Previews

Previews
Preview: Hero's Journey & HeroEngine

Dana Massey | 3 Apr 2007 19:52
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Hero's Journey has been in development for a number of years and more recently the HeroEngine has taken center stage as one of the fastest growing MMO engine solutions on the market. Recently, Senior Editor Dana Massey met with representatives of the St. Louis developers to discuss the game, the engine and their progress. HeroEngine is now in use by five different developers, including BioWare Austin and Virgin Games.



Hero's Journey & HeroEngine Preview
Based on interviews with Simutronics staff and a live demo
Article by Dana Massey

It was barely a year ago that Simutronics was known as this old MUD company working on a neat, if low budget MMO called Hero's Journey. Deals with BioWare Austin, Virgin Games and a host of other MMO companies large and small have changed that perception for the better. Simutronics are now a major player on the MMO engine scene.

Over the last year, the team has developed the resources to support both the HeroEngine and their proof of concept MMORPG Hero's Journey. Before, it always seemed like they had to pick one or the other. Their St. Louis studio now has 45 to 50 people on site and at work on the two projects simultaneously. This is nothing compared to the roughly 200 people on EA Mythic's Warhammer Online, but it crosses the line from independent production to a well-funded player.

Currently, five companies have publicly started working on HeroEngine powered MMORPGs. Company CEO David Whatley believes their niche is that they enable highly collaborative work environments. Typically, game development is extremely fractured. One developer finishes something, checks it in, another checks it out, works on it, checks it back in, etc. It takes top notch management to keep even a small development team from jumping all over each other's toes. The signature of HeroEngine is that everything is done in real time, something Whatley notes is often hard for veteran developers to wrap their heads around.

In their live development environment, two World Builders - for example - can be at work on the same part of one area and see what the others does in real time. Thus, one guy can decorate a house in a town, while the other guy places cows in the yard. In some engines, two developers working in a square mile of each other, let alone the same village is enough to make a producer's hair turn a shade more grey. That's not an issue for HeroEngine.

"We find everyone has their own way of working," he told WarCry. As they take on the HeroEngine, developers find new holes, new ways they want to work and the software as a whole is forced to expand. This makes their lives more difficult, but promotes the evolution of their product and makes it better for each person who licenses it.

Erik Slick - the company's Technology Director - admits that as more companies license the HeroEngine they become increasingly ambitious in what they want to do. For this reason, unlike many games that have been in production for many years, from a visual perspect, Hero's Journey continues to improve dramatically each time it's shown.

This newfound ambitious extends to both the game and the engine. While they wouldn't commit, they did say they're considering an Xbox 360 version of the HeroEngine - something their competitors at BigWorld are already working on - and the game itself constantly sees upgrades, such as more robust AI, new character models and more.

The game's shadows were one of the most visually impressive thing about the HeroEngine in this demo. 3D Artist Mike Doscher sped up the day/night cycle for me and we watched as the shadows extended and contracted as the sun moved across the sky. What's more, the shadows on the character he ran through the town also changed. Too many games do it in the environment, but have glowing characters in dark corners. The entire visual was impressive and one of the neater visuals seen in an MMO in quite some time.

Simutronics boasts many new features to their engine in 2007. The dynamic sky and weather were part of the example above, improved pathfinding should help NPCs get around, they've added animation blending right into the editor, integrated SpeedTree 4.0, 3D VOIP (complete with voice "colorizations" or voice fonts), integrated AEGIA PhysX and a host of other things. The list seems never-ending and many of the changes were technical or behind the scenes, but the sheer volume of improvement from such a medium sized team continues to impress.

The company insists that Hero's Journey continues to grow, evolve and improve, but they remain mum on a timeline for its eventual path to market. It's tempting to call the game a tech demo and it is definitely the secondary marketing focus of Simutronics at this time, but with a company dedicated to the core architecture that enables gaming, there is little worry that the game will become outdated as it stays in production. Since they're building the tools, rather than licensing a version of someone else's, its apparent that they're making sure each new and improved aspect of the HeroEngine is displayed in Hero's Journey.



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