While at GDC this year, we were bombarded by new and exciting pieces of technology, games, and other miscellaneous items for developers to drool over. Normally, I’m a games and neat shiny gadgets kind of person, so when I was asked to stop by the Hero Engine booth for a chat about the MMO development tool, I was a little bit daunted. I’ve never been the most technically minded person and often long talks about coding, implementation and the like leave me confused and befuddled. Needless to say, looking at an engine, the very heart of a game and being asked to write about it was an interesting concept. Fortunately, Hero Engine presents an interesting premise that even a technical moron can understand: It’s an engine that provides a toolset that covers many aspects of game development and is meant to dramatically reduce the amount of time that it takes to create the virtual worlds that we so love. Their slogan? “MMO Development at Light Speed”.
We’ll start with a little bit of short-term history: Hero Engine was originally developed by Simutronics as their in-house engine for their MMO-in-development (more on this later), Hero’s Journey. As they started demoing the game and its engine at shows like GDC, developers started showing an interest in the mechanics behind the game. It wasn’t long before the powers that be realized that, although it hadn’t been their intention from the beginning, it would probably be in the company’s best interest to get into the business of selling their unique engine full time.
The decision to move away from being a development-only studio and into being both a game maker and engine provider ended up putting a strain on the development of Hero’s Journey which has taken a back seat to the other project.
With that in mind, I was specifically told that Hero’s Journey is still a game in development and that they are now beginning to work as two separate teams: The engine development team and the game development team. Previously, everyone had been wearing two hats resulting in the slower development of HJ.
Now, with that update out of the way, let’s get to talking a little bit about the engine itself:
I think that the thing that blew me away most about the engine was the fact that the developers were able to actually make and alter the game world in real time. Basically, the engine lays out the world and the developers “populate” it the same way they would if they were in the game. The difference is that the developers in question have full ability to alter the world around them in collaboration with the others on their team.
Now again, my experience with engines is fairly limited, but I can remember from my brief time working on an MMO, that the time it takes for people to make specific changes in most other engines is much longer and the collaborative process is much more difficult to pull off, both in implementation and coordination and is certainly more time consuming.
This technology, we were told, actually has the ability to carry over not just into development, but into the live game. So, if you can imagine being a part of a live event where some of the monsters or NPCs are inhabited by developers, or where the developers can literally change the landscape based on the actions of the players… Hero Engine actually makes that easy.
It should also be noted that Hero Engine is 100% built to service MMOs. While some other engines have to be altered (taking up time and resources) to fit the MMO mould, Hero Engine accommodates it all “out of the box” and while we’ve only ever seen Hero Engine demoed using a fantasy setting, the developers assured me that it could be easily adapted for other genres as well.
There are lots of ways to tell that the folks over at Simutronics have built a great engine. First and probably foremost to a lot of people is the fact that their highest profile announced client are the folks over at Bioware Austin making Star Wars: The Old Republic. In fact, they even use a quote from co-studio director Gordon Walton in their promotional material:
"At BioWare we selected HeroEngine because it had the most sophisticated and complete development tools available for building an amazing online experience. Our team wanted a great rapid prototyping environment and to work with experienced MMO developers. HeroEngine from Simutronics is a perfect fit for BioWare Austin's requirements."
Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing this engine in action. The first MMo scheduled to be released using the engine? That would be the upcoming steampunk-themed “advanced casual” MMO, The World of Gatheryn.
So, that’s a quick look at the Hero Engine, at least from a layman’s perspective, and on a game note, the mystery of Hero’s Journey would seem to have been solved… for now.