build an application that exceeds what a single game engine or server can do. We manage the dynamic semi-parallel distributed platform for this kind of computation that makes it possible to have a million things in the world, all interacting with each other in the same space, and have loads of users in the same world. Or have physics on the back-end that you couldn’t have before, or have high-frequency twitch gameplay. We’re very confined in our thinking about the types of games that are possible because of technology and because of creativity. We want to enable both.
Fundamentally it’s about being able to do more and being able to do it more quickly as well. If you do put up your own servers and try to build a new structure directly on Google’s compute engine, or any other provider, you’re really just renting hardware. You have to do all the work yourself — build up the infrastructure, manage it, build something that could take months or years to the point where you can create even a regular online game, let alone one that can do new things.
With SpatialOS, 15 minutes after you sign up you can begin sharing your game and developing and iterating, no matter how big it is. All the infrastructure is managed for you. You can use game engines you’re already comfortable with. You can plug in your own game engine. Game developers are amazingly innovative people. Why should they spend their time redoing the same things over and over again, dealing with the same limitations, when we can open that up for everyone? It’s a tradeoff in convenience and in new possibilities.
It’s about reuse and sharing, too. Developers can now share the code that they’re building in this ecosystem. There are already people sharing on the forums. It’s been three days, and we already have people getting together to give each other guidance.
GamesBeat: What about someone like AWS? Could it be a potential partner, too? Is there a particular reason to go with Google? Is it somehow optimizing its cloud for SpatialOS?
Narula: There are two reasons to partner with Google. The first is that they have a very common vision, very different from what a lot of players are doing. If you’re just making things easier, that’s not in itself a compelling proposition. But if you’re enabling new kinds of games, that is exciting. This first step is knowing that we embrace this vision and we want to do that. There could be other steps where additional services get put together, which makes it even more compelling.
Fundamentally, AWS and other cloud providers are providing hardware. It’s accurate to say SpatialOS abstracts that from developers. When you get your game running on SpatialOS you don’t think about where you’re running. But there are properties of Google Cloud and elements of our collaboration that make what we’re doing in building SpatialOS easier.
With all that said, it’s a non-exclusive partnership. Developers are free to interact or not interact with Google as they run SpatialOS. But the innovation subsidy runs on Google’s compute engine, all of which is abstracted from the developer and made very convenient for them to do. We’ll be announcing more details about this in Q1.
GamesBeat: With Google, I imagine that probably makes startups more comfortable working with you.
Narula: That’s been a good element, improving the general reception of everything we’re doing. But to be honest, it was more about encouraging people to do more things. I think other ecosystem partners will further improve that stability.