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."

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Latest comments (14)

Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 7 years ago
If it can do what he says it does, maybe we will finally see the games I have always dreamed of making and playing.

I'm still a bit confused about what the technology actually does to achieve that, though. Obviously they want to keeep certain things a secret, but... seriously, what does it do?
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Shawn Clapper Programmer 7 years ago
Guy says lots of words but I am still no further to understanding what he is selling.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shawn Clapper on 27th May 2014 6:40pm

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Julian Beck HR Consultant 7 years ago
Stopped reading the article after like one third, the guy uses rather marketing talk than to say what is what.
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Show all comments (14)
Gianni Howard-Hole Community Manager, Improbable7 years ago
Hey, I work at Improbable and I just wanted to jump in and say that we'll be releasing some technical blogs soon through our website which should give more concrete details on what we are up to.
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Greg Scheel Executive Game Designer and Producer 7 years ago
Show us the source code.
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James Berg Games User Researcher 7 years ago
Well, they're aptly named at least. This sounds like a lot of "I'm going to revolutionize EVERYTHING", coming from someone that hasn't, at least with supplied information here, done anything in the space before. If it works, and lives up to these claims, awesome.

Gianni, having you guys talking up the tech, and claiming it's going to do basically everything, without anything to show is a good way to make a first impression consisting entirely of skepticism. You're building your own uphill battle for future PR.
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Peter Freese Senior AR Developer, Unity Technologies7 years ago
The photo of a bunch of dudes all working like galley slaves in an open room with another guy looking over their shoulders kind of failed to impress me.
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"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."

I dare to disagree. Players do want to kill the dragon themselves, not hear that some dude named l33tSp4mmer or whatever killed it. Players want to find the treasure themselves. Players want to destroy the Death Star with single small star fighter themselves, even though the saw Luke do it.

Someone saying otherwise doesn't know about game design one bit.

I didn't read much else, as someone said: this was mostly marketing article.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kim Soares on 28th May 2014 8:13am

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Eyal Teler Programmer 7 years ago
Sounds to me like what they're doing is:
- An MMO engine, with a large seamless persistent world which can be changed by devs or players easily.
- An AI behaviour engine, which allows defining complex behaviours for NPC's.

These aren't bad things, but at least for me that doesn't sound really exciting. The MMO engine may be a good thing if it can easily be used with a variety of engines, such that Unity or Unreal Engine could be used for the game systems and still easily provide a good MMO world. The behaviours are nice too, but I don't really see a game based purely on them as very exciting. IMO thousands of players fighting a dragon is a lot less interesting than a single party, even if every other party have fought that dragon.
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Jordi Rovira i Bonet Lead Engineer, Anticto7 years ago
If the online world is Game Of Thrones, Narula wants the player to be George RR Martin

Game of Thrones wouldn't be very good if written by a milion people at the same time.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
Read the whole article, didn't learn a single factoid. Can my company get some of these free adverts please? We're currently make a cold fusion power station that fits in a shed.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
Activate Omega 13.
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David Serrano Freelancer 7 years ago
I hope he succeeds but I think he's putting the cart before the horse. Because insufficiently advanced development tools are not preventing the medium from being elevated, or evolving. The refusal to retire or replace outdated legacy theories, concepts, formats, devices and mechanics is what's holding the medium back.

No one will argue that developers and publishers don't need new tools to reduce escalating development costs. But if Herman could deliver technology 50 years ahead of its time tomorrow, what would the overwhelming majority of developers and publishers, including indies, do with it? They'd use it to make minor iterations on the same types of games they already develop. Based on the conventional wisdom that doing so would allow them to further monetize their existing audiences. They'd continue to pander to sub-segments of their installed base by creating more of this: [link url=""][/link], long before they'd attempt to reach larger, more demographically diverse and profitable audiences by assuming the minimal risk required to create this: [link url=""][/link]. "This" being products which may not adhere to what they define as games, but deliver concepts, experiences and activities that mass market consumers of all ages, races and genders have already embraced as culturally relevant and meaningful forms of play.
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Jess Mulligan Game Director, Travian Games GmbH7 years ago
Seriously, I agree with Paul; can I have an article-length advert, too? :)

This sounds like another middleware product for creating MMOs, in the same vein as BigWorld or Hero Engine. That isn't a bad thing, but, as the CEO acknowledges in the article, he needs dev teams to actually use it to bring a game to life. Providing the base technology is just the start; someone has to design the game, write the narratives, modify the base technology (because no middleware works out-of-the-box completely for every project), code the systems, mechanics and features, create the art to go with those, et al.

This was the fatal flaw of other failed middleware companies, such as Multiverse. BigWorld did OK for a while, then was bought by Wargaming. Hero Engine provides access to art assets, et al, to help small teams build. But that is about it right now. Unity 3D says it will soon offer network layers and other tools to make online game development easier; if they do, it might become the MMO middleware engine of choice.

Unless the CEO has his own game development team in-house or under contract working on the game he wants to play, he's unlikely to get the MMO he wants. He'll get what the teams that use his middleware decide to build.
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