Exclusive SWTOR HeroEngine Interview - Instant World Creation

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

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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/1422"
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

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

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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 [ href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/48"
] 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
has taken so long to get out the door?

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...

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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 style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">Star Wars
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

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?

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.

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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

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

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.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Hero's Journey Game Page.

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