“There’s a running joke in the games industry,” developer Trond Fasteraune tells us, “where making an MMO is something you shouldn’t do.”
There are good reasons for that. There’s the scale, of course, inherent in creating a whole other world fit for living in. But more than that, building an MMO has traditionally involved extraordinary amounts of network programming – the work that makes these huge games functional and secure online. Even experienced, well-funded publishers and developers have seen MMOs run away from them, taking all hope of a recouped investment and sinking it over half a decade of development.
Outside triple-A, where money is far tighter, the very idea of making an MMO can seem laughable. “For the indie game community, we like to game jam a lot and quickly make prototypes,” Fasteraune laughs. “We hate long-commitment projects.”
Perhaps SpatialOS, the cloud-based service committed to removing long-suffered restrictions to game development, can help the laughter cease. Its new GDK for Unity and GDK for Unreal are designed specifically to ease the process of making multiplayer games – including their most ambitious variant, the MMO.
For the first time ever we can say you can make MMOs at a game jam
The SpatialOS GDK for Unity’s feature modules allow devs to pull ready-coded functionality into SpatialOS games, from character movement to shootable weapons, just as they would asset store plugins – and the intention is that many more such feature modules will be put together by the community.
“For the first time ever we can say that you can make MMOs at a game jam,” Fasteraune says. The implications are significant. As MMO development gets quicker and less resource-intensive, its design can become more experimental. That’s evident in the plans for Project Nobody, Fasteraune’s strange new MMO about protection.
Whether the word ‘protection’ means a caring relationship or a gangster racket to you, you’re likely to see your expectations met in Project Nobody. The isometric survival game pitches players against monsters and each other, and the only way to become somebody is to be ‘claimed’ by another player. This form of servitude sees 50% of your income go to that player, until you decide to break free.
The idea is that the system will spawn all sort of symbiotic relationships – the claimers will want to look after the workers who generate their income, and workers will look to their stronger counterparts for protection. Effective protectors might oversee many workers, ruling player groups through strict hierarchy. Once they start building walls to protect their people, they have societies.
It’s a psychologically fascinating premise helped along by SpatialOS’s promise of persistence. Since the cloud service grants developers huge amounts of server power, there’s no technological reason for the game to limit what players can build or for how long their constructions lasts.
“Traditional MMOs are scaleable up until servers can’t handle the load, and so designers have to design their games to test against that,” Fasteraune explains. “For example, Rust is a multiplayer game where you can build bases – but eventually people will have built so much that the server has to be wiped clean and restart. With SpatialOS, which scales in all directions, it’s basically unlimited in size.”
That potential for truly persistent online worlds is great for game design, of course, but it’s meaningful for players too. What kind of ambitious constructions and societies might Project Nobody players build to last?
“I want the player to feel that it’s not about levelling up their account or player, it’s about making an impact in the world,” Fasteraune says. “You gather resources, you build a base, and you get people together to create a community. I wanted to make it less about grinding to get an advantage.”
Project Nobody’s access to as many or few servers as it needs shapes the game in another, quite literal, way. Fasteraune plans to scale the size of its world based on how many players are online, the border of its outer wilderness encroaching or expanding dynamically. Think of it like Fortnite’s storm – only it’s possible for powerful and prepared players to push out beyond that border if they want to.
“I have a dream that players will cross the boundary, push really far out into the wilderness, and make a base there,” Fasteraune says. “That’s something that would be cool to see.”
It’s the same kind of satisfaction – of overcoming mechanics designed to hem you in – that has seen a video about killing Spelunky’s ghost garner over 400,000 views. A satisfaction that MMOs, with their strict limitations brought about by technological constraints, haven’t often been able to offer.
SpatialOS GDK for Unity and SpatialOS GDK for Unreal are at the forefront of a movement to change those expectations, however, giving developers more powerful tools for MMO development than what’s been available before – and opening up the genre to a whole new tier of smaller studios.
“People who are very experienced game developers are going to be very sceptical about making an MMO in seven days [at a game jam],” Fasteraune admits, referencing the hump of having to set up networking code before any jamming can even begin. “But as SpatialOS GDK for Unity evolves, I think we’re gonna be able to prove that, with a combination of these best practice modules, it is possible.”