Mission Improbable: Making the next generation of online games

Mission Improbable: Making the next generation of online games
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

May 27th 2014 at 12:30PM

Studio head Nick Button-Brown finally shares what his team at London tech start-up Improbable are working towards, and how it hopes to change gaming forever

Not much is known about Improbable. The independently funded London-based games technology start-up first opened its doors last year – but little has yet to emerge from them.

At its founding, the company said its aim was to “create cutting edge technology to enable new experiences in gaming”. It’s a vague goal, but one that a series of high-profile hires have lent credence to. Since 2014 began, the firm has attracted animators, artists, audio directors and more from triple-A developers such as Creative Assembly, Lionhead, Guerrilla Games and Ubisoft. Even Surgeon Simulator developer Bossa Studios has partnered with the firm, but details have yet to be revealed.

Before any of these hires were announced, Improbable tempted Crytek’s general manager for games Nick Button-Brown to abandon traditional games development and lead the London firm’s mysterious work as studio head. Meetings have been held behind closed doors, prototypes have been tirelessly iterated upon, but only now is Button-Brown finally able to explain what Improbable is working on. Sort of.

With no official announcements set in stone, Develop asked Button-Brown to reveal all he could about Improbable’s work. The tale he told is one of ambition, new ways of approaching development and a desire to reinvent the online game.

Your work around Improbable is centred around quite a specific vision, something that you’ve been unable to talk about so far. What can you tell us about the driving passion behind your work there?

I’ve been frustrated with online games for a while. I love Titanfall, I respect massively what Vince and the team and Respawn did. I really hope that Destiny is a fantastic, awesome game. But I am frustrated with what online games are at the moment, and they  haven’t been delivering what I want for quite a while.

I want to know what the next generation of games is going to be. I’ve pulled together some thoughts, what would be a kind of manifesto for the next generation on online games, and this is the sort of game I would like to play.

  • I want to play in huge worlds, without bumping into the edge of the world or walking into trees and walls that cunningly create an invisible barrier. I want to be able to walk where I want to walk.
  • I want a world that feels real, where the entities in the world behave like they would in the real world and I don’t have to suspend disbelief and follow all those weird gaming norms that we all accept until someone from the outside points out that they don’t make any sense.
  • I want to play in a world that changes because of what I’ve done – and not just in a binary, scripted way but a way that makes sense based on real behaviours, based on how you would expect the real world to react.
  • If I knock over a guy on the street and I go round the corner and then come back, I want him to be unhappy with me rather than starting the conversation tree he just had with me all over again.
  • I want games where I can genuinely do what I want, rather than take me down a decision tree or binary pipeline or something like that.
  • I also want games that I can play with people all around the world, not just the people on the server that I happened to sign up to on the day the game launched.
  • I want to be part of the Minas Tirith battle in Lord of the Rings, charging into battle with 2,000 of my closest friends.
  • I want to have to outwit an army and a general, not just an individual soldier. I want to feel the intelligence of his behaviour and reaction.
  • I also want to take on a city built by the people on NeoGAF, because I want to see if they can build their own city rather than just taking down everybody else’s.

How can Improbable and its technology help developers accomplish this? You are a relatively small team, particularly when compared to Bungie creators Destiny or Skyrim developer Bethesda Softworks. How can a team of your size achieve the goals you’re aiming for?

Making all this stuff is hard. Making it for an MMO would be hard, but for a first-person shooter is even harder. I’ve pitched many elements of this over the years – your readers may remember this. They’ve always been great pitches and I’ve got very excited, but the reality is the first thing that gets cuts is all this emergent gameplay because the technology isn’t there to make this happen and researching these kind of things is very expensive.

I want to play in a world that changes because of what I’ve done – and not just in a binary, scripted way but a way that makes sense based on real behaviours. I want to be part of the Minas Tirith battle in Lord of the Rings, charging into battle with 2,000 of my closest friends.

Nick Button-Brown, Improbable

It’s always been a frustration for me. I’ve always had these plans but I’ve never been able to deliver. So when I first started talking to Improbable, they were a bunch of incredibly bright computer scientists. I loved their vibe of having a whole bunch of smart people in the room – the fact is they were working on solutions that I hadn’t seen before, even to problems I’d been looking at for years. They were working on some really cool tech, and that allows me to work on these new gaming experiences and it’s helping me build towards those things.

We’re not going to manage to do everything straight away, but trying to get there is really, really worthwhile. There are problems and there are traditional ways that games companies look at them, but the way we’re looking at them is completely different. It throws away the previous solutions and comes up with completely different ways of doing things.

I am excited about the idea of working on a new kind of online game, the next generation of online games. We have a really cool but small, talented development team and they’re working on some really cool stuff: some prototypes and this bigger game with some really cool elements of gameplay, but perhaps the most important thing about coming to Improbable is not just that I can build this myself, it’s that I also get to give the tools and tech to other developers to work with. And I get to give them to really incredible, talented people that I’ve been friends with for many years that have shared these frustrations that I’ve had, that have faced the same problems but haven’t been able to come up with any solutions. There’s also a whole new generation of people that have really great, creative ideas and I’m meeting them for the first time as part of this process.

Genuinely, I want to give everybody these tools and tech and see what they come up with, hoping they’re going to come up with something completely different to what I’m thinking and create a whole new kind of gameplay that I can’t even imagine at the moment.

One of those partners, the first we’ve announced, is Bossa. The fantastic thing about them – as with all the other, unannounced partners – is they grasped the possibilities of what we’re talking about straight away. It wasn’t like we had to persuade them – they were starting to think about things in terms of new gameplay straight away. There was this fantastic vibe in the meeting where everyone was getting excited about the possibilities, and trying to think about games in a different way. It was about what you could do, what the possibilities could give you, rather than what you couldn’t do – and just that really positive vibe is what we’re looking for from the partners we’re working with. We’re looking for them to come up with wholly different solutions to problems that I didn’t even know existed.

What can you tell us about the titles and prototypes that both Bossa and Improbable are working on? How do they demonstrate this idea of emergent gameplay?

One is called The Jackal Story, and it’s a great example of what I mean by emergent gameplay. We have a demo that is a huge battle that results in loads of bodies, because that’s what happens with huge battles. It created a design question: what do we do with all the fallen bodies? It’s a persistent game so we don’t have the luxury of corpses vanishing after 15 seconds. That meant we had huge piles of them.

I want to give everybody these tools and tech and see them create a whole new kind of gameplay that I can’t even imagine at the moment.

Nick Button-Brown, Improbable

We toyed with the idea of making them into barricades, but that sounded a little too weird. So the design solution was to add a race of jackals. The jackals will scavenge and consume the resources, and once the resources have been consumed, the bodies will disappear. The jackals have their own ecology: when the food source is larger, they multiply and when it’s smaller, they diminish. So with lots of bodies, they have a much larger food source and an hour and a half later, they’ll have multiplied massively and all of a sudden they’re a threat. They come in, clear the battlefield and they become a threat.

The emergent gameplay comes from how you’re going to deal with that. You can stand there and pick them off as they come in, or you can wait for an hour and a half and build your defences to prepare for their attack. Or you could do something slightly more interesting and go to another area of the world where there is a predator of the jackals that you can tempt into your area, using the creature to control the jackal population. Or you can do something random – I like the idea someone tried about building a wall around the battlefield and leaving it as a monument to the fallen dead.

Everybody who talks about it comes up with a different solution, but the point is by defining a fairly simple simulation for the jackals, you can react in so many different ways. These don’t have to be scripted things – in the past, you’d have to script each of those solutions and the circumstances in which they have to happen but we’ve defined an ecology for the jackals, a situation where there’s an excess of their food source, and then that defines a whole different set of emergent gameplay. And everyone comes up with a different solution – they might even want to use the bodies as barricades to block out the next wave of jackals.

We’ve also found a surprising amount of organic play come out of our prototypes. Our CCO came up with a SketchUp mechanic, which lets you create big shapes. It’s a simple tool that exists in a live world, everyone in the game can use it to make big land masses. But what happened was the people around him started using it to compete in destroying each other’s shapes or block people in. It was one of those amazing, completely organic moments when a bunch of people started playing the game that wasn’t a game. It became a game because we’d set rules for ourselves.

I can’t go into any more specifics, I’m afraid. There will come a time – and hopefully soon – when they’re able to talk about what they’re working on, and I’m certainly excited about it. We will, at some stage fairly soon, put out these prototypes that we’re working on so people can see them. The underlying tech is really solid – now we’re just playing with it, evolving it and starting to come up with new bits of gameplay. We’re constantly changing what we’re trying to achieve as we see new possibilities coming forward.

By the end of the year, we hope to have announced all of our first wave of development partners and what they’re working on. We’re looking at a more kind of co-operative form of development. I’ve talked to my friends at studios for years and we’ve always discussed the possibility of working together a bit more, but it’s always really difficult because there’s always constraints and contracts and other legal barriers.

We can make each other better, and help each other reach our goals quicker. I want people to think about working co-operatively – it’s not that big an industry that we shouldn’t be able to talk to our colleagues.

Nick Button-Brown, Improbable

I do want to get to the stage where we are helping each other out. That’s not out of any kind of magnanimous, for the greater good attitude – I just think we can help each other. If I have a solution I can give to another developer, maybe they’ve got something they can give me that will help with what I’m working on here. We can make each other better, and help each other reach our goals quicker. I want people to think about working co-operatively – it’s not that big an industry that we shouldn’t be able to talk to our colleagues.

To go back to your manifesto for future online games, do you think that other developers have been holding back from what next-generation games could be? It’s been a year since the unveiling of Xbox One and PS4 – would you agree with the argument that most games for these devices so far have just been building on previous gen concepts?

This is not specific to consoles. There’s a new generation of gameplay experiences that the consoles are just another window into. I want to see the next generation of gameplay and, yes, I haven’t seen that from the consoles yet but that’s kind of irrelevant. I’ve seen some really interesting gameplay on tablets and mobiles. I want to see how they’re all evolving – I don’t really care what platform a game’s on. All that matters is that these new experiences that I haven’t had before and are games that I want to play.

You joined Improbable after several years at Crytek. What’s different about working at the two studios? How has the way in which you work changed?

It’s different running seven teams and working across several different projects to actually getting down and being involved in what we’re making at Improbable. If something is not quite working, we can try something else, look at different ways of doing things. It’s nice to actually build games and work with other people that are building games. There is that springboarding of exciting games. It’s very different working for a company of about 35 people compared to working for a company of over 1,000.

What we’re doing and the speed of iteration on what we’re developing is so much quicker. Even what I said last week is not necessarily valid this week – and there’s nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean the decision process I went through last week was wrong, it just means we’ve learned stuff through what we’ve done this week. We can completely change direction and emphasis, and maybe more importantly we can see what’s fun and rebuild around that. It’s very difficult being a triple-A games developer – you always set out with a concept and discovery phase, but then you’re dealing with 25 artists who have finished the DLC and needing them to work on something else. In doing that, you’re taking away that experimentation side. It’s really exciting to be sitting in the middle of that experimentation and not to have those constraints where I’ve got to move to the next stage right now. Instead that next stage might be completely changed because we’ve found out something while we’re doing it, and we’re constantly changing and evolving what we’re building.

I don’t really care what platform a game’s on. All that matters is that these new experiences that I haven’t had before and are games that I want to play.

Nick Button-Brown, Improbable

What role do you think companies like Improbable, which are focused on experimentation, can play in today’s games industry?

The big thing for me is about helping other people experiment as well. If we build a good enough set of tools and pipelines that change the way that you can approach these types of games and then give those to a bunch of other people, that’s to everybody’s benefit. We’re giving other people the change to iterate and be creative.

It’s always been a struggle for small teams to work on big online games. We want to help smaller teams deliver much richer gameplay experiences.

Improbable has hired a lot of well-known talent. Will this expansion continue? What size team are you aiming for?

We’ll continue to expand as and when talent becomes available. We have a small, very tight, very skilled senior game team and there are a couple of other hires we haven’t announced yet. As people who have the right mindset become available, we’ll certainly bring them on board. But at the same time, we’re looking for a whole bunch of people to help build the architecture. We just hired a fairly senior person from Google, and it’s really exciting to get somebody of that status and magnitude is really cool. It’s almost like validation when you’re talking to people whose opinions you respect and they agree with you so much that they want to join you.

So, yeah, we’re definitely looking to hire more of the right kind of people – those that get what we’re trying to do, see the possibilities and run with the flexibility that we’re giving them.

When you’re creating your own game moments; jumping off a building, landing on a Titan and riding him around while everybody is desperately trying to shoot you – those are the moments where you feel powerful, and that’s the kind of game I want to play.

Nick Button-Brown, Improbable

What else are you doing to reach out to new development partners?

At the moment, we’re just talking to people that we know. Some get really excited about our work really quickly – they’re the first wave of partners that we’re working with. We know who are the more flexible developers, the ones who want to do something interesting, and those are the developers we want to be talking to.

What have you played recently where you’ve thought the gameplay is more fun than in titles you’ve seen before?

I’ve been playing a lot of mobile games. I love Monument Valley, that’s a really cool game. I love seeing what Starbreeze did with PayDay 2 – the way they’ve taken a fun game and built more and more out of it. They’ve almost created a new genre. I love playing those kind of games, that kind of co-operative experience where I’m playing with my friends and we genuinely have to help each other.

I love Titanfall. I’ve been playing lots of that. When you’re creating your own game moments; jumping off a building, landing on a Titan and riding him around while everybody around you is desperately trying to shoot you off the top of it to protect the guy inside – those are the moments where you feel powerful, and that’s the kind of game I want to play.