The tech that makes MMO development easy for indies

Two years and a Google partnership later, we check in on Improbable's SpatialOS.

Bossa Studios

SpatialOS is the technical foundation that makes massive, persistent, online world-building possible, even for small video game studios. Think of large, mainstream games like Destiny or Elder Scrolls Online: These are huge universes that support thousands of players at a single time. It typically takes millions of dollars and hundreds of people multiple years to make one of these games -- let alone support it post-launch -- which is one reason it's notoriously difficult to secure funding for the development of massively multiplayer online games.

However, SpatialOS puts a spin on this standard. Improbable's computational platform offers cloud-based server and engine support for MMO games, allowing developers to easily create and host online, multiplayer experiences with persistent features. SpatialOS first made a splash at GDC 2015, when it promised to power MMO games with a swarm-like system of servers that switch on as they're needed in locations around the world.

Since then, Improbable has secured a deal with Google and launched SpatialOS in alpha. As a testament to the platform's staying power, development on one of the first titles to use SpatialOS, Worlds Adrift, is still chugging along nicely.

Worlds Adrift comes from Bossa Studios, the home of Surgeon Simulator, I am Bread and a handful of other ridiculous, popular games. Worlds Adrift is bigger than anything in Bossa's repertoire: It's a gigantic sandbox-style experience that places players in a shared universe filled with unique floating islands, flying airships and Spider-Man-like grappling hooks.

Worlds Adrift allows players to explore an ecosystem spanning hundreds of kilometers and thousands of individual islands. The islands are a game on their own -- the Worlds Adrift Island Creator hit Steam in April, allowing any player to dive into the developer toolbox and design their own unique landscapes. Thousands of player-created islands are live in Worlds Adrift right now, with more incoming every day.

For Bossa, this custom approach to island design replaces procedural generation, a more common development practice that uses algorithms to create varied, yet limited, landscapes.

"We've now actually gotten to the point where the entire world is all hand-crafted," designer Luke Williams says.

One aspect of Worlds Adrift that sets it apart from other online games is its persistent features. Cut down a tree and it stays down for all players in the game, until someone comes along to use the wood in an airship or fortress. The log doesn't disappear into the ground or suddenly re-form into a tree again, as would happen in many modern games. The animals and giant bugs in Worlds Adrift are persistent as well -- even when no players are in the area, these creatures still carry out lives of their own, flying around the map, aging, mating and dying. Just like they would in reality.

SpatialOS is a promising platform that's already opening up MMO development for studios of all sizes. Worlds Adrift is just one of the first games to use Improbable's swarm-like server technology -- another is Vanishing Stars -- and it certainly won't be the last.

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