As tens of millions of gamers log on every day to play games such as Fortnite, developers are hoping their creation will become the next megahit.
Worlds Adrift has elements of Fortnite – a “bright, brash multiplayer shooter” game – combined with World of Warcraft and has been spawned by a developer already used to turning simple ideas into viral smashes.
However, it’s also hard to sum up in a few words, which may be why Bossa Studios recently decided that the best way to promote their game was to invite a few fans and journalists to play it while dangling from a crane 45 metres above Chelsea College of Art.
The stunt made more sense that it seems. The game drops players in a massive multiplayer online world of floating islands, and tasks them with building sky ships to move from one to another, exploring new islands, constructing shelters, and sparring with other fleets for honour, profit or just a laugh.
Bossa Studios previous hits include a physics-led comedy hit Surgeon Simulator, in which players are tasked with carrying out complex surgeries through a deliberately obtuse control system, and the mobile version of story-driven Thomas Was Alone about a red rectangle that gains sentience.
Back in April 2014, when development started on Worlds Adrift, it looked like a left-field proposition, but four years on, with Fortnite reaching dizzying heights, it looks like it could be perfectly pitched to capture imaginations.
“We have game jams every month,” explained Luke Williams, the game’s lead designer, while sitting in a marquee under the floating demo station. Those jams – a 48-hour intensive period in which developers attempt to make the simplest possible implementation of a new idea – have been core to Bossa’s previous success, but back in April 2014, the company was aiming higher.
“We wanted a game that people could happily sink an afternoon into,” Williams said. “It was about taking that unique, emergent little session that people had, and asking ‘could we grow that into a more ambitious title?’”. For Worlds Adrift, that resulted in the creation of the game’s grappling hook movement, where players fire the hook at any surface in the world, and, reeling it in rapidly, launch themselves into the sky, before firing off another hook, and another.
Done well, and characters cartwheel across the game’s spaces like Spider-Man; done badly, and they’ll fly directly into a wall before plummeting to their deaths.
It was a fun core, but Henrique Olifiers, Bossa’s co-founder and “gamer in chief”, still felt it lacked something, he said.
Enter SpatialOS, the billion-dollar groundbreaking technology created by Bossa’s London neighbours Improbable. It’s a platform that allows developers to build virtual worlds of unprecedented scale and persistence, without needing the technological skill such a goal would have required five years ago.
Classic multiplayer games have to use clever tricks to keep the majority of their players separate the minute the game becomes too detailed and popular to fit everyone on one server. Improbable, however, 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. It sounds dry, but in an era where the potential of virtual worlds is exciting investors, it was enough to prompt an unprecedented $502m investment in May 2017, valuing the company at $1bn overnight.
Last month, the game hit another milestone, graduating from a small-scale closed beta to “early access”, an increasingly popular section of the PC development cycle where games go public for player feedback, while still remaining firmly under construction. It’s how Minecraft got its start, as well as Fortnite, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and more; and its success there will be crucial in determining how it evolves to the finished state – which Bossa has yet to offer a specific date for.
Early signs, at least, seem promising: during the closed beta alone, more than 10,000 ships were built by players, along with hundreds of islands that were periodically dropped into the game proper. But even a billion dollars of tech can only provide the sandpit for players to play in; whether they turn up is the big question now.