Former BioWare Developers Are Building An Online RPG For Improbable
Last year it was revealed former BioWare general manager Aaryn Flynn joined tech company Improbable as a general manager for its North American efforts. We recently had the chance to meet up with Flynn and Improbable’s CEO, Herman Narula, to talk about the evolution of the company and their plans to create a first-party RPG out of Edmonton, Canada – the same city as BioWare’s main studio.
“Surreal is a good word for it,” Flynn says about watching Anthem’s launch and its subsequent reception. As one of the leads in the studio that helped kick the project off, Flynn says he feels a lot of emotions watching the game’s turbulent release. “It’s tough. But at the same time I know they’re working so hard on it. Mixed emotions, surreal – those are all good words [for what I’m feeling]… Fiscal years are fiscal years. You don’t have to squint too hard to know what’s going on.” Twenty months after leaving BioWare, Flynn now has two responsibilities at Improbable: helping their North American partners and overseeing a first-party studio development team creating a new RPG.
Above: BioWare's Mark Darrah, Aaryn Flynn, and Casey Hudson talk to Joe Juba in 2013.
“We’re almost 50 [developers], we’re well above 40 now. So it’s growing fast… A lot of us who started it feel strongly about wanting to keep the team more intimate, so we don’t want to get too big,” Flynn says. The new team has locked down a setting for the game, but they’re not ready to talk about everything yet. “We’ve been in development for about six months now, it’s still relatively early days, but we’re moving fast.” While the new RPG is being directed and executive produced by former BioWare art director Neil Thompson (Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition), Flynn emphasizes there’s more than just former BioWare talent working on the game. “We’re in Edmonton, so we’ve got a lot of great folks with diverse backgrounds, not just some BioWare folks, although we have those. Folks from Ubisoft, folks from Capcom, that have come over and are helping us build what’s going to be an RPG using SpatialOS and Unreal.”
Improbable’s main product is SpatialOS, a platform that runs in the cloud and manages all of a game’s server-side data. It also includes tools that help game developers better track the state of their games to help with the debugging process. Flynn says that Narula and the rest of the team at Improbable are allowing them to focus on the player experience, and there’s no requirement the team build the game around the benefits of SpatialOS and its pillars of “scale, persistence, and simulation.” He hopes this will allow them to create bigger games with smaller teams, focusing less on the tech and more on the creative process.
Above: Aaryn Flynn on the left and Improbable's CEO Herman Narula on the right.
“I grew up in love with some of the games that Aaryn and the team worked on,” Narula says. “One of the things we were most passionate about was that Neverwinter Nights was so player-created and player-generated.” While Narula is letting Aaryn and the team call the shots on game design, he has a lot of opinions for what makes a great game. “What do Fortnite and Minecraft have in common beyond all the aesthetic things? It’s agency. It’s the sense that it’s your world. RPGs and storytelling have been such a massive part of the industry, but if we’re going to find a way for RPGs and multiplayer to work, we have to deal with the paradox of how do we make players feel like they have agency in a world which is in some ways prescribed.”
Narula is hopeful that using cloud-based technology like SpatialOS will help some of the industry’s issues with creating enough meaningful content to keep players engaged, while also creating a world where they can leave a lasting impact. “My goal with Edmonton is for us to be the bow wave attacking these really hard problems… If I look at MMORPGs, there’s so few in development despite them being 1/5 of the dollars in the industry... So the industry really has a blind spot. That’s why we thought building up this team with such experienced people we can go after it.”
Despite talking about the Edmonton studio’s team as an online RPG, Narula resists labeling the project as just an MMORPG. Instead both he and Flynn agree that they want to create a multiplayer RPG that gives players a genuine sense of accomplishment. “What SpatialOS really does, and we haven’t really communicated that well, is that we’re not an MMO solution. We’re a solution that increases the vocabulary of multiplayer. So I would think something like Destiny is a hybrid. Even Mavericks… So what I do feel comfortable saying is that I’ve told Aaryn from the beginning, ‘Think about how we can make players have a greater say in what we create together.’”
Above: A screenshot from Midwinter Entertainment's Scavengers, built using SpatialOS technology.
Overall, Improbable has 350 employees in multiple countries. John Wasilczyk (previously at Epic and DICE) is currently building another first-party studio in London. SpatialOS is also being used to help develop games like Mavericks, Nostos from NetEase, and Midwinter Entertainment’s Scavengers. At GDC, Google listed Improbable as one of their partners for Stadia. Narula says Google has been really great and communicative so far, and he doesn’t see them as a competitor since they’re focusing on the client side rather than the server side of things, “Great team, good people. I really hope it works, and I hope we can do stuff together with them.”
Narula wouldn’t comment on whether or not he’s discussed the compatibility of SpatialOS’ cloud-based technology working with either Sony or Microsoft’s next console. When asked where all of the funding to support such a large company is coming from, Narula fires back with a joke. “Where’s the money coming from? Drug lords. It’s all about the drugs. Drug lords. Not just regular drug people, lords. I want you to put ‘lords.’” Narula quickly clarified, saying that the world acknowledges that gaming and specifically online gaming is the future and there is plenty of tech funding available for a “credible tech company” like Improbable to enter the space. While it may be a while before we see the release of Improbable’s RPG, it’s nice to know that up in Edmonton there’s a talented team working on creating something brand new for players.