Opinion: ‘Platforms need to empower, not constrain’, Improbable says

When building a platform, one of the first challenges is persuading developers that experimenting with it is a good use of their time. The next challenge is learning from all the fantastically inventive ways developers find the edges of your tech. Improbable’s platform, SpatialOS, enables game developers to build massive, persistent and highly populated game worlds in the cloud. With such a bold proposition, balancing the creative and technical ambitions of any project is crucial.

We’re lucky to be working with talented creators, including Spilt Milk Studios and Bossa Studios. Their games, Lazarus and Worlds Adrift, are the first games built on SpatialOS to reach Early Access release. Many other developers are currently working with SpatialOS, developing using Unity, Unreal or other engines, and we are learning from working with them. These developers are aiming to provide new content and types of gameplay; a successful platform has to make that as easy as possible.

Worlds Adrift, which recently entered closed beta, is a great example of the kind of game that would be impossible to create using a traditional client-server model.

It offers a fully persistent simulation of a huge world made up of many floating islands. The vision for Worlds Adrift is a massive universe with thousands of concurrent players interacting in a contiguous world containing thousands of AI-controlled animals and millions of entities governed by real-time physics. Under the hood, this requires hundreds of traditional game engines seamlessly cooperating together.

In scaling tests, Worlds Adrift has been expanded to cover 25,000 km2 of virtual space, with four million entities. When it comes to making a great game, though, rather than a great show of the technology, it makes sense to start with a more manageable space and build out.

Balancing the creative and technical ambitions of any project is crucial.

Rob Whitehead, Improbable

The current map for each instance of Worlds Adrift has over 1000 km2 of contiguous space containing hundreds of thousands of entities. Players have responded to this game design choice enthusiastically – median play time in the closed beta is an impressive 900 minutes, and in-game cartographers have formed mapmaking guilds, drawing charts using compasses, altimeters and the sun.

That’s real engagement, created by new technology working in the service of innovative game design.

Load balancing is an enormous challenge when a world is being maintained across hundreds or even thousands of cores, and every design will bring its own challenges. Worlds Adrift, for example, has fixed high-density areas – the islands – and more open spaces traversed by ships, themselves made up of many individual pieces (sails, engines, wings) with their own physics.

A one-size solution could never leverage the specifics of every game, so we learned to let developers ‘pop the hood’and provide the flexibility to configure anything that could impact performance.

It’s a truism to say that developers of platforms, engines or tools need to listen to developers. But we have found that watching developers – seeing how technology affects their design decisions and where they find workarounds or new approaches – is at least as important.

Rob Whitehead is the CTO of Improbable, which he co-founded in 2012. He started his career in virtual worlds as a teenager, making and selling weapons in Second Life

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