Big bang theory
Could SpatialOS bring about the next generation of online play?
The name Improbable is either the best moniker for the company making SpatialOS, or the worst. It’s a name that plays on this revolutionary new tool’s expectation-busting nature, since it’s a networking technology that has the potential to transform online games. It can realise huge, richly complex virtual worlds that can exist and change without their players’ input – and not just for large studios with enormous budgets. In short, it could democratise a powerful new vision for networked games and bring about the next generation of online play.
Its nature as a networked set of game engines working in parallel is hard to grasp, and it makes big promises. Huge and persistent online worlds that will be free of many of the traditional restrictions of online play? It sounds too good to be true. That’s why Improbable, which is headquartered in London and has 170 employees, has opened SpatialOS up for developers to play around with. “It’s our hope that it’s developers building great games on top of our platform that will demonstrate what’s possible,” says
Herman Narula, Improbable CEO and co-founder. And as well as getting them to communicate it, they’re also helping Improbable refine and stress-test SpatialOS, as well as explore what new features it should include.
The fruits of these developers’ work have just started to come to light, though we first outlined Improbable’s headliner, Bossa Studios’ fabulously ambitious physics sandbox game Worlds Adrift, in E287. Set on player-sculpted floating islands and sky ships, it showcases SpatialOS’ potential with a single world for all players and its take on persistence – crafted items that exist and remain in the world until taken by others or left to rust away. It’s due to enter a closed beta via Steam’s Early Access in late April, but alongside it are other games, such as Lazarus, Spilt Milk’s MMO take on
Asteroids, which is already publicly playable. There’s Vanishing Stars, a galaxy-scale RTS, and Chronicles Of
Elyria, a dizzyingly deep fantasy MMO. Each is made by a very small studio taking the opportunity to explore what happens when many players interact in spaces that permanently respond to their actions. “It’s a big enabler for small teams to think about massively multiplayer [games],” says Mundi Vondi, co-founder of Klang, maker of Seed, a RimWorld- like multiplayer life sim in which massive communities of players build bases on alien planets, working with and against each other. “Normally you have this massive overhead that requires so much funding that you have little flexibility to do experimentation or innovation. It has to bank, and the problem is that MMOs start to stagnate, to the extent that people now think MMOs are a thing of the past, which is ridiculous. Obviously they’re a thing of the future. We just haven’t been able to experiment enough.”
Andrew Roper of
Spilt Milk Studios says that until SpatialOS the options for developers wanting to make multiplayer games were to either make a server themselves or go peer-to-peer. “Peer-topeer is what we did with [Spilt Milk’s 2015 co-op shooter] Tango Fiesta, so whoever made the lobby was the server host, and it all got very complicated. I got through a few bottles of rum. Spatial takes all that legwork away.”
And more than that, SpatialOS is also about scaling a game across many individual servers, which Narula says is “so disgustingly hard that most developers just don’t bother with it.” Even most big MMOs run on single servers. “The idea, in a nutshell, is to encapsulate all the work, all the heavy lifting, required to build a game that runs on 50 cores, 1,000 cores or two cores. To make it really cheap and really easy, so that everyone can fundamentally build new types of games.”
The cheapness comes from the fact that developers won’t need to invest in buying servers or in figuring out peer-topeer systems for themselves as they make their games. And, due to a partnership Improbable has struck with Google Cloud Platform, it’s also offering ‘qualified’ developers subsidised access, which for many will mean it’s free to develop games with it and even run alphas and betas, and only start paying once their projects are commercially launched.
Furthermore, the distributed nature of SpatialOS means developers can scale the sizes of their online worlds to fit their populations. “Theoretically, there’s no limit to the number of players,” says Andrew
Smith of Spilt Milk. “We can expand outwards to accommodate more people. It’s more a question of what balance and density of players works best. But we’re aiming for thousands of concurrents.”
Devs can therefore use SpatialOS to suit their needs and the relative success of their games. But as well as connecting many players, the tech can also run world physics and AI in the cloud – an outsourcing of computational labour that offers even more promise. For Lazarus, a twitch shooter, the player’s PC merely takes control inputs, calculating all physics on Improbable’s systems. It might sound as if this would cause a lack of immediacy from the player’s point of view, but with common networking techniques such as clientside protection and nautical dead-reckoning Roper says it retains the arcade-style sharpness a game like
Lazarus requires. Indeed, Narula tells us that under certain circumstances, SpatialOS can reduce overall latency since its many parallel cores can process incoming data as it arrives, rather than in sequence as many single servers have to, and it isn’t susceptible to the server slowdown that’s caused by large crowds of players congregating in large battles.
But Improbable is thinking bigger than merely improving what’s already here. “Success for us is the realisation of that dream we grew up with in the ’90s,” says Narula. “It’s the creation of ubiquitous virtual worlds that are as meaningful to us as our experiences in the real world.”
“It all got very complicated. I got through a few bottles of rum. Spatial takes all that legwork away”
Herman Narula founded Improbable in 2012