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Exclusive SWTOR HeroEngine Interview - Instant World Creation

Posted Mon, Dec 15, 2008 by Cody Bye

Creating a Star Wars massively multiplayer online game has to rank right up there as being one of the most exhilarating and heart-pounding projects of any developer's life. From the first day, developers would know that they face an excruciatingly difficult audience to please and a massive number of fans that are hoping for the "next great game" to exist in the Star Wars universe. So when BioWare announced that they were using the HeroEngine to officially create the worlds of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the Ten Ton Hammer team immediately went to work. Some of us remembered the small announcement that the team made back in 2006 concerning the sale of the HeroEngine to BioWare, but most of us had only the faintest idea that it might be work on a Star Wars-based game.

To learn more about the entire project and the HeroEngine's involvement with SW: TOR, we sat down with Simutronic's Neil Harris to find out exactly why BioWare picked the HeroEngine and what gamers can expect to find once they enter the realm of Star Wars: The Old Republic!


The trooper's in SW:TOR can be added in real time to any area in the world.

Ten Ton Hammer: How did the BioWare and HeroEngine deal originally come to pass? I vaguely remember the HeroEngine being licensed by BioWare a year or two ago but were the using the HeroEngine primarily on SW: TOR? Did they come to you or did you go to them?

Neil Harris: We licensed the tech to BioWare two years ago, and it's been top secret in the interim time period. Now we're just announcing what we were specifically working on with them.

BioWare was actually the very first licensee of the HeroEngine. We didn't think we were going to be ready to license the game to outside companies, but they really just came to us and beat our door down. They wanted it right away, which caused us to reschedule a lot of things including getting our own game [Hero's Journey] out the door.

There were a couple of reasons why they decided to go with our engine. First, we've known Gordon Walton a long time and has worked around us for quite a while. He's been around the online games industry since the 90s, as have we. At the time, they also had two employees that were former employees of ours and we had a unique way to build games that is core to the functionality of the HeroEngine and those guys got it right away and wanted to have access to that kind of methodology. We showed the engine to them - just as friends - at a show, and they said, "Hey, we want that too." That's really how we ended up working with them.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is this one of the reasons Hero's Journey has taken so long to get out the door?

Neil: Honestly, what has happened since then is that the engine is proving to be so popular that we've signed up a lot more licensees than what we thought we would be able to this early on in the process. And we have had to divert resources away from the game, but we are building resources back. We're trying to get a few other companies involved that can help build the team back up and get the product out the door.

Ten Ton Hammer: That's fantastic. You always hope to have a response like that [the popularity of the engine], but when it basically lands in your lap... That's great!

Neil: Yeah, exactly. It was definitely what we'd call a "high class problem". We've been very busy helping our licensees and getting that going. We have somewhere around a dozen licensees, most of which are still unannounced at this point. The technology is clearly a step ahead of whatever is out there, MMO or otherwise.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you describe what it does for our readers? I've never seen the demo, but I remember hearing about it at E3 2005...

The HeroEngine has certainly allowed the SW: TOR team to come a long way in a short amount of time.

Neil: It does everything. It is a complete technology solution. All the licensee needs to do - if the choose to - is to build their game. They don't need to worry about any of the technology; they can add more if they want, but it's got everything you would need to build World of Warcraft if you wanted to. We have a complete graphics front end with a pretty state of the art graphics system. It includes the server technology and all the tools you need, but it does everything live, online, and in real time.

 It's just the way you play the  where you can wander around the world and do things in real time, and the development system is exactly the same way. Each member of the team logs into the development system on the server, and they could all be in one building or scattered all over the world. You can work together and collaborate and add things in the world in real time. Everyone can see it when you add something; if you put in a building and there are three other guys in that town, they can also see that building.

What makes that powerful is that there are no waiting time. In other systems, you'll find that there are separate sets of tools created for different teams and then you have "builds" where all of that stuff is compiled together. You hope that it all plays nicely together and works, and in our system, it's instant. It's on the server for everybody there to see. If your PC crashes, everything is on the servers so you don't lose anything. It's really an amazingly productive way to work.

Ten Ton Hammer: How is that possible? How does that work? People can upload things to the server without booting someone out of the world?

Neil: That's basically it.

Let's take it years down the road. The game has released and you're a player in the game. The developer could be working on adding new content, and when they like it, they could push the new content out to the players and it will stream down to you. Preferably, you wouldn't be pushing the content out in a crowded area, but if you did, the statue would suddenly be visible to all the players.

You have to understand that there's some history to this. We've been building games for a long time, and they've all been built on a technology platform the we built years ago that was originally called the Interactive Fiction Engine. The IFE worked exactly the same way. All the people that were developing with IFE were logged into a server and all the creative work was available instantly to anyone doing development. It just seemed sensible to be doing it that way and - even 20 years later - it seems to still make sense.

Ten Ton Hammer; That seems like pretty powerful and progressive stuff.

Neil: I've been around the industry for a long time - I worked for Commodore and Atari - and this stuff is like a miracle. I've never seen anything this amazing. It's all done in 3D; you drop in the assets and there they are. You can go check out new castles or monsters or game systems and do it all instantly and in real time. It's really unbelievable.

Ten Ton Hammer: How cool is it to be working with a team that's developing a Star Wars-based massively multiplayer online game?

Neil: It's awfully cool, and it's something we haven't been able to talk about all these years. We know the team really well, and we've been working side-by-side with the guys for quite a while. It's been a wonderful experience.

That's one of the things we like best about being in the engine business. Normally as a game developer you work on one project for years. Now we're working with all the best development teams, all over the world on their projects. It's really an amazing experience.

Ten Ton Hammer: How closely do you work with BioWare and all of those teams?

Neil: Usually you work really closely with them for the first while. Typically within the first year or year and a half of a project, there'll be some special features and requests that they have for you that you need to implement. We really have to take with them and work with them to adjust our development accordingly.

Honestly, we've been working with BioWare for two and a half years and they're at a point where they don't need a lot of our help. They just enjoy showing us what they're doing because it's cool. And we appreciate that.

Ten Ton Hammer: Some of this stuff can be utilized by a live team too?

Neil: Our style of game relies very heavily on our live teams, and we give them a lot of power in our games. This stuff supports all of that.

Now I won't say that every development team is going to use these features... but if you wanted to, you can have your live team run events including taking control of an NPC and controlling a monster in real time.  One of the things that we've done for years in Gemstone is we'll run an event where the live team comes to town dressed up as merchants and they make customized objects for people in real time.

Lightsaber size tweaks could happen immediately in the game if the developers wanted to implement a change.

Another advantages is that you don't have to wait six months for another expansion pack. That content can be streamed down live to the players, and it's very efficient. I have a two year old at home, and I haven't been able to get into WoW alot. It took me a full day of downloading patches before I could get in. It was unbelievable!

The HeroEngine is designed to optimize the download so it only sends you the assets that you'll need. The stuff that's on the other side of the world, you won't actually get until you're on the other side of the world.

Ten Ton Hammer: What is the biggest impact that a gamer will see if a team decides to use the HeroEngine?

Neil: What our ambition in life is to insure that people will play better games. It's not because we're geniuses with graphics, but it's because the design of the HeroEngine allows the team to focus on building great games and tweaking the gameplay to exactly the way they want it. The team only has to pay for a small fraction of building the tools because they're sharing that expense with a dozen other development shops. If they take the same amount of time to build the game that they would have otherwise, it's going to be much more fun, richer, and a much better overall experience.

If we can achieve that with a game, we've done our job well.

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