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Improbable is done telling us about what SpatialOS can do; the cloud tech firm is now showing us

Improbable is done telling us about what SpatialOS can do; the cloud tech firm is now showing us

If you want an indication of how big a start-up is going to be, you tend to look at the talent that it is attracting.

So when Improbable managed to snap up Blizzard and Disney veteran Bill Roper as its new chief creative officer, it's safe to assume that there's something behind the hype for the cloud computing company. 

"The reason I came to Improbable is the idea of empowering developers to achieve a creative vision," Roper tells PCGamesInsider.biz.

"As designers, we are always taught to think reductively because you have to fit it all in. It's trade-off, it's fidelity, it's number of players, especially when you're online. Being able to say: 'Look, we can remove a lot of those caps for you' means there's a completely different way of designing games."

Improbable isn't exactly a newcomer anymore. The London-based company was founded back in 2012, and has been in the news a fair bit over the last two years due to its impressive SpatialOS tech. But for a while now, much of what we have heard from the cloud computing firm is aspirational, with execs and evangelists breathlessly telling us about all the cool stuff developers will be able to do in the years to come.

Now, however, the firm is showing; not telling. Now games, such as Bossa Studio's Worlds Adrift - the first commercial project to use SpatialOS - are almost out in the wild

"Last year, the message seemed to be: 'There's real possibilities, there's things you're going to be able to do; come along on the journey with us'," Roper says.

"This year is: 'Here are things that are happening, here are things being deployed and built now'. The last year has gone from the promise and vision to us having laid the foundation for that vision and we are building on it. Obviously the tech still has ways to go but we're greatly empowered by the fact that we are working with some fantastic developers."

Worlds Adrift from Bossa Studios was one of the first games to use SpatialOS and will be the first commercial product using the tech when it launches into Early Access in May

Indeed, Improbable has been working with bigger and bigger names. Where before the outfit was collaborating with indie studios such as Bossa and Spilt Milk, especially recently the firm has been announcing partnerships with real industry veterans. There's Midwinter Entertainment, founded by 343 Industries veteran Josh Holmes, for one. And the firm is also working with Darewise, a studio from Randy Smith of Thief fame, as well as Dishonored and Half-Life 2 art director Viktor Antonov.

"This is all built upon that work and exposure from Spilt Milk, from Bossa, from planting the seed," Roper says.

"We are at the forefront, we are tip of the spear, let's go do some crazy stuff together. We are still with them on the products they are working on. We're excited that a few of them are getting close to Early Access right now.

"Now we're moving to that next level as we continue to talk with people, they get exposed to the technology and are playing around with SpatialOS. More people are taking it seriously. It's not just a thing that we talk about; it's a thing you go out and actually use."

Ultimately our success is directly tied to that of the games we have on the platform. We're a usage model. We don't do licensing, we don't sell. It's about how can we make great games happen.

Midwinter was the first studio that Improbable actually put money behind. Where before partnerships seemed primarily based on sharing tech and developing the SpatialOS platform, Holmes' outfit has actually financially benefitted from cash.

"It was probably a confluence of timing," Roper says.

"When we happened to talk to them we were thinking about whether there was something we could do in this realm. We knew that Josh was going to be leaving 343 to start something up. We got them to come over to London to talk about this tech. We got into the room, Josh, Herman [Narula, Improbable co-founder] and I sat there and talked about the idea for the game. We had all played Halo 4 and 5 so obviously knew the heritage of where he was coming from, the design concepts. He presented what he had done before and showed us what he had always wanted to do. It was bigger but not possible because of limitations on technology. But SpatialOS was a perfect match for what he wanted to do.

"We had a half hour jam session on design and what could happen and where it could go. At the end of that, it was this perfect storm of a development team that has an excellence of execution, is incredibly technically adept. It'll be beneficial to us as a company and drive our platform from a development standpoint. It'll also make our Unreal integration better because of their expertise on the platform. The designs that Josh was throwing out will take huge advantage of what we do. Really, it was just the right thing at the right time with the right people."

Despite being a tech company, Improbable has always - in our eyes at least - acted like a publisher. The firm relentlessly pushes the projects that it is working with, promoting them to the press. Now that the firm is actually putting money behind studios, Improbable being something of a publisher is truer to life than ever before.

"For us, it's about getting people onto the platform, getting the message out there about what SpatialOS can allow you to do," Roper explains.

"In some cases - with Midwinter - we had a connection talking with them about what they wanted to build and we really want to be a part of that. That was more the thinking behind it. Now we're looking at how we can really have the ability to support people and developers on making awesome games.

"Ultimately our success is directly tied to that of the games we have on the platform. We're a usage model. We don't do licensing, we don't sell. It's about how can we make great games happen. We've looked at something like the Midwinter deal as more of an accelerator than a publisher."

Scavengers is the first game from Midwinter Entertainment, the studio founded by 343 Industries vet Josh Holmes. It's also the first SpatialOS project to be funded directly by Improbable

Arguably the biggest headline involving Improbable last year was the news that Japanese finance giant Softbank had decided to put a cool $502m behind the cloud tech firm.

"The biggest thing that's let us do is focus," Roper says.

"At any start-up, before you get a certain level of funding, you're being scrappy, you're reaching for every project you can get, you're figuring out how to use your value proposition to get enough money to stay alive. That's obviously not a concern now we've done that funding round. We're able to say where we really believe our value is, what we should really be focusing on, how can we get the right people to do the right things at the right time, how do we do outreach. That's been incredibly helpful for us.

"More than anything, that kind of support and investment allows us to really refine our thought process, our messaging and have a laser focus on the space that we're in."

So where will Improbable be in a year from now? Roper says that he hopes the firm will be doing even less talking about the products it's working on. Instead, he is hoping they will be doing more of the talking.

"If we're sat down a year from now, it's going to be talking about how awesome Scavengers is, how cool Mavericks [battle royale game from Automaton] is and some other stuff that we didn't talk about this year," he says.

"It'll be less talking about it or showing the first taste of it; it'll be up and running."

Editor - PC Games Insider

Alex Calvin launched PCGamesInsider.biz in August 2017 and has been its editor since. Prior to this, he was deputy editor at UK based games trade paper MCV and content editor for marketing and events for London Games Festival 2017. His work has also appeared in Eurogamer, The Observer, Kotaku UK, Esquire UK and Develop.

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