We meet Hadean and Improbable to discuss how the technology they are trying to define could impact the way we design and develop video games.
When you think about large-scale simulation and video games, it's easy for your mind to immediately jump to The Matrix, visualising a fully immersive, truly enormous game world to exist within.
However, the potential for this technology extends beyond this, giving developers access to resources and tools that could both iterate on how studios develop games and change the types of games they create in the future.
Hadean is a distributed computing company that provides developers with various application libraries to create cloud-native games, applications and simulations. Founded in 2015, it is involved with various industries, including healthcare, finance and virtual events, and recently partnered with Minecraft developers Mojang Studios to explore “new gaming experiences” for the hugely popular building game.
"The simulation engine [Aether Engine] that we built with the Hadean platform is about taking a virtual world and just partitioning it on demand based on the amount of load in the simulation,” explains Vice President of Product Aidan Hobson-Sayers.
For example, simulating a countryside area requires less resources than a busy city. However, if everyone in the city simulation suddenly moves to the countryside, Aether Engine scales dynamically and re-allocates servers to meet this demand. Similarly, if your players are focused in one geographical area, servers can be de-allocated when players log out at night and brought back in the morning.
“This cloud native, dynamic, scalable simulation is what Aether Engine provides and is very applicable to gaming,” Hobson-Sayers says.
This technology is what powered EVE Aether Wars, a series of three multiplayer demos that saw thousands of players fighting in real-time in outer space, all sharing the same game world. Developed in collaboration with EVE Online studio CCP Games, the first demo of Aether Wars featured almost 3,800 players spread across over 120 countries alongside over 10,000 AI spaceships, hosted at the 2019 Game Developers Conference. CCP Games have previously used time-dilation, which slows the game down, to accommodate world record breaking player counts in the game but CEO of CCP Hilmar Veigar Pétursson and Hadean had a different ambition for Aether Wars: a real-time dogfight in the vein of Star Wars.
"It was enabling [Hilmar] to do something he couldn’t do today, so if it failed, he couldn’t do it anyway. If we were successful, then that obviously paves the way to the next generation of games or cloud-gaming,” Hadean CEO Craig Beddis says.
The demos also served as a learning experience for Hadean, a chance to battle-test its technology.
“It was really trying to demonstrate what a truly large-scale, persistent, real-time game could look like, versus the experience of how you can do it today,” Beddis says.
Similar ambitions drive Improbable, a cloud-gaming focused tech company based in London and founded in 2012. SpatialOS, Improbable’s networking engine, allows developers to create and host massive cloud-based games and other computationally demanding multiplayer game types by dividing the computational cost of simulations across multiple game servers. The company also uses its technology across various sectors, including defence and national security – and recently, like Hadean, modelling the spread of Covid-19.
“By networking servers in the cloud and allowing those servers to contribute computational power to maintaining the simulation – game world or other form of simulation – it allows for more flexible and potentially larger, more detailed, more complex worlds,” Head of Communications Daniel Griffiths explains.
Online multiplayer games often rely on dedicated servers to connect players, or peer-to-peer systems where one or more players host the game on their own computers. This can limit the scope of both large games like World of Warcraft, as well as restricting player counts and world complexity in more focused experiences.
“In each case, you hit computational limits, effectively. SpatialOS is conceived as a way of getting around those limits to achieve particular effects,” Griffiths says.
Improbable hopes to showcase this with the upcoming multiplayer game Scavengers, being developed by its in-house studio Midwinter Entertainment. The game sees 60 players split into teams and fighting against each other whilst struggling to survive against AI enemies in a hostile, frozen landscape. Scavengers uses mechanics found in many other contemporary games, such as survival elements. However, SpatialOS “allows you to have more of those systems interlocking, effectively, and interacting with each other” according to Griffiths.
“Through leveraging the technology, we have been able to feature many hundreds of complex AI enemies and creatures interacting with 60 players within a live match,” CEO and co-founder of Midwinter Josh Holmes. “Delivering that level of scale and strategic depth in gameplay wouldn’t have been possible without SpatialOS.”
Additionally, a Scavengers case study produced by Improbable in 2019 claims that SpatialOS reduces the number of engineers needed by Midwinter to maintain the game’s backend – tasks like networking and hosting – and allows developers to take more risks and update live games quickly.
“Small studios can do stuff they couldn’t do before, and big ones can take risks they’d otherwise have to think twice about,” Midwinter engineer Peter Burzynski wrote in the case study, pointing to the potential for persistency in games – effectively, letting players leave their mark on virtual worlds.
“You can do so much that wasn’t possible before. Do you want a map that changes over time? To see every tree ever cut down or every footstep ever taken? That’s all feasible,” Burzynski said.
Both Improbable and Hadean feel that their technology could have a big impact on how games are made, and what types of games are made in the future.
“There are two immediate factions of how you could use this: the first is really connected games, lots of users, lots of interactions between people. That’s what we did with CCP Games,” says Hobson-Sayers. “The other side of it is high fidelity: creating a world where you’re simulating a level of detail that you perhaps haven’t been able to achieve to date.”
For example, Hadean has produced a two million entity city simulation as a proof of concept which facilitates “only a few hundred players.”
“Our technology can be adapted to either of these, be it huge numbers of external connections or enormous fidelity, because it’s the same scaling behaviour behind the scenes,” Hobson-Sayers says.
Both companies are confident in the future of the market and point to the future potential of the ‘metaverse’ – defined by Roblox CEO and founder David Baszucki as “a digital place where people seamlessly get together and interact in millions of 3D virtual experiences” in a recent Wired article. Users could hang out with friends to play games and watch videos, attend virtual events, even study in a simulation-assisted “immersive environment.”
Hadean and Improbable both feel that the pandemic has bolstered the public’s interest in virtual events and socialisation, something which they feel will be further facilitated by the global rollout of 5G internet and their own technology platforms.
“Everyone’s got a little bit of Fortnite envy, right?” Beddis laughs, referring to large-scale events hosted by developers Epic Games in the popular multiplayer game, such as a concert held by musician Travis Scott or a recent Marvel-themed crossover event. These attracted over 12 million and 15 million concurrent participants, respectively.
“We’ve been very deliberately targeting studios who are pioneers in their field,” he continues, pointing to CCP Games and Mojang. “These are guys who were already [pushing] the boundaries, historically, in gaming. They’re looking at the next generation of what games could be.”
Griffiths adds: “People are looking at ways of having meaningful social experiences without being physically close to each other. There is definitely a real interest in generating larger environments and larger spaces and populating them. What that looks like is an open question.”
However, he warns that developing at this scale comes with its own set of difficulties.
“Games with scale beyond what has traditionally been possible are by definition innovative, and innovation always has challenges – for example, ensuring that there is enough content to fill that larger space, or that player interactions are satisfying during different times of the day, when there may be more or fewer players logged on, or... designing to encourage or support different player behaviours and types of community activity.”
Additionally, multiple projects developed using SpatialOS have been cancelled in recent years, including Worlds Adrift and Mavericks: Proving Grounds. Griffiths notes that making online multiplayer games is inherently challenging, particularly when a studio is trying something innovative.
“The more creative your vision, the more you’re innovating, you take on challenge, definitely,” he says. “In the case of games that, in some cases, didn’t make it all the way through to a full launch, we were providing the networking technology but ultimately, the decision to go forward with the game or not was the studio’s and we respect that, of course.”
Hadean has also encountered various challenges when integrating its platform with existing game development engines not designed with such large simulations in mind and when incorporating systems like player authentication and scoreboards into large-scale games. However, by optimising existing engines to execute these simulations, Hadean has formed a deeper relationship with game engine companies.
“That came out of us identifying a problem with other tech that was limiting our ability to deliver the outcome to the customer,” Beddis says.
In the future, we could even see completely new types of games come out of this technology.
“The additional computational power of networked servers basically gives you more creative headroom,” says Griffiths. “That could be to add some more systems to a recognisable game type, but I’m sure there are people who have ideas which are going to get caught up by the technology.”