Automaton is banking on SpatialOS to make Mavericks work. The much-hyped platform, built by a secretive London-based startup called Improbable, allows developers to create large, persistent worlds that many people can inhabit simultaneously. Thompson calls it a "fabric layer," which sits between the game engine and a cluster of remote servers. Together, they can track each match and figure out what information is necessary for every player at any given time.
"That's not been done effectively by any game before," he said. "That completely changes the landscape in terms of how much we can simulate and how many players we can support. Because if you're just turning around in the world, the system itself knows what it needs to send you and at what rate, so you're not just getting all of this information between all of the different players, for no reason, all of the time. The distributed system [SpatialOS] is able to handle that load."
"All the exciting-looking stuff comes at the end. That's just how it works."
It's a bold claim, and one that's difficult to judge given the early state of SpatialOS. Aside from Worlds Adrift, a skyship-riddled MMORPG developed by Bossa Studios, it's hard to find a playable game built on the platform. Improbable has given its support to a bunch of other titles, including Scavengers and Seed, but almost all of them are early in development. (I tried a social VR experience called the MetaWorld in 2016, which is yet to come out.) The potential of the platform, then, and its ability to deliver what Automaton is promising, is still a mystery right now.
I played an early Mavericks demo with four other people at E3. The matches were slow, tense affairs, with lots of careful flanking and precision shooting. Many of the game's headline features, though -- the high player count, for instance, and wildlife -- weren't present. "Right now, we have to look at it in different demos," Thompson said, "and show different things." Most of the team's efforts have been focused on back-end, he said, which is why the environments and character models were rough, too. "All the exciting-looking stuff comes at the end," he said. "That's just how it works."
Automaton is aiming for a closed beta in August. The 400-player battle-royale mode will launch publicly later this year, followed by the 1,000-person matches and, finally, the persistent world and MMO trappings in 2019. If the team can deliver on its vision, Mavericks has the potential to dethrone Fortnite and usher in a new generation of battle-royale titles. One with larger environments, an MMO backdrop, and stories that provide greater meaning for your actions.
That is, if Epic Games and the PUBG Corporation don't do it first. Fortnite, in particular, has changed dramatically since its release last September. Epic Games is determined to capitalize on its success and keep players happy with new modes and tweaks to its construction-based gameplay. There's a good chance the company, and many of its rivals, are considering features that are similar to Mavericks. It's on Automaton, then, to strike first and prove its take on the genre is worth playing.
"It's difficult to showcase to everyone, certainly before our beta, what it means for this world and battle-royale experience to co-exist," Thompson said. "I think people have a lot of preconceptions about the battle-royale genre because of its popularity over the last couple of years. But when we say battle royale, we mean a deeper experience. It's difficult to describe. I think people are going to have to see it."