Mission Improbable: Changing the online world
Meet the CEO of the company that is quietly snapping up talent to build a new type of persistent world
Over the last year or so Improbable has been quietly building a team of industry superheroes, tech veterans and academics for work on a secret weapon that will change nearly everything about game worlds: the way we play them, the way we build them and the way the outside world uses them. The Professor X to this collective is Herman Narula, CEO.
"What I'm saying here is I can take an online game, make it much cheaper, much better, open to a lot more users and offer a whole new kind of experience, and I can plug into existing engines," he tells GamesIndustry International.
Narula is driven by a desire to make games better, by the broken promises of the '80s and '90s that spun dreams of massive worlds and online experiences but failed to deliver. He believes that Improbable's tech can fulfil those promises by offering a developer and finance friendly way to create persistent online worlds backed by powerful simulations. He's coy about details, at this early stage, but believes he can bring a new perspective to world-building.
"Technically, the industry is like an island in the Galapagos"
"The industry has plateaued, and it's plateaued through no fault of the amazing creatives that are in it, but just because, technically, it's like an island in the Galapagos. Separate from the evolution that's happening everywhere else," he exclaims.
"What we want to do is start a conversation and say 'look, why is it we haven't been able to deliver as an industry?' It's because we need to look at the technology, we need to look at the kind of people that we can bring in, we need to try new approaches and I just want to start that conversation."
Those people include Nick Button-Brown, formerly of Crytek, and Sam Kalnins, the man who built Hangouts for Google. When someone is willing to leave the biggest internet company in the world to work on game technology, it's worth asking what that technology is.
"Everything you build in a world that is designed by our technology is backed by simulation. So suddenly things can be persistent, suddenly you're not limited by what can be done on one engine or one server," he explains.
"Secondly you don't have to choose between building really interesting simulation gameplay experiences and creating action gameplay or realtime gameplay. So with the Improbable technology platform that we're creating every developer can build low latency, realtime, high-fidelity gameplay if that's what they want without needing to think about servers, the number of players or anything else."
Perhaps most importantly, this tech will integrate with any existing engine. This isn't a rival to Unreal or CryEngine, but a solution to the problems of building games for the internet generation.
"You are no longer building a giant game and then releasing it - you can still do that - but you don't have to. Our vision is one of live development, so the system world is always-on and developers can continually push content and improvements to that. This isn't a new idea, everyone in the tech world is doing this already, service based architectures, but we're just bringing it to game development."
There are cost implications too of course: Narula wants to make them smaller.
"Games aren't going to be in their own little world anymore. They're going to become something really important for society"
"We're a big believer in reducing costs. Everything I'm talking to you now sounds like a great fairy tale. One of the big reasons developers haven't done it, is that the server-side costs become explosive. That is what we're trying to rationalise. That's why we have, for example, the head of ops from Google in Europe. We want to bring this industrial-scale technology to game development and make it invisible to developers, so that they can benefit from it and grow."
Narula doesn't talk like your average game developer, and Improbable doesn't function like a normal studio. Both are crucial to the studio's success so far. Chatting at around 150 words a minute, Narula explains that the secretive, closed off way of working favoured by so many of the big game studios puts them at a disadvantage.
"What I see as the big structural weakness in the games industry is that the industry doesn't seem to pay attention to or use a lot of the amazing technical innovation that's happening outside of it," he explains.
"We're reaching a sort of tipping point for games where they're not... games aren't going to be in their own little world anymore. They're going to become something really important for society and virtual worlds in particular are something which a lot of people are talking about, not just us."
At GameHorizon earlier this month Improbable announced its first partner, Bossa Studios, home of Surgeon Simulator.
"Bossa is amazing. I've met so many developers now, those guys are phenomenally talented and the only thing holding back big ambition is technology. We're hoping we can solve that problem for them and just get out of their way and let them build the incredible game they want to build."
Narula is also passionate about sharing technology between game companies, pointing at Google's success with its Android platform as an example. It's a moment like this you realise that Narula's position as an outsider in the industry is an advantage - he's only interested in doing things the best way, not the established way.
"And the other really beautiful thing, and Bossa are part of this as well, we're actually opening up a huge amount of the gameplay code that runs on our system so that developers can build off of each other's work. It isn't an essential thing that developers have to do to be able to work with us and many of those that we're speaking too I'm sure will choose not to do that, but the ones that do get a huge advantage."
But how will this translate to the actual gamers? Narula has a telling example of the tech in action.
"The technology doesn't do smoke and mirrors, it doesn't hide things. So we created a simple FPS experience, it was very simple in terms of content but it was backed by a very powerful simulated world," he says.
In that world there were two types of monsters, the aggressors designed for players to shoot and some scavengers that would feed on appropriate things they found in the environment. After a huge battle with the aggressive monsters something unexpected occurred, the dead bodies (persistent, of course) became food for the scavengers, who bred until their numbers were out of control and they became a threat.
"They clogged up the battlefield with huge numbers of these scavengers who then started fighting the players when someone opened fire, and a secondary battle happened that nobody predicted or saw coming."
If nothing else, Narula is a man scarred by years of unsatisfactory fantasy MMOs. He sees quests as a way of "lying" to the player, making it seem like their actions matter in an online world where the NPCs stop as soon as the game does. He envisions a world where there's no need for quests, where assassinating a king isn't just a mission but an event that will change the entire world for everyone in it, gamer or NPC. If the online world is Game Of Thrones, Narula wants the player to be George RR Martin.
"Don't give me an experience where I kill the same dragon my friend killed"
"Don't give me an experience where I kill the same dragon my friend killed. Give me an experience where that dragon is a threat that affects us all and his death or his continued life is an event that effects us all. I want the drama that comes from what does or does not happen as a consequence of what the players do."
It's examples like this that help you to see how important the technology could be both inside games development - what MMO player isn't tired of lining up behind other players to defeat a dungeon boss? - and in the real world.
"What is a complex disaster relief simulation but a kick-ass MMO? What is a powerful military simulation involving thousands of people, but an incredibly exciting experience for the right gamer? Making worlds that are alive and real and can tell us something, that's almost spooky in what it can achieve," he points out.
"It's important to say that we really do feel this fundamental simulation technology that we're building has many, many non-gaming applications. It is a big part of what we do, but we want to take the games industry with us. We want to elevate games and rise to society, and make people understand that the next step of the their evolution, they become something really really important."
Improbable is already talking to a lot of developers, and will be at E3 to speak to even more. What's important to Narula right now is the quality of the visions people have for his technology, how they plan to make the industry a better place with it.
"People should literally just get directly in touch. We have some advisors who are people you might imagine to be very no bullshit people in the industry and their policy has always just been open and just talk to people directly."
"What we now need are inspiring, creative developers who can take what we've done and add that magic that really creates compelling worlds which gamers want to be in."