Shooting for the stars
Battlestar Galactica Online by Bigpoint
Published: August 11. 2011
Browser-based MMO powerhouse Bigpoint on the life and times of its hit, Battlestar Galactica Online.
“After careful consideration, we selected the Unity 3D Platform, based on its technical capabilities and feature sets; there’s simply nothing better on the market today.”
“In the past, browser games were not thought of as capable of offering high-quality MMO experiences; many games were simple, Flash-based titles with no real depth or gameplay,” says Sarah Levantine, producer of Battlestar Galactica Online at Bigpoint. With headquarters in Hamburg and offices in Berlin, San Francisco, São Paulo and Malta, the company has invested rather heavily, however, in changing this very notion. “Today, however, the perception of browser games has definitely changed. Titles like our own Battlestar Galactica Online, built atop Unity’s technology, give gamers a much higher-fidelity experience. Given the emerging technologies, like HTML5 and Flash 3D, we see continued advancement in the browser space.” Not that it hasn’t taken some effort: Currently, the core team on BSG in San Francisco consists of 10-12 developers and artists, with additional support from the community management, QA, web development, marketing, and PR departments. “No matter what time it is, there are people working on the game all over the world.”
Initially, expectations for the game were set rather high—at least internally. “In the early stages of planning, we believed Battlestar Galactica Online had the potential to become one of the highest-quality browser games ever created,” says Levantine. To accomplish this goal, the team knew it needed high production values and compelling gameplay to defy the perceived limitations of the platform. “After careful consideration, we selected the Unity 3D Platform, based on its technical capabilities and feature sets; there’s simply nothing better on the market today.” In its San Francisco studio, Unity is now the platform behind several Bigpoint projects, including The Mummy Online and Universal Monsters. “We’re big fans.”
Indeed, the development environment has proven central in tightening the studio’s overall workflow. “Working with the Unity development tool has been a great fit for us,” says Levantine. “The Unity engine has allowed us to create amazing high-quality games, without compromising gameplay or graphics. The development tool is easy and efficient to work within, and we’ve been able to adapt it well to our needs and practices.” She remembers the early choice to extend Unity’s editor for its custom needs. “We were able to build tools to aid with localization, balance game data, and automate the construction of complex objects,” she notes. “Without the Editor APIs, these would have required separate tools, or a lot of time spent editing values by hand.” At the top of its “most wanted features” list is a high-performance, easy-to-use GUI editor.
> We wanted to honor its story and give fans the opportunity to experience it through an engaging online experience.
Of course, when approaching a franchise with the sort of rabid fan base as Galactica, there are more than just the technical aspects of the project to bear in mind. Careful consideration went into properly treating the fiction on which the game was based, while also extending it in new and interesting ways. “[It’s] a widely popular science-fiction television series that has an enormously loyal and passionate following,” says Levantine. “We wanted to honor its story and give fans the opportunity to experience it through an engaging online experience.” As a relative newcomer to the North American market, the company’s SF office opened in March of 2010, and felt it needed to lead with a cool game that would bring built-in awareness, and that Battlestar perfectly fit the bill.
Bigpoint credits the game’s authenticity to its strong, ongoing relationship with NBC Universal and Syfy. “When we pitched our idea to both camps, they were very enthusiastic about the opportunity to translate their IP into an online MMO,” says Levantine of the project’s early days. In fact, she says that the hardest aspect of getting BSGO up and running was narrowing its focus for launch. “The beauty of online games is that they can continue to grow and evolve over time; it doesn’t all have to be in at ‘launch.’” As it stands today, Bigpoint plans to add more content and features on a nearly weekly basis. “Our ongoing goal is to remain authentic to [BSG’s] core, but also create an appeal for newcomers who are not familiar with the title. BSG kind of inherently embodies coolness; who wouldn’t want to be a Cylon in tactical space combat?”
It should perhaps come as no surprise that the folks at Bigpoint see 2011 as an important year for the increased growth and large-scale penetration of browser-based MMOGs. The company has been working in the space since 2002, and has recently surpassed 200 million registered users worldwide. Its founder and co-CEO, Heiko Hubertz, introduced the free-to-play (F2P) business model to the western world in his early days, and the company has seen the growth of F2P MMOGs expand tremendously from Asia to Europe, and now North America. “Traditional console publishers like EA, Sony, and their followers alike, are beginning put more resources behind F2P as well, so it’s no surprise that even WoW players are open to playing games through their browser as well,” says Levantine. “There’s still a gap, of course, in terms of what we can deliver through the browser versus what’s possible in a PC-install or client-based game, but the gap is narrowing.”
Bigpoints' most useful Unity tools
“The built-in capability for creating streaming web player applications is the most obvious [one], says Levantine. “In BSGO, we can create sectors dynamically to maximize content while minimizing download size—Unity makes short work of adding streaming content with its asset bundles.”
“We use the profiler that was added to Unity in version 2.6 to get performance information about our game, to help build optimized and smooth running games.”
“We use the Beast Lightmapper to bake lighting into our scenes so that we can have high quality lighting, even on low end machines.”
“We use the animation window that was reintroduced in Unity 3 to allow our animators to preview animations inside of the engine, and to hook scripted events to certain frames in an animation.”
“We’re exploring Allegorithmic Substance materials from the new Unity 3.4 to allow us to create higher quality textures with a smaller download.”
Bigpoint’s San Francisco office has grown to about 100 staff members, which has enabled them to develop multiple titles simultaneously. Levantine points to the company’s newly-appointed studio director Matt Norton—whose experience ranges from Blizzard Entertainment to Epic Games, Monolith, and several others—as being a crucial part of its success. “We now have an industry veteran to overlook and manage all of our projects. Bringing on highly-experienced team members who share and can enhance the company’s vision—but who can also challenge you to think more critically about all aspects of development—is the most important advice we can offer.”
Like many of her contemporaries, she also sees social gaming principles as becoming more and more essential to the kinds of games it’s making. “We see more games being developed with a user-oriented approach,” she says. “The incorporation of social elements and player-to-player interaction becomes important for studios and developers to learn and understand, in order to be successful.”