The idea that the next British unicorn (the term for a startup valued over $1bn) could be the developer of a cloud-computing platform for video games seems, well, improbable.
But that’s what’s happened, following an enormous $502m investment in London-based Improbable from Japan’s SoftBank corporation. In a single transaction, the sum – which is for a minority stake in the company, with its three founders, Herman Narula (29) Rob Whitehead (26) and Peter Lipka (28) still holding the majority of shares – took the firm into the big league.
Improbable’s core product is a middleware platform, a piece of software used by developers to fulfil a specific role within a program or service. Named SpatialOS, it lets game-makers build multiplayer virtual worlds that can handle more players online at the same time than typical programming techniques allow.
Classic massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, such as World of Warcraft or Destiny, rely on techniques such as splitting players up over different servers, so each cluster only has to deal with a few thousand players at once, or “instancing”, throwing groups of friends into their own unique versions of the world where they don’t have to deal with strangers at all. All of the implementations are extremely centralised, meaning the developer has complete control over everything that happens in the game, but this means that if there’s a problem, players can end up disconnected from the effects of their actions.
SpatialOS instead uses a neat mixture of procedural generation – where the game world is created algorithmically, rather than by a designer hand-placing trees and walls – cloud computing, and even elements of blockchain technology to get around those limitations. Its most notable implementation to date has been in Worlds Adrift, an MMO created by small London developer, Bossa Studios, that allows thousands of players to take simultaneously the role of sky pirates and explore an enormous persistent world at their leisure.
As large an industry as video-gaming is, though, creating tools that allow the next World of Warcraft to host more players isn’t the route to a billion-dollar valuation. Instead, it’s the vision of the future the company makes possible: a William Gibson-esque world where millions of people exist in a shared virtual reality, having genuine connections and experiences en masse. “Basically we want to build The Matrix,” Narula told Wired. And, just as important, a world where the mark you leave can’t be undone by the flick of a switch in the developer’s head office. That’s had its downsides too, though: MetaWorld, a VR app using SpatialOS, allows players to play chess with each other. But when players decided to toss pieces around the place, Wired reported, “the Improbable team had to crawl around on their virtual hands and knees to find them.”
Similarly persistent, decentralised worlds could be useful in other situations. Improbable has already discussed simulating fleets of self-driving cars, crowd dynamics on match day in Manchester, and other events when large numbers of complex independent actors need to be modelled in a shared world, through a spin-off called Immense.
But for now, Improbable most represents a billion-dollar bet on a particular type of future. But it’s not alone: it’s the same gamble Facebook made when it bought Oculus VR for $2bn in 2014. So maybe it’s not that much of a risk after all. Who wants to find themselves betting against Mark Zuckerberg?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010