[This post is brought to you through our new syndication agreement with DIGIT.FYI, Scotland’s digital technology news site…]
The freedom of Grand Theft Auto, the massively-multiplayer elements of World Of Warcraft, the universe-spanning gameplay of Eve Online – with added AI-generated narrative, blockchain, crypto-currency and more. Could Gateway be the next generation of Scottish video game success?
Despite its huge global success, the games market remains fairly insular. It’s rare for ideas from ‘the outside’ to enter the market – and rarer still from someone from outside the games sector to set up their own studio. Making games is hard, is the received wisdom, best leave it to the experts (i.e. the game developers who just told you making games is hard…)
So when DIGIT was contacted by Theo Priestley, an entrepreneur, speaker, CEO and noted ‘futurist’, who said he ‘had an idea for a game’ we were equally intrigued and sceptical. Every gamer has an idea they’re convinced will change the very definition of games – and make them a fortune at the same time. Come to think of it, every student, developer and studio thinks much the same.
However, Theo’s background and experience to date means he’s not someone who can be dismissed quite as easily. His idea was also unlikely to be ‘Candy Crush Saga meets Angry Birds, but with bitcoin!’ So DIGIT met Theo for coffee and bacon rolls a stone’s throw from our high-tech Edinburgh HQ.
After the elevator pitch it became clear that a) we’d need to write this down, that b) Theo doesn’t think small, that c) while his idea is one of the most ambitious we’ve ever heard, he’s well-connected enough and smart enough to make it happen and d) the DIGIT audience (and by extension the global games and technology markets) are going to want to hear this…
DIGIT: You’re a well-known figure in Scotland’s digital technology sector, but for anyone out there who’s not heard of you, give us a little background.
Theo Priestley: For the past 15 years or so I’ve worked across the enterprise technology industry, becoming known as a technology evangelist and industry analyst, keynoting at global conferences on subjects like Internet of Things, Big Data, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. I’m also recognised as an industry influencer and thought leader on technology trends like those above, as well as on Blockchain, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.
I’ve now turned that focus and lessons learnt over the years toward the games industry to pursue a long standing passion of videogames. By coming in from the outside I reckon I can inject a fresh perspective into the gaming community, plus there’s stuff happening in the big bad corporate software world which hasn’t reached the development community as yet which would reap massive benefits in terms of games design and procedural programming.
I also have a pretty big network myself in terms of partners and working with startup accelerators, there’s some amazing software out there that people don’t know about and it could easily be adopted in the gaming industry.
DIGIT: You’ve just set up your own company, Dopamine Games. What are your plans?
TP: It’s the games development studio I’ve recently founded, we’re on a mission to build an entirely new MMO (massively multiplayer online) game, Gateway, which will be entirely new intellectual property (IP) set in a new galaxy, using technologies and techniques from the enterprise world not found in games yet. The hope is that along the way some of these new techniques can be proven and then adopted by others too.
DIGIT: OK, tell us about Gateway…
TP: Gateway is a space sim MMO , set in a different galaxy. By removing the typical backdrop it frees us up to be a lot more creative with the story and setting. One of the biggest inspirations for this is Star Wars, where Lucas always wanted what he called a ‘used universe’, a galaxy that felt lived in. Most of the games that exist today are actually pretty sterile, the planets are huge but empty, outposts all look the same for example. The sandbox arena is too large; what’s the point of building a sandbox if you never intend to fill it with anything engaging?
With Gateway we’re not only going to create an open world galaxy but we’re going to fill it with content, stories and life that will evolve with the players. We’re working with some great world and narrative designers at the moment, plus a couple of really famous sci-fi fantasy authors who want to help flesh out the lore while the game is being built.
DIGIT: That’s… quite ambitious. In fact that’s an enormous challenge. Just creating a full 3D sandbox universe MMO is a multi-million dollar project. The fact you want to build in new technology and fill the whole game with evolving ‘content, stories and life’ is a step beyond most of the other games on the market. How do you plan to make this happen?
TP: The concept work has already started with the narrative design. We’ve also got astrophysicists and starship propulsion scientists advising on some of the mechanics to keep the game design as real as possible without sacrificing the gameplay. We’re bootstrapped, so while I’m working on this full time for now, it’s coming out of my pocket and the others are working part-time to keep the momentum going.
We’re currently evaluating Amazon Lumberyard as an option given AWS strength in cloud infrastructure, but also to make use of Polly and Lex, the natural language processor capabilities. Plus Amazon has some very interesting opportunities to introduce new revenue streams and monetise through customised merchandise, which could be interesting. We’re also looking at CryEngine and Unity, which is a natural choice given its popularity.
The business itself is registered, website and social media is up and running. My main focus right now though is securing initial angel investment for a 12 month runway and making some full-time hires.
DIGIT: A lot of the technology you’ve mentioned has not yet hit the games market, or been proven in any mainstream titles. Is the games sector missing out because it’s not been an early adopter?
TP: The games industry is like any other industry I’ve come across. We all tend to focus inwardly on what we know and the circles we mix with. I’ve been a great advocate of learning from other sectors, and seen examples where advances in the medical profession could benefit manufacturing of all things, but the two are never really put together so they don’t know how they could benefit from each others insights.
Like I said, there’s advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, analytics, blockchain all in the enterprise world for example which haven’t reached the games development scene yet but could really reap benefits if used in the right way across design and build.
I know what we’ve got planned for blockchain for example has not been done yet and it’ll be very exciting for players.
DIGIT: How are you planning on getting the game to market? There’s a LOT to explain about Gateway, will you be looking for input and feedback from players during development? How are you going to handle player expectations given the industry’s famously touchy relationship with over promising a game’s capabilities?
TP: Early access is a given. The community has such a large part to play, they’re worth more than they know in this process. We won’t be making the same mistakes as No Man’s Sky for example. And we won’t be taking 5 years to showcase yet another technical demo like we’ve seen at Gamescom recently either.
DIGIT: One of the biggest challenges in gaming is the idea of ‘procedurally generated narrative’ in which the story is written by the game, rather than an author creating an overall story arc. You’re planning to make this a core part of the Gateway experience. Can you tell us more about how this is going to work?
TP: I can’t say too much right now. But one of the biggest factors in Gateway is giving everything in the game a sense of purpose and consequence. That feeds narratives, stories, missions, and NPC behaviour. I’ve never seen the level of Skyriminteraction in a space sim MMO before for example. We want to take that a few stages further with deep learning and behavioural analytics that evolves missions and interactions beyond scripting. Players should never feel they have to go to the same Non-Player-Characters (NPCs) to experience the same missions over and over again. Life doesn’t work like that, so neither should the NPCs.
DIGIT: You’re also planning to introduce Blockchain into the game? Will this be crypto-currency for in-game purchases, or subscriptions? Or is this something that goes deeper than buying stuff with Bitcoin?
TP: I can’t give too much away at this point either. Suffice to say, it adds a brand new dimension to crafting and in-game assets never done before. The really exciting part is giving those assets real value. We’re talking to a Scottish university, as well as an ex-world designer from a well known space MMO about how to implement this the right way.
DIGIT: For a Massively-Multiplayer Online game, the audience is everything. How and when do you plan to start building the audience for the game?
TP: Community is hugely important for us to build the galaxy. We want to involve the community very early on and give them the chance to create backstories and lore in the game around a framework and overarching story we’re developing. Most gamers create factions and their own RP lore that just sits on a server somewhere else, or a community forum or faction website. We’d rather it became an integral part of the game world itself and fed into the narrative scope so everyone could eventually experience it for themselves.
We also have plans to get the community to voice NPC AI and potentially be involved in character design through facial capture. It’s not the same technique as FOIP in Star Citizen for example, that’s already outdated (they’ve been working on it since 2013) and I can’t see it working too well if 10,000 players are all using it in real-time concurrently, regardless of instancing. This is different, it’s not about your character in the game, it’s about giving life to the thousands of NPCs in the game and being involved in that process to make the galaxy feel alive.
Again, knowing new startups working in VR, after having mentored some in accelerators, is a real bonus for us right now that keeps us ahead in technology stakes.
DIGIT: You said you’ve been getting a lot of interest from people both in and outside of the games sector?
It’s been great, people have been coming up and wanting to get involved, the hardest part is knowing when to say No and knowing when to say Yes. But this isn’t just about the gamer community and industry network. This week we’ve been discussing with the international space research team from Icarus Interstellar about involving them directly in the project. It’s a hugely exciting prospect to mix both the gamer and science communities together to create something brand new, with real science and research mixed with a game that doesn’t sacrifice any playability. The Icarus team are really on board with the idea and it adds not only credibility to the project but also a lot of weight when speaking with potential investors knowing that it’s not just another game similar to all the rest. Again, I’m coming at this from different angles before we’ve even touched any code.
DIGIT: What are the long-term goals for the game?
TP: Because of the setting of the galaxy itself, it affords us massive scope for expansion. Gateway is a long term project, I’d like us to be seen as something that will outlast Eve Online for example, with content that will always compel players to log in and want to experience something different.
There you have it. We will be tracking the progress of both Dopamine Games and Gateway over the next several months. In the meantime, you can find the company online, on Facebook and on Twitter.