The wisdom of crowds
With its ScavLab tech, Improbable is designing for 10,000 players at once
Everywhere you look, there are players. Thousands of them, pressed so thickly that they seem to move as one, all the jostling and jumping translating into the tides of some single fluid entity. Towering overhead are a pair of colossal avatars, decked out in neon. They chat jovially with the crowd – then, laughing, one of them throws out an enormous gust of wind, blowing the players away in a dense cloud.
These community events have brought together an unprecedented number of players – 1,800 of them in the initial closed event, over 4,000 in the first that was open to the public – in a single realtime, fully 3D environment. Improbable, the technology company behind it all, reckons it can manage 15,000. Big numbers indeed.
The technology that makes this possible is named ‘ScavLab’, after the game the events are taking place in: Scavengers, a 60-player battle royale/ survival shooter hybrid currently playable in early access. But what actually happens during the events has very little to do with that title. It’s no great surprise, then, when Improbable creative director
Bernd Diemer, ahead of his talk at this October’s Develop: Brighton, reveals that the tech didn’t initially have anything to do with Scavengers. In fact, it began as a way of holding company meetings.
“The whole thing started last year, in August, where Rob [Whitehead, Improbable’s co-founder and chief product officer] did a tech demo for the game teams,” Diemer explains. This was a very early, rough version. “It was basically a flat plane with 10,000 [simulated players] running around with made-up names, and there was a stage in the middle, and you could stream a video on it.” Despite the rough edges, he says, the team immediately saw its potential – even if they didn’t quite know what to do with it yet.
“We were all in lockdown,” Diemer says. “And we have these weekly town halls where the whole company meets together. Since we’re remote anyway, we thought: why not run a town hall using this technology?” The player count for this first attempt was in the hundreds rather than the thousands, as employees gathered around a projection of Improbable CEO Herman Narula sharing company news. Even in this early state, Whitehead tells us, there was a spark of magic: “Feeling the sense of belonging that comes with all of the company together in a single virtual space where they could see and interact with everybody else really captured the imagination of the creative teams, and we knew we were on to something.”
Diemer describes the feeling as akin to stepping into a packed stadium and feeling the mass of people around you. “That hits human beings on a very emotional, almost primal level,” he says. “You know, you literally get goosebumps.” Not a sensation most of us would associate with a town hall meeting. And, sure enough, attendee behaviour changed to match. “We immediately realised that the audience wasn’t standing still, like you normally would at a town hall, where everybody’s quiet and listening.” Instead, staff were climbing on stage, standing in front of the projection, forming human pyramids – messing around, in other words, in ways that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever stood in a pregame lobby.
“What I realised when I looked at this was that people were desperate to participate,” Diemer says. “This wasn’t a technology that is suitable for a passive audience.” As the team experimented with potential applications (Diemer mentions virtual concerts as one early idea), they were approached by Josh Holmes, co-founder of Midwinter Entertainment. Holmes had one question: “Could we do something with this in Scavengers?”
Midwinter was formed in 2016 after Holmes left 343 Industries, where he’d served as studio head and creative director on Halo 4 and 5. In 2019, the Seattlebased studio was acquired by Improbable, which was founded in 2012. From an outside perspective, at least, it looked like something of a turning point for the London-based tech company. At first, Improbable had been focused on providing tools to help developers make and support online multiplayer titles – something we’re assured is still a part of its business.
“I wouldn’t say our priorities have shifted since we began in 2012,”
“People were desperate to participate. This wasn’t technology suitable for a passive audience”
MASS EFFECT Among the design possibilities opened up by this volume of players, Diemer says, is a kind of teamwork rarely experienced in multiplayer games. “Working together, being able to achieve things in groups that you couldn’t achieve on your own, which is very different from traditional multiplayer games where the teams tend to be rather small and where, most of the time, it’s more about your personal status – how good you are.” This is more than just a case of removing end-of-match scoreboards, which would make for rather dull reading with a few thousand players featured – Improbable needs to make sure that each player can tell what they have contributed to the larger effort. It’s a tall order, and Diemer makes no pretence of having found the answers yet.
Whitehead says. “We’ve always been in the business of enabling multiplayer games. On our journey we’ve been learning just how many pieces of the puzzle that need to come together to make this happen, and it’s much broader than just the core technology we made in the early days.” In this journey, the acquisition of Midwinter seems like the moment Improbable realised it had to get its hands dirty. “Having internal studios lets us collaborate in an incredibly deep way that might be difficult with thirdparty relationships,” Whitehead says.
It’s worth considering the Midwinter deal in the context of two pieces of news that landed the same year. First, the announcement that Improbable had established two in-house studios to make games, in Canada and the UK. (Improbable has yet to announce what either is working on, but we’re assured both are still beavering away.) Second, the cancellations of Lazarus, Worlds Adrift and Mavericks: Proving Grounds, all games made by other developers using the company’s SpatialOS tech. So, when Scavengers arrived in early access this May, it was not only Improbable’s debut release as a publisher but also the first finished game to be built with its tech.
While this was clearly not Improbable’s plan from the outset, Whitehead insists it’s not much of a deviation. “It’s always been an aspiration of ours to make our own games,” he says. “Going all the way back to the start of the company, Herman and myself had a vision for a firstperson shooter set within a vast, complex virtual world with tens of thousands of players.” Scavengers isn’t quite that game, but with these community events packing in players by the thousand, it’s a vision that now seems in much closer reach.
For Diemer, though, Scavengers represented a solution to a more immediate problem: what to do with this new technology, with its support for hundreds of players. “It doesn’t need to stand on its own, like a tech demo, where there’s little context around it.” The technology could be housed within an actual game, with its own readymade mechanics and visuals – and so ScavLab was born.
Scavengers had something else to offer Diemer and his team: real players. The game hadn’t launched at the time, but it was already building up a community through closed betas, and that was vital to figuring out what ScavLab could do. “If you have a scenario that is supposed to work with 5,000 players, how do you test it?” It’s possible to test technical aspects such as rendering and server load through simulations, Diemer says. “But that says nothing about the experience.”
The only answer, he realised, would be to playtest ideas with real human beings. “We scaled it up slowly, starting with a couple of hundred, then a couple of thousand, which we hired a QA company for, which was really expensive,” he says. “So we cannot do that too often. Turns out if you want to hire 2,000 testers, it’s possible, but it costs a lot of money.”
One of the reasons that testing was so important, Diemer says, was that the sheer volume of players means that this is “uncharted territory” in design terms. It opens up new types of experiences, which is great, except that it means there are no other games whose homework you can peek at. It’s not as simple as taking an existing mode and just adding a zero to the end of the player count – look at the chaos that ensued when Warzone added just 50 more players to its matches. So instead, Improbable has been toying with the component parts of Scavengers, starting with what is perhaps the game’s single most beloved mechanic: its slide.
While sprinting, you can drop into a crouch and knee-slide across the ground. Hardly an original concept, granted, but Scavengers takes it to the logical extreme. Start the slide at the top of a slope and your character will carve downhill like a snowboard. Chain it into a jump and all that momentum slingshots your character skywards. The first ScavLab events turned this into their centrepiece activity, a slalom race with thousands of players skidding through gates as they race to the finish line. At the bottom of the hill, a cannon waits to launch them back to the top, so they can do it all over again.
It’s a perfect example of how Improbable is taking the language of Scavengers and finding new uses for it in ScavLab. Emotes are used as a way of voting, players flashing yellow or blue en masse, like the glint of glowsticks or smartphone screens at an arena concert. The Messengers – the neon giants who shepherd players through the event like a pair of children’s TV presenters – are based on the AI holograms that already exist in Scavengers’ fiction.
The closest these events get to resembling the game they’re housed within comes right at the end, when players are handed weapons – axes and grenades, no guns – and zombie enemies begin to rain from the sky, in showers of 5,000 at a time. Just like the end of a Scavengers match, dropships are inbound, and players need to protect them until they’re ready to take off. The Messengers gleefully reel off kill counts, which rapidly approach the five-digit mark. Even this moment, though, is more about the spectacle than the violence. It has the feel of someone tugging a cord to release balloons at midnight, or confetti cannons being unleashed during the final song of a set.
This is just the beginning of Improbable’s experiments, and the results look likely to stray further and further from the Scavengers blueprint. When we speak to Diemer, he is planning the next event. “It will be a little bit more experimental,” he says, teasing that it might play more like a platformer than a shooter. Meanwhile, Improbable is finding plenty of other applications for ScavLab. It’s using it for realtime balance testing, inviting hundreds of players at once to try out potential new Scavengers weapons and enemies. Diemer mentions
“If you have a scenario that is supposed to work with 5,000 players, how do you test it?”
the potential for holding an AMA session, embodied into something that’s more like a Comic Con panel.
“I think everybody sees the potential, in many different parts of the company – because there’s more going on than games,” he says. (Improbable also has a defence and national security division that works with the UK and US governments, offering simulations that can aid training and operational planning.) Diemer describes it as a “ripple” that has passed across the company and, he believes, out into the wider videogame industry.
“There’s nothing concrete I can talk about yet,” he says, but he thinks developers have sat up and taken notice. “They look at it and go, ‘I don’t quite know what this is, but there’s something very, very interesting there’. Blue ocean, if you want to call it that.” Improbable, by its own admission, still isn’t quite sure what this is either – that, after all, is the point of these experiments in Scavengers. As Whitehead puts it, “we see ourselves as pioneers in this space and so it’s all very exploratory”. It’s worth remembering that it’s barely been a year since he brought that first tech demo to the team – and it has already come a long, long way from simply being a good way to host company meetings.