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Worlds Adrift: How to Break New MMO Ground with Bossa Studios and SpatialOS

William Murphy Posted:
Interviews 0

Improbable’s SpatialOS technology are being used by a number of up and coming MMOs in development. One of the foremost is the sky-pirating Worlds Adrift from Bossa Studios. We caught up with Improbable’s Nick Button-Brown and Bossa’s Henrique Olifers about the game and the engine and how it’s driving developers to new ground in the MMO space.

MMORPG: Was SpatialOS designed to be an MMO technology from the beginning?

Improbable’s Nick Button-Brown: Well the origin of the company is that Herman and Rob (our 2 co-founders) graduated from Cambridge and decided to make a game.  They realised that the game they wanted to make, couldn't be made with the tech that existed at the time, so they decided to make the tech instead.  

So in some ways yes, SpatialOS was designed to make MMOs, but from there the technology became much more.  We have development ongoing in lots of different areas of gaming as well as many other industries.  We have some awesome projects on the go, including a solution for coordinating, in a  predictive way, autonomous vehicle fleets as well as a large scale resource planning project, although a special mention goes to the person simulating the UK housing market on an individual house basis, the people simulating "the Internet", and the person working on the 2D side scrolling mobile game.

MMORPG: What kinds of things does the SpatialOS tech allow that a normal engine wouldn't?

NBB: SpatialOS allows us to take a number of processes traditionally run on the client and run them on a flexible distributed server layer, for example Dsitributed physics for Worlds Adrift.  

What that means is we deliver huge worlds, where very large numbers of players are in the same instance playing together.  We can deliver dense worlds so we can deal with what happens if lots of people go into the same room (I'll tell you about "death by muffin" another time).  We can deliver persistent worlds, meaning that everything that a player does is important and the player can see their own impact on the world.  And we can deliver worlds, defined by simulation rather than by scripting, where we apply complex behaviors to decide how the world works, meaning that the world makes sense no matter what the players do in it.

MMORPG: Have there been any hurdles with the development that you two have collaborated on to overcome, either in Spatial or the game?

NBB: Many and all the time! We are doing something together that has never been done, which means often we don't even know how to test it.  It’s been fantastic working with Bossa, as they have really helped us improve what we are making and correspondingly we have made sure that what they need is built first.

MMORPG: How was the partnership between Bossa and Improbable formed?

Bossa Studios’ Henrique Olifiers:  We got introduced by a common friend very early on, just when Improbable was moving into their offices nearby. I paid them a visit that was supposed to last one hour… Six hours later, we were still discussing what the technology would be capable of, and what we could do with it. We got into a good flow that day.

We do game jams at Bossa once a month. Everyone in the team stops their projects and focuses on new ideas that become playable prototypes after 48 hours of jamming. All in all, we create some five or six new playable game ideas per month, 30 or so per year. Most never see the light of day as a real title, but the best ones (like I Am Bread) get picked up to become a full project and launched.

Worlds Adrift came out of one of such jams, but a special one that lasted a week rather than 48 hours. The theme of the jam was ‘Games as a Habit’, aiming at creating long-lasting titles. We loved the prototype of Worlds, but deemed too ambitious for a team our size to be able to pull off. Well, that was until we met Improbable some months later and realised that their tech could enable us to make this game. And so we began!

MMORPG: What kind of MMORPG is Worlds Adrift? You're still kind of under the radar, so an overview would go well with our readers!

HO: Worlds Adrift is not an MMORPG, and this is a very important distinction to make. We went to great lengths to distance the game concept from the traditional tropes associated with the genre, because we think there haven’t been any real innovation in MMORPGs for quite a long time.

WA is a MMSG -- Massive Multiplayer Sandbox Game, where players are free to do whatever they want in a persistent world that changes with each player’s actions. Cut down a tree and it’s cut forever until it grows back up. Blow a ship out of the sky and its parts will rain into the ground below, remaining there forever until someone or something comes along and messes it up. Players create stories by simple playing, as they change the world around them as they go about their interactions.

There is no XP, no NPCs, no creature popping up into existence out of a spawnpoint. Creatures are part of an ecosystem, driven by AI who tells them to feed, to mate, to reproduce, to defend their territory and so on.

The physicality of Worlds Adrift is also a very strong aspect of the game. Every object -- from a cannonball to a log, from a creature to a ship -- are really in the world and react to every other object, player and creature as such. This is transformative for a game like this: it means there’s no absolute winning strategy.

One example I love to recount is a play-session we had a while ago. Three ships engaged in combat, and one of them with two engines (one in each side of the ship) got shot by a cannonball that ripped off one of the engines. The ship immediately entered a spin as it only had thrust on one of its sides. Then the falling engine landed on another ship below that was maneuvering into position. Thing is, this ship was armed and plated to the teeth, thus very heavy. The additional weight of the dead engine that landed on its deck made it unable to keep flying, so the crew started to push the engine overboard. Problem is, the plating was high and didn’t allow the engine to roll over. So they manned their cannons and shot off their own plates in order to create a gap to push the engine overboard and become able to fly again.

On a subsequent session, one of us had the brilliant idea of not arming his ship at all. Instead, learning from the previous battle, he loaded a lot of junk over his deck and flew over his target, tilting the ship and raining metal over the ship below. The crew got killed by a rain of junk and the ship started to fall from the sky with the added weight.

None of these behaviors were coded, they just emerged from the players’ imagination because Worlds Adrift enables people to think and experiment. And this is as fun as it sounds.

MMORPG: What kinds of things does the SpatialOS tech allow that a normal engine wouldn't?

HO: The SpatialOS enables us to move processing resources around the game world on demand, as and when they’re needed. This is what makes it possible for us to simulate physics, AI, persistency -- all these new gameplay aspects that were never part of a massive online game before.

It also handles a good part of the network logic that is traditionally what makes massive online games so much more complex to develop, enabling a smaller team to tackle a genre that in the past was limited to very large studios and budgets. With small teams, we can dare to innovate and experiment, precisely what massive online games need to be reborn.

MMORPG: Have there been any hurdles with the development that you two have collaborated on to overcome, either in Spatial or the game?

HO: Many, on a weekly basis, all the time. Improbable has been developing SpatialOS in parallel with the game for the past 18 months, one can imagine how difficult and complex this can become. But thankfully our teams and projects are symbiotic: SpatialOS evolved because of the requirements of Worlds Adrift, while the game was somewhat shaped by the strengths of the platform. Every hurdle we faced to this point we were able to solve between our teams. The talent density we got working on this game on both sides -- Bossa and Improbable -- is quite something.

MMORPG: When can we expect to see World Adrift go live and see SpatialOS in action?

HO: Hopefully very soon. We’re talking a few months from now. All the missing features of the first version of the game are currently being worked on, this is the last cycle of implementations prior to balancing and testing, it’s getting close.  We’ve had three playtests already, with more to come this month and April. After that, if all goes according to plan, we’ll start ramping up for Early Access.

What we’ve built and have been working on has never been tried before. Worlds Adrift is very unique in many ways, and this makes it unpredictable from a game design point of view. Getting it right is difficult, but the payout is immense: once you swing around freely in the sky, build any shape of flying ship you want, brave storm walls with your crew, fight and explore a massive world full of lore and mysteries that respond to your ideas… There’s no turning back to the traditional online game.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.