From GemStone to HeroEngine: Simutronics CEO David Whatley on Putting the MUD back into MMOs

Simutronics founder and CEO David Whatley sits down with The MMO Gamer to discuss the development process behind HeroEngine, and offer a few updates on the status of their upcoming MMO, Hero's Journey. Simutronics founder and CEO David Whatley sits down with Steve to discuss the finer points of HeroEngine, as well as some updates on the status of their upcoming original MMO, Hero’s Journey.

The MMO Gamer: First of all, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, could you please introduce yourself to us and tell us a little about what it is you do at Simutronics.

David Whatley: I’m David Whatley, the President and CEO of Simutronics, which means I don’t get to do much anymore. People just kind of come to me and tell me to sign things at this point. I’m also basically the chief architect of our technology, so that would be HeroEngine at this point.

The MMO Gamer: HeroEngine is, of course, the reason why we’re here. Unless, of course, you’d like to give me some world exclusives on Hero’s Journey, in which case by all means, feel free!

If not, the reason I’m personally interested in the HeroEngine is because I’m an old MUD guy, as I’m sure you are.

David Whatley: That’s how I got my start!

The MMO Gamer: Those were the days, let me tell you.

David Whatley: They were, but it’s still the days for us, we still do it. We’ve got three sides to our business, one of them is still the text-based game stuff. It’s about a quarter of our revenue.

The MMO Gamer: And now you’re trying to bring some of that MUD flavor back into MMOs?

David Whatley: Not just the MUD flavor, but the technology that we used to give it that flavor, the fact that the game can be evolving while you’re playing it, because it’s all live and collaborative.

The MMO Gamer: You know what would really win me over? If there were a little check box in the settings for “Text Only Mode,” and it just went to a blank screen with white text that said things like, “You are standing in a green, verdant field. There is a tree. Obvious exists are East, North.”

If you guys could pull that off… game of the year award, right there.

David Whatley: From you! [laughing] I will hold you to that.

Well, back when we did GemStone and Dragon Realms, we created those with what we called the Interactive Fiction Engine, and it allowed us to get GameMasters in there working, hundreds of them simultaneously, collaborating.

When we started working on Hero’s Journey we wanted that same sort of thing happening, which is why we created this whole HeroEngine business.

The MMO Gamer: Right, as we were talking about during the demo, I got the feeling that this is sort of the second coming of Online Creation from back in the day.

Could you talk about the thought process that led you to come up with a system that’s so different than the standard MMO development cycle?

David Whatley: You hit it right on the head. It comes from our MUD background. We used to do text-based games, starting 22 years ago.

Those games were first launched on online services like GEnie, CompuServe, a little company called America Online back in the day, Prodigy, and then eventually rolled out on the web as that started to take over. This was actually pre-internet.

And these games featured an engine we called the Interactive Fiction Engine, which allowed us to develop games with a team of what we call GameMasters, which are basically independent contractors or employees, depending on the situation, that work for us, but they tend to work remotely, from home.

So they would login to the game, but unlike the players, they had tools to build the content in the game. And that stretched from just expanding the terrain of the game, of course we’re talking text here, but also the actual gameplay and the mechanics.

The quests, and experiences, all of these things were under control of the GameMasters. And they could provide real-time interaction with the players, through events, festivals, just appearing in the game under some guise whether it’s a creature that they’re role-playing or as a god-like being, the GameMaster could manifest themselves as anything.

And they could do these events and build the game and do all this stuff, and do it continually, so that games like GemStone and Dragon Realms, the amount of content in them is just staggering when you go in there.

We wanted to take that same concept and apply it to the graphical MMOs; the World of Warcrafts, the EverQuests. They have tools, and they have great tools, but they lack the ability to rapidly develop and apply those same tools that exist in the development process to the live environment. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s why we created HeroEngine.

The MMO Gamer: Did you set out originally with the intention of licensing HeroEngine to others to create their own titles?

David Whatley: We didn’t originally intend to create HeroEngine as a technology platform for other people, it was supposed to be just for us. In fact, it was supposed to be the enabler of Hero’s Journey. Hero’s Journey was only going to be the kind of product we wanted it to be is if we could do this sort of thing, if we could apply this GameMaster approach, this rapid development approach.

To do that, though, we had to use tools that simply didn’t exist. We went out and evaluated a lot of things, but at the end of the day there was nothing even close to what we had in our heads, the way we liked to work.

So we just rolled up our sleeves and said we’re gonna build it, and if it takes us five years, it takes us five years. Being a bootstrap company we had the luxury of making that decision. So we started working on Hero’s Journey. We created these very fast processes for building content, building out worlds, scripting the behavior of everything on the client and the server, all in a live environment that’s always up and always running, switching back and forth between development and play instantaneously.

I never had any intention of creating a middleware company, but now I’m a middleware company as well…

We did all this and then we started showing Hero’s Journey around to various people as one does, and there were a lot of game developers out there, and studios ,that when they saw that, they said, “You know what, that’s exactly what we need for our next project, how do we get a hold of that?”

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  1. #mmo From GemStone to HeroEngine: Simutronics CEO David Whatley on Putting the MUD back into MMOs

  2. RT @TheMMOGamer: #mmo From GemStone to HeroEngine: Simutronics CEO David Whatley on Putting the MUD back into MMOs

  3. Gel214th says:

    ZOMG! Hero's Journey is still being developed! YAAAY! :)

    I thought the entire company had shifted to creating a Platform with Hero's engine and just licensing it instead of making their own IP.

    Looking forward to Hero's Journey, it seemed to have some very innovative features. Some of these have are now hitting the market in the newer MMOs – Champions Online has the Nemesis feature and the Customisable characters,Star Wars keeps talking about bringing Storyline to Multiplayer RPGs, and Secret World (still a ways out) is claiming to bring several of these all together as well.

    But I still look at Hero's Journey as something I'd like to see happen!


    • I saw nothing to indicate that Hero's Journey wasn't happening. The demo they had up and running at GDC of the HeroEngine editor was using Hero's Journey to show off its capabilities.

      I've heard some rumors that Simutronics was in dire financial straits and laid everyone on the project off, but "so much business we can barely keep up, and don't have the time to produce an indie version of HeroEngine" doesn't sound particularly dire to me.

    • hey

  4. Gel214th says:

    Yes, I heard those rumors as well. The engine licensing and associated work seems to have seen them through though. Still, it doesn't appear as though we will see Hero's Journey the game anytime soon, which is a shame.

    How do you work that out anyways? To release a game in the same market as the people you are selling the engine to build a game?

    The HeroEngine itself? Sounds incredible. Of course, what one hopes is that these phenomenal development costs of 50 million USD and up can be curtailed significantly through the development of technology to assist game development.

    Bring on the AIs! ^_^

  5. NextBillgates says:

    So what he's saying is design your own take a look at his and do a bill gates and improve ontop of it, take it to the next lvl and bury the competition.

  6. Gemstoner says:

    What's amazing is that Gemstone III is still going strong. They even have your old characters from the Compuserve AOL days. Memory lane!

  7. great interview

  8. Justin Giroux says:

    The price of Hero engine is extremely over priced. Basically it breaks the line between only rich huge companies can use it. Its sick the way the world works……..

  9. It’s reallly a nic and useful piece of information. I am happy that
    you just shared this helpful info with us. Please
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