With the recent news that the hotly anticipated Star Wars: The Old Republic would be built with and run on HeroEngine, many gamers weren't sure what to make of it. Licensing out engines is certainly not unheard of in the industry - Source and Unreal to name a few - but what exactly was this HeroEngine, and why would such an experienced company like Bioware, no stranger to making its own engines, pick this one? Neil Harris, Executive Vice President of Simultronics, the makers of HeroEngine, was gracious enough to spend a few minutes chatting on the phone with me explaining what exactly the framework did.
Harris calls HeroEngine a "complete technology solution for MMO game development," and by complete solution, he means that it includes everything from a graphics rendering engine to a complete world-building toolset for sculping terrain, adding weather effects, etc.
Now, that's hardly noteworthy on its own, but HeroEngine's real innovation - what makes it uniquely suited for MMO development - is that it's an internet-based engine, where all the development is done on a central server that "can be shared by people in the same building, or over the world." In fact, Harris compares developing a MMO with the engine to actually playing an MMO.
"Imagine you're online playing your favorite MMO," says Harris, "you're logged in and players are wandering around and, you can interact with each other. Development is like that." He went on to elaborate on the actual process. "Once you boot up HeroEngine on your PC as a developer... you can walk around the game world - at first, an empty grid like in Tron - you can add terrain, or pull things in from other tools like 3D Studio Max: there could be 50 people in that empty world. When we do a demo, we have people in front of the crowd and people in the office, and we'll build an entire playable world, with quests and monsters, in a matter of hours."
When asked why he thought it was superior to more traditional development tools, Harris was confident in his answer. "When you're using other engines, typically the toolsets you're using are all offline. Each member of the team has different tools, and so there has to be a collating process. So a lot of companies do overnight build cycles, then come back in the world and see how the stuff works... and just hope it plays well with other ideas, all together. In HeroEngine, you can interact with it and play it and jump in - you can play it as soon as you built it which means you can playtest and tweak it as best as possible."
Bioware isn't the only developer to license HeroEngine, says Harris, though they were the first - picking it up about two years ago when the game was still under wraps. Among some of the other HeroEngine developers were names like Sega, MindFuse, and Stray Bullet, though Harris couldn't talk about any of the specific projects. Of course, there is Simultronics' own Hero's Journey, the game that HeroEngine was originally built for in the first place. Nor will Journey be the last, according to Harris: "We built it assuming we'd build more games on it."
In the end, the overall goal for HeroEngine, says Harris, was a fundamental concept: "If we've done a good job with HeroEngine, players are seeing better MMOs. Not because we're the greatest geniuses, but because the development methodology lets you focus on development and creativity and takes the pain out of the process."
"WoW was a better MMO because it took the pain out of playing the game; we want to take the pain out of making the game. Devs don't have to sit and wait ... they can get out and build their game from Day 1."