Interview: Gavin Longhurst Talks BigWorld

BigWorld is a third party MMO platform that has carved out a niche as one of the top engines available to MMO developers. Director of Business Development Gavin Longhurst took some time to discuss their work, where they’re headed and how they got there.

WarCry Q&A: BigWorld
Answers by Gavin Longhurst
Questions by Dana Massey

WarCry: BigWorld is a technology platform for MMO companies. Can you explain what exactly BigWorld does to enable developers to build MMOs?

Gavin Longhurst: Fully integrated and working game technology and tools that allows for shorter development time, lower development cost and more time for development teams to work on what really matters – making the game.

The BigWorld platform is a set of tools, source code and development API framework built to deliver leading edge online game content. Essentially, it’s all the tools and building blocks of code to enable rapid and professional development of a modern online game title. If you look at game development as a series of processes – art, game programming, visual effects and server logic — BigWorld provides integrated elements to enable these developers to begin visualizing and designing their worlds immediately, without having to spend enormous amounts of time trying to get the first pixel on the screen. This extends from basic things like animation exporters from leading 3D art packages right through to the latest visual effects techniques to push a 3D renderer that little bit further. The goal is to enable game makers to invest their intellectual and monetary capital on differentiating and producing their game – something to make it stand out against an ever-increasing field of contenders – and to begin and finish a project without any concerns or delays on whether or not the underlying fabric of the platform performs or not.

To put that into perspective, in gaming development there is the term “first playable,” i.e., when the core elements of gameplay synthesize, sometimes after months or even a year or more of development. In MMO or social worlds terms, this tends to be even longer due to the breadth or scope of the vision, game, sub-games, other elements. Things like polish, professional presentation, honed gameplay and all those nice little tweaks to interface and the experience in general, all take place during and after that “first playable” is in front of developers and the testers are giving feedback. The more time you can devote to polish and testing/experimentation of gameplay, the greater is the chance you have for a truly memorable gameplay experience. BigWorld gives developers that time to refine and polish the game.

WarCry: There are a lot of engines/platforms on the market right now. What makes you stand out?

Gavin Longhurst: In commercial terms, massive online games are a relatively recent phenomenon when viewed against a backdrop of single and small multiplayer console and PC titles which go back some thirty years. Single player games solve some similar technical issues – obviously there is a huge amount of crossover, but online games and virtual worlds place the emphasis on different parts of the gaming infrastructure not just on pretty pixels. How do you stream vast amounts of players and world data across the world? How do you handle tens of thousands of simultaneous actions and game events across the online world? Security? What about 24/7 and redundant uptime components to enable you to deliver the game to all people at all times? BigWorld started out to address this initially niche market. In terms of differentiation, BigWorld has demonstrated and shipped MMO titles which have been end-to-end built on our massive-ready client/server architecture.

WarCry: Your first high-profile partner created Dark and Light, which was a critical and commercial disaster. What did BigWorld learn from that experience?

Gavin Longhurst: We license the technology – we don’t make the design decisions for the game developers. We have many developers including Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, UserJoy, Netease, Slipgate, Interzone, and others who have licensed BigWorld technology and are on successful paths.

WarCry: The graphic engine is the most visible part of BigWorld. Talk about some of the bells and whistles gamers see when they play a BigWorld game and some of the doors you open for developers.

Gavin Longhurst: For Gamers – long draw distances, with huge, seamless environments available for exploration. Large population numbers on servers, without the lag traditionally associated with high populations. Greatly detailed worlds that stream to you without long loading times. Advanced Shader 3.0 effects for those who are lucky enough to own high-end systems, with enough engine flexibility to provide a compelling experience on lower spec machines. A state of the art terrain system that offers a level of detail not often seen in games, with weather and environmental effects you would expect to see in a living, breathing world. We have implemented many technologies to allow very high polygon characters, along with a sophisticated animation system that scales with the world.

For developers, having our client/server and tools designed from the ground up as one product is hugely beneficial. File formats are consistent throughout so that means you don’t face issues like different scripting languages or concepts when trying to integrate a 3D client with someone else’s server. It’s all very open and flexible and allows developers to extend/modify whatever they like and the freedom to customize their own key features and workflow. Solid and collaborative design tools allow artists a fine level of detail and control over polishing scenes.

WarCry: More recently, you’ve attracted some higher profile clients – such as Cheyenne Mountain. How has the increased client list influenced the development of BigWorld?

Gavin Longhurst: The development of BigWorld technology is on schedule, which includes time and resource commitments to help licencees. Teams like Cheyenne and Slipgate place particular niche demands on different parts of the technology platform, and we have increased the number of our own development staff to cater to these requirements – which means bigger teams working on the technology and continuing to think about bigger team issues.

WarCry: Why should game developers choose to license third party systems rather than develop their own?

Gavin Longhurst: I think the top three reasons for licensing technology instead of building it in-house are:

1) it takes a lot money to conceive, build, and test in-house – money which is better spent on actual game development;
2) it takes a long time to create your own system which results in longer time-to-market, and a longer time to convert your title from an investment to a revenue generator; and
3) you don’t run the huge risk of being the first to deploy a technology – multiple titles have been launched on the platform already

Advocates for in-house development point out that, in the end, you’ll end up with licensable technology you own, and they would be right – assuming you have deep pockets, you have a couple of years to spare, and you’re 100% sure your technology will work, and offer features which will be competitive at the time it’s completed. Given the choice, it seems to be – for most developers – a logical choice to license proven technology and focus their efforts on creating game content.

The payoff comes during development, standardizing across multiple titles with different teams, but also when your game goes live. There is a wealth of tools and infrastructure that has to be managed when the game goes into the field – these are not games that only last a few months of being played – these are juggernauts built to last and grow their gamer numbers going forward, hungry for new content and features to keep the interest of the players.

WarCry: Do you have any plans to open BigWorld development up to the consoles? What about single player games?

Gavin Longhurst: There is a wealth of purpose-built licensable technology out there to attack single-player games – the technical and art pipeline for single player games can still be huge, so there is obvious benefits to starting development from a strong middleware platform, but the bulk of our licensees are involved with online components, which is where the strengths of our integration can really see maximum benefit. Some will make single player games or “massively casual” games with a persistent online component where a character or stats have some kind of meaningful relationship the game rather than just as a score.

As to consoles, we previewed an early build of our Xbox 360 engine at GDC and we are working closely with other platform providers to enable BigWorld on those systems. We are enthusiastic promoters of cross-platform gameplay – the idea that PC and console players should be able to compete, play, socialize, and cooperate in all kinds of online worlds, and the difficulty now is not so much a technological one as a design issue – methods of control, buttons versus keys, response times and so on. These are not insurmountable, but control, GUI, and responsiveness issues have to be addressed when you consider how you want players across platforms to interact – even with mobile devices like cell phones and the PSP as we announced last year. Of course this year sees the inauguration of online worlds from companies like Funcom with its Conan title, taking the console world a step further than the early, heady days of the Dreamcast with Phantasy Star Online.

Of continuing, mystifying interest is the insistence console manufacturers have with regards to hampering adoption of keyboards for console gameplay, the rationale being that keyboards are for the desk and not for the lounge, and that other forms of joypad-driven interaction should take precedence.

There is obviously a concern that attaching a keyboard and even mouse would somehow turn off some players or needlessly complicate the sale of a game title by requiring an optional USB keyboard, i.e., the separation of gameplay for living room compared to the study or den or wherever the computer is. I find this an odd argument given the successful launch of buttoned peripherals like the guitar from Guitar Hero – a huge success – and the fact that all the current crop of consoles go online to web pages and community portals already, along with various forms of chat. People are accustomed to keyboards, and if you are trying to drive a series of online, text-chat driven communities, hampering the communication method is short-sighted and counter-intuitive.

WarCry: Every few months, it seems there is an announcement about a new technology in the BigWorld line-up. What is the team working on now?

Gavin Longhurst: Well, we can’t reveal everything, of course, but we can tell you that some of the things we’re working on are more advanced world detailing tools, re-invigorating lighting, furthering next-gen physics, and working with VOIP partners.

WarCry: Many platform companies take a “proof of concept” MMO approach, where they develop an MMO and their tools simultaneously – such as Hero’s Journey and the HeroEngine – to show what they can do. You have an example area, but no true commercial product. Are you ever planning to make your own game?

Gavin Longhurst: We have always argued the best technology emerges from game development, as that is where the challenges and problems arise – our own technology emerged from game projects and internal development. We have a sister development studio, Microforte, which is working on internal projects now. The true proof of concept deliveries are in the games our clients are currently developing.

For more information about BigWorld, visit And thanks for letting us talk about BigWorld with your readers.

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