Worlds apart: The promise of SpatialOS

Worlds apart: The promise of SpatialOS
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

January 5th 2016 at 12:35PM

We speak to London-based start-up Improbable about the technology it claims will build bigger game worlds than ever before

“OASIS managed to overcome limitations that had plagued previous simulated realities,” Ready Player One author Ernest Cline writes about the novel’s Matrix-like technology.

“In addition to restricting the overall size of their virtual environments, earlier MMOs had been forced to limit their populations, usually to a few thousand users per server. But the OASIS could draw additional processing power from every computer connected to it. At launch, the OASIS could handle up to 5m users, with no chance of a system crash.”

“That is literally what we’ve built,” Improbable CEO Herman Narula tells Develop. “Even the way Kline describes it is very similar.”

Narula is talking about the firm’s SpatialOS, a new operating system that operates across “hundreds or many thousands of machines” – the idea being that developers can build a game or application that scales across all of those devices, unlocking new possibilities for world-building.

The tech can already be seen working in Bossa’s upcoming title Worlds Adrift, a project said to have a game world that is “the size of Israel”. Players explore floating islands in the sky as they harvest resources to build and improve their ship and explore the vast reaches of the game’s environment, all while battling other players and in-game enemies. 

“SpatialOS basically multiplies what a developer can do,” says Narula. “It acts like a smart infrastructure which manages these quite complex running applications. 

“It exists to try and scale things like massive simulations, which previously no-one could do. We want to open that up as a way for people to model things like cities or economies. They could even use it to look at processes within a company or, as we like to do, power really interesting game worlds.

“Anything you can see, you can go to. There are no loading screens. There is absolutely nothing about this that is in any way tricking players or faked. It’s true simulation – or as we call it, smart simulation.”

 

LIFE, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

It’s not just the size of the world that takes a leap forward, but also the life that inhabits it.

Narula says that, in addition to player-controlled characters, Worlds Adrift contains “millions of creatures that have real lifecycles”. 

“They eat, they move around the world,” he explains. “They don’t have fixed NavMeshes, they actually decide where they want to go. That’s made possible by the fact that it’s powered by this technology that’s splitting up all that work in a particularly clever way.”

In fact, entities and other elements of the world will continue to interact even when players aren’t nearby – or even online. 

Another crucial feature of SpatialOS is history and persistence. If you cut down a tree in Worlds Adrift, it stays cut down – although Narula has more ambitious examples.

“You can take a photograph in the game world and put it into a photo frame in the hull of your ship,” he says. “If that ship collapses, raining debris everywhere, that picture frame will remain there in the dirt until someone finds it.

Anything you can see, you can go to. There are no loading screens. Nothing is faked.

“When you come across a campfire, signs of a battle or a corpse, it tells you something has happened here. That level of interaction is worth more than the sum of its parts; it starts to create worlds with actual meaning in them.

“Developers have always been about selling people a fantasy, and that’s wonderful. But we want to go that one step further; we want to give people real worlds – and, by ‘real’, I mean that their experiences within those worlds can feel meaningful.” 

Improbable is keen to establish that SpatialOS is not just another middleware product. It’s an operating system designed to serve as the foundation of your game, and this requires a different way of thinking when building titles.

“You don’t plug SpatialOS into an existing game that you develop in a normal way,” says Narula. “When you build a game on SpatialOS, you’re building a game in a totally new way – your engine and other components plug into SpatialOS, so it really is an operating system. 

“That fundamentally changes how you create games to make all of this possible. You can just use it in a slight way.”

 

ACCESSIBLE TO ALL

Crucially, the firm is working hard to ensure established games tech can be used with SpatialOS. Unity is already fully integrated, and the team is working on adding support for other engines and middleware, including physics and graphics simulators.

A key point is that SpatialOS is not just for building PC titles – it’s cross-device. In fact, games built on SpatialOS can be cross-platform as well. 

“The way that developers build onto SpatialOS means that any device can be a portal into their world,” Narula explains. 

“You can run a game engine locally so you don’t have latency issues when players move around, and that hooks into the SpatialOS simulation. So you can take a VR headset, mobile device or PC and plug them into the same world. 

“Each player can have a slightly different experience. Mobile users might play a top-down game while PC players have an FPS – but it’s the same world. And building that is really easy and straightforward.”

SpatialOS is also built with more than MMOs in mind; it is intended to power any connected experience. As long as the end device has internet access, it can be used with a SpatialOS world in some way. For Narula, the possibilities for other genres are endless.

“How about FPS battles on a massive scale that are happening as part of a bigger war that’s unfolding?” he says. “How about RTS games where you’re waging war over a really big space? 

“It can make single-player worlds feel more alive. How many times have you walked through a city in an RPG filled with the same clone NPCs, not really doing much? What if they were moving around, interacting in ways that mean your actions actually matter?”

 

DAWN OF A NEW AGE

With the technology now publicly unveiled and demonstrated in Worlds Adrift, Improbable is keen to get more people using SpatialOS. If devs are keen to use the OS to power their game worlds, they can sign up at Improbable’s website and access to the tech will be rolled out over time.

“They won’t even need to deal with Improbable, and eventually they’ll be able to just use it like a remote tool such as Amazon Web Services,” says Narula. “That means we’ll see loads of independents building things – we’re already starting to see that now.

“We’re quietly putting more people into our very early alpha program right now. Over the course of the next year it should become more public. We’re quietly opening this up to people but holding their hands a little at the moment. Gradually, we should reach a position where we feel more comfortable.”

This isn't about an incremental step forward. It's a whole new age of what's possible in video games.

Improbable is also keen to work with companies that might want to integrate their service, middleware or tool into SpatialOS. 

Narula adds: “If a game engine is integrated with us, anyone using SpatialOS could use that technology as part of their game really easily. The game engine is no longer the central part of building an experience when you use SpatialOS.”

The launch of Worlds Adrift will be a key milestone for both Improbable and its technology, showing the industry the possibilities afforded by SpatialOS for the first time. Narula hopes this title and others built on the new operating system will inspire developers to create new types of experiences in virtual environments that are larger and more alive than ever.

“Without SpatialOS, you’d be unable to build worlds with millions of interacting entities in the same place or the same level or persistence or history,” he says. “You wouldn’t be able to create massive places for people to explore, or serve millions of users across different devices in the same world.

“This isn’t about an incremental step forward. This is a whole new age of what’s possible, and it needs developers to be brave, to embrace it. You can’t just build the same type of games again – you’ve got to create something new to take advantage of this.”

You can find out more at www.improbable.io.