Improbable has one simple mission in gaming. To smash the single-server model and all the limitations that go with it. Sure, there are a handful of games which do that already, but only thanks to big teams with big resources.
Improbable’s SpatialOS aims to democratise scale. To create larger worlds, more complex worlds, persistent worlds, and with the same ease that Epic and Unity have brought to other areas of game development.
And scale is a big issue right now. The industry is often caught in the grip of one craze or another – and big player numbers are in vogue. After all, at first glance PlayerUnknown’s Battleground’s big player count is one of its key draws – which immediately asks whether a 200-player version would be better? Or worse?
Or how about a 1,000 player game? Because Automaton’s Project X does just that and will be making an appearance at GDC.
But a revolutionary technical platform isn’t any good without some equally revolutionary ideas to execute upon it. So Improbable has hired its first chief creative officer in the form of Bill Roper, whose 24-year career includes senior roles at both Blizzard and Disney, and who has broken new ground in the multiplayer space throughout.
He was there when the first ever two-player game of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was played – it was a draw after a desync bug meant both players thought they’d won. He worked on building the world of Starcraft and helped launch Battle.net to connect players around the globe. He placed live adverts in the world of Hellgate: London and experimented with games-as-a-service monetisation. He later went on to oversee Disney Infinity and negotiated the ability to move your creations between PC, Xbox and PlayStation.
So if you’ve got a game prototype and everyone’s said it’s impossible, then Bill Roper is the man to talk to because, just maybe, it’s only Improbable instead.
We sit down with Roper at the company’s Farringdon HQ in Central London. It’s grey and dreary outside but Roper is full of enthusiasm for his new role, having relocated his family from the west coast to join the company.
Roper’s main task is to work with developers and help them get the most out of SpatialOS, something he greatly enjoyed in a similar role at Disney: “I ran a central creative group for a year-and-a-half that was focused on just that. Working with a broad group of studios and creatives to help them realise their visions for their projects,” he tells us.
“One of the things that’s exciting about SpatialOS is that it’s very scalable both in terms of what it provides but also how it’s usable by teams, the way it can supercharge what you’re doing, give you new ways of thinking in terms of design, ways of achieving those goals.”
Roper has worked on the biggest brands and for the biggest developers, but Improbable’s breakthrough looks more likely to come out of the leftfield, from a developer looking to establish itself with something groundbreaking.
“The thing that I like about the indies is that they do tend to have a very simple kernel of a design, and then the question is ‘how are we going to make that really deep’ or ‘do that but across a vast space’. There’s that kind of purity,” he says.
"The thing that I like about the indies is that they do tend to have a very simple kernel of a design"
Not that Improbable is only working with indies: “I love working with studios of all sizes. We’re definitely doing that and it’s really neat to see how they approach using the platform depending on how many developers they have, what their IPs are, what their game design concepts are.
“When you’re working with larger, more established teams, you know developers that have a richer history and background development. They bring a lot deeper knowledge in many cases on the challenges associated with online play.” Challenges that Roper is arguably as aware of as anyone in the industry.
SMASHING THE SINGLE SERVER MODEL
Part of that job is to nudge developers out of their presumptions about online games.
“What I find is that, as designers, we’re almost trained to think reductively because of the limitations that are inherent in a single server model,” Roper says. “It’s a constant trade off – fidelity versus number of players, versus density, versus what we can do with pathfinding or AI or physics... There’s all these weights that you’re putting on the scales to get to balance out.”
“We like to be involved as early as possible, because I think there are many things that you’ll consider differently when you start having a Spatial mindset. But at any point in discussing design it’s meaningful to understand what constraints the platform removes.
“It’s not always about pulling out all of the stops and saying ‘Great you can have a thousand people in a million mile world’...”
“At times it’s very apparent in the design where you want to remove some of those caps. I find personally the most meaning is derived in talking with the development teams and saying: where are you banging your head on the ceiling of the technology? What is that thing that you wish you could do that you’re finding you can’t, that you’ve left out of your design, or that you’ve reduced and distilled down to get to something that’s achievable?”
Roper tells us he regularly sees pitches for games saying they want lots of players but only have 32 in the game. “It’s obvious you really wish you could have a couple hundred people,” Roper tells them. “And here’s how that would work.” Improbable is well aware though that more is not always better. “It’s not always about pulling out all of the stops and saying ‘Great you can have a thousand people in a million mile world’...”
It’s not then aiming to create games that resemble Ready Player One, a great vision of a virtual world, but “from an actual game design standpoint it’s bereft with problems – Wow I can’t believe my wizard didn’t get killed by that X-wing! What I find is that you usually want to pull on a couple of levers in terms of that design.”
And there are three core areas where SpatialOS can provide answers to developers’ dreams: massive scale, meaningful persistence and rich simulation.
ALL THE PEOPLE, SO MANY PEOPLE
And so we come back to that question, is having more players in a single world making it a better experience? The simple answer is usually no, or at least that more players brings some steep design challenges.
“Obviously the big challenge with putting a huge number of players into a single persistent continuous world is how does that feel special to everyone? How does it even feel navigable to people?”
“One way to do that is to break it down into communities,” Roper says. “We think about it this way because part of what SpatialOS is so good at is simulation. So what can you take from how the real world is structured. We all have things that we do that are very important and meaningful to us, and those close to us, that may not be important or meaningful to other people.”
He describes how world builders can follow the model of real-world social groups, from close friends, to acquaintances, work colleagues, people from our hometown, or from the same country. All of whom we have varying degrees of attachment to. And how an event, such as the recent political polarisation in the US, comes both as a result of those groups and in turn affects them all.
It helps to provide emotional anchor points for players, such as property, something they can invest time and effort in, Roper tells us. “In vast worlds, people have to have a personal connection to care.”
PERSISTENCE ISNT FUTILE
Another way to anchor players in a vast world is to provide greater persistence.
“For me, saying ‘Here’s a rock, this rock has always been here, the rock will always be here’ is persistence but it’s incredibly boring persistence,” Roper explains. Good persistence, then, isn’t things staying the same, it’s things changing. When players’ actions leave a mark on their environment, they feel greater engagement, they feel that their actions matter. SpatialOS is capable of efficiently running large simulations around the clock, and keeping track of ongoing changes in that simulation.
Developers tell Roper that they want greater persistence, and it’s an engaging idea. Imagine a series of battle royale games where you could stash gear for the next game. Allowing you to build up an arsenal of powerful weapons more quickly in the later games – if you can recover your cache of course.
A further step (seen in Klang’s Seed, where you must manage a colony of individuals to ensure their survival) is persistence even when players are offline, with the simulation running constantly, and your charges carrying out their assigned tasks whether or not you’re watching them do it.
Roper explains a scenario where the player could leave their character doing one activity but “you could set up a permission on your character that someone could recruit them to help them with specific tasks. So when you came back there’s some bonus experience or resources. Now that becomes an interesting crossover point for when we’re next both online.”
Using offline activities to kick-off new potential relationships online, or for players to help out a friend who can’t get online to play as much as their friends.
World’s Adrift from Bossa Studios has long been the poster child for Improbable’s server tech, though it is only in self-described ‘pre-Early Access’ on Steam.
Then there’s Klang’s Seed, which is in development, and Ninpo’s Vanishing Stars as well, a tower defence game on a truly epic scale. And we should see plenty more of these and a number of new titles around GDC.
There’s many, many more games in development, but Improbable is keen to talk to yet more developers and if your team is germinating an idea for an online game, now is the time to get in touch.
“I feel every day I work hard to give as much as I’m getting, because even though this is my 24th year in the games industry, I love the fact that I’m learning something new everyday, and that’s an exciting feeling,” Roper says.
His enthusiasm is infectious too, once you start looking at the online games on the market, you realise that the vast majority were designed and perfected around a single-server paradigm.
The tech is there, what Improbable now needs is the right games to sweep that model away and those can only come from developers who want to think outside of the box.