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Improbable acquires Scavengers developer

CEO Herman Narula explains strategy behind Midwinter purchase, addresses shut down of some high-profile SpatialOS titles

Improbable is adding to its internal development capabilities. The SpatialOS company today announced that it has acquired Midwinter Entertainment, the Washington-based studio using the cloud simulation tech for its online shooter Scavengers.

Midwinter joins Improbable's London and Edmonton studios, both of which were announced within the last year, to comprise the company's roster of internal game development teams. The studio has been working with the SpatialOS maker for some time, as they formalized a partnership to fund Scavengers development in late 2017, before Midwinter had even announced its existence. It was the first such external funding agreement for Improbable.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz this week, Improbable CEO Herman Narula and Midwinter studio head Josh Holmes explained the rationale behind the move.

"As we announced last year with our start of the Edmonton studio, we're really keen to start building really great content because there's a virtuous cycle between innovating in games technology and then building content," Narula says. "Epic Games is a great example of how that can work. It's really important if you're going to build something that can move the boundaries and improve things for people, that you're working with the best developers on the planet to perfect and improve something like that.

"Midwinter had been so much more than a customer. Josh and me were talking really regularly. The company had already felt like a sister entity we were working so closely together. So it seemed like a logical, natural next step to combine both our profound appreciation of the game they were making and also the close relationship between the companies, to take that forward and use that to augment the already hopefully exciting games content we're starting to build internally."

"Part of what we found in partnering with Improbable around the development of Scavengers was just the freedom they give us to build things our way..."

Josh Holmes

While Holmes admits he founded Midwinter in part to have some independence and call his own shots when it came to game development, his experience to date with Improbable made him comfortable accepting an acquisition offer before the studio had even launched its first title.

"Part of what we found in partnering with Improbable around the development of Scavengers was just the freedom they give us to build things our way, staying out of our way on the game development side, and then offering really fantastic support as far as the SpatialOS technology is concerned," Holmes says. "The collaboration we've had around specific features in the [game development kit]... has been really positive."

Additionally, Holmes says the day-to-day operation of Midwinter should be relatively unchanged despite the acquisition.

"We'll continue to operate as a semi-independent organization," Holmes says. "We'll still be independently focused on how we develop our games and how we lead our teams, but we gain from the larger company a level of stability and also the resources and support necessary to allow us to achieve much larger and more ambitious goals, which is really exciting."

While Improbable has gone from no internal developments teams to three in relatively short order, Narula downplays the idea that this represents a pivot toward internal game development.

"My first ever hire after the early engineers was actually a concept artist," Narula says. "So we were very keen from the very beginning to build technology to those games. We just had to get the technology to a point of maturity where doing that made sense. And I think it took the shipping of content by indie developers in the beginning, and us getting to a point of stability where we felt we could take a step like this."

As for that step toward internal development, Narula paints it as an important part of the company's evolution because it not only shows off what the technology can do, but it shows potential partners that the tech is ready for prime time.

"So now if you're a developer building an Unreal game, a shooter, an arena experience, or something exciting, you can not only use Spatial for all of its value propositions, but you can trust the specific features and aspects that are most cutting edge are actually being battle-hardened by great games," Narula says.

"Having incredible talent like Josh and his team on board means we can actually go and build really ambitious games, even when that isn't necessarily something the rest of the market wants to do..."

Herman Narula

The Improbable executive wasn't willing to go into detail about its portfolio strategy for internally developed games, but he clearly believes the point of these studios is more than simply showing developers in popular genres how Improbable tech could be incorporated into their pre-existing designs.

"Having incredible talent like Josh and his team on board means we can actually go and build really ambitious games, even when that isn't necessarily something the rest of the market wants to do in a particular segment, sector, or type of feature," Narula says. "So it gives us the freedom to actually make some creative choices and push technology in a direction that inspires us without always having to wait for someone to want to build that type of game."

He points to Improbable Edmonton as evidence of that, saying the studio headed up by former BioWare GM Aaryn Flynn is working on a high-fidelity RPG even though "that's something which not a lot of people are doing in the online space anymore... for a lot of good, commercial reasons."

Commercial reasons were also among the factors blamed recently when a handful of Improbable's earliest partners pulled the plug on their Improbable projects, including Bossa Studios, Spilt Milk Studios, and Automaton Games. Regardless, Narula doesn't think of those projects' struggles as a knock against Improbable.

"From a SpatialOS perspective, if you're able to build your game, launch it, take it to market, get it out there and doing the things you wanted it to do, that's very exciting and exactly what we exist to do as a technology provider and an engine provider," Narula says. "So while that's unfortunate, we don't look at that as a fundamental problem for a technology provider. We obviously want our games to be as successful as possible and to do everything we can for our partners.

"But I wouldn't say us getting into content is a response to that, unless you include the fact that by those games having been built and the wave of great content we've seen announced for the platform, it's sort of created more technology maturity and taken us to the point where I think us and other partners are all building more games on SpatialOS. And these pioneering games really helped with that."

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