Announcing Project Atlas — A vision for a cloud-native gaming future
By Ken Moss, Chief Technology Officer at Electronic Arts
I think I have the best job in the world. Growing up, I spent my spare time and spare change at my neighborhood arcade. That’s also where I found a great group of friends. At 13, I programmed my first video game. At 15, I sold my first game on a cassette tape on a Commodore 64. Four years ago, I joined Electronic Arts as the CTO, and two years ago, I took over leadership of our Frostbite engine. My job is to create the technology that powers the games that can make 2.6 billion people around the world a little bit happier. And today, I’m excited to share some of what we’ve been working on that is going to change how future games are made.
Our industry has come a long way since I was a kid. But looking ahead to the next few years, I strongly believe that what’s on the horizon will bring greater changes than anything gaming has ever seen.
At EA, we envision a future in which games go even further beyond the immersive experiences players enjoy today. I’m talking about games that offer living, breathing worlds that constantly evolve. You’ll play them one day, and when you come back the next, things have changed based on inputs from other players, AI, and even the real world. These new experiences will lead to deep, meaningful social interactions. The games you play, the characters you create, and the experiences you have together will create shared ground for friendships that span the globe. I believe this is a future where games become the most compelling form of entertainment. You will be able to play games with your friends anytime, anywhere, and on any device.
Up until now, what I’m describing has been possible in nascent, fragmented ways. But we’re at an inflection point where major, complementary tech disruptors are falling into place. As an industry, we’ve made remarkable technological advancements in AI, cloud, distributed computing, social features, and engines. But because all of these technologies have continued to evolve separately, it’s been difficult to conceptualize what we could achieve by bringing them together. That’s about to change. Technological disruptors — when brought together in a complementary way — will result in a truly profound unlock for game creators.
Today, I want to share an inside view of what we’re working on to bring together some of the most transformative technologies into an integrated “engine + services” game development platform. A platform designed from the core to harness the massive power of cloud computing and artificial intelligence and putting it into the hands of game makers in a powerful, easy to use, one-stop experience.
We’re calling this Project Atlas and we believe in it so much that we have over 1,000 EA employees working on building it every day, and dozens of studios around the world contributing their innovations, driving priorities, and already using many of the components.
A cloud-native future
Let’s start with a quick run through of today’s game development process. There are two major components to building a game from a technology standpoint:
- The game engine — this is what controls the “fundamentals” of the game with things like rendering, game logic, physics, animation, audio, and a toolchain for creating the game.
- And a rich set of services like secure player identity and authentication, player matchmaking and achievements, and social communications with friends that truly bring the game to life — all supported by common data management and game and service hosting.
Let’s talk about game engines first. Only a few game engines in the world have the ability to deliver on a global scale. Among this selective group is EA’s Frostbite Engine — which powers some of our most popular, intricate, and demanding games like Battlefield, FIFA, Madden, Dragon Age, Need for Speed, and an awesome upcoming dynamic world game called Anthem. Immersive games have always been popular, as have game makers who have the gift of recreating our world in interesting ways — and a game engine is essentially the creators’ tool box. The depiction of light, colors, and life in the physical world has been explored by artists for centuries. In the last century, hyperrealism emerged as a genre of painting and sculpture whose goal was to accurately depict life as captured by the highest resolution color photographs of the day. In the same timeframe, the art of accurately depicting movement emerged, as a new class of artists called animators began studying and modeling movement of people, animals, wind-blown grass, and other elements of life. Ever since the computer revolution led to the development of PCs and game consoles, video game artists have been increasingly leading the charge towards hyperrealism and more physically accurate animation — all in the service of fun.
To help game developers deliver entertaining, life-like experiences to players, EA has been developing advanced technologies within our Frostbite game engine to:
- Render scenes that more accurately model the physical properties of light sources and their interactions with different types of materials.
- Apply a combination of intelligently modeled physics in conjunction with advanced animation techniques to more precisely depict motion, like the collision and destruction of different kinds of objects — and also to make game characters and fluids move more naturally within complex environments.
- Utilize advanced 3D photogrammetry, big data, computer vision, and artificial intelligence to procedurally synthesize incredibly natural-looking landscapes that maintain their image quality at any size and any resolution.
- Deliver innovations in the fields of audio, cinematics, and in the rigorous application of advanced computer science to enable improved experiences.
For a long time, game engine development was about empowering better visuals — but now developers and players alike know that it’s also about enabling better gaming experiences, with visuals being just one component.
That brings us to a second, more recent component of game development — the online game services that enable deeply connected experiences between players and content. We’ve been innovating new capabilities that are pushing forward how we think about the services that wrap around a game. As the industry experiences a new era of connectivity, players have naturally come to ask for more personalized entertainment, consumed how and when they want, with more opportunities to collaboratively interact with content. Gaming services are evolving to extend those experiences across games, and across more devices, creating exciting new opportunities for social play.
That’s why EA has been heavily investing in a new generation of online game services over the past several years. To empower game developers to easily create, deploy, and manage these connected game experiences, they need capabilities such as:
- Deep social capabilities, from structures such as friends and groups, to relationships and social graphs, and the communications between them.
- The ability to capture, create, share, rate, and discover content from and between users.
- Matchmaking and game experiences tuned to the preferences of each individual gamer for unprecedented personalization, while protecting their data and respecting their privacy.
- Identity creation and federation, creating ever-deepening opportunities for connection and play across devices and ecosystems.
- All leveraging common data systems and schema to drive deep personalization — optimized via experimentation and with a growing set of machine-learning powered scenarios.
The “cloud” is a term used to describe a global network of servers — which in the context of games are used to store and manage data, as well as run the games and related game services. The cloud is not a specific physical construct. Instead, it is a connected, distributed system that helps deliver services to a worldwide gaming population. When we talk about cloud gaming, we’re referring to a game that resides on an EA server rather than on the gamer’s PC or mobile device. The gamer enters the game by installing a thin client that can access EA’s servers where the games are running. We’ve been developing software that utilizes the cloud to remotely process and stream blockbuster, multiplayer HD games with the lowest possible latency, and also to unlock even more possibilities for dynamic social and cross-platform play. Beyond that, we’re investing in cloud gaming to enable deeper personalization, and to eventually create a world full of user generated content — blurring the lines between the discrete domains of game engines and game services. In fact, it is the merging of these two formerly distinct domains, along with the paradigm of cloud gaming, that is a key driver of the next-generation unified platform from EA.
Applying AI to Unlock Creativity
So far, we’ve talked about features that would enable plenty of innovation in their own right. But it’s especially exciting to see how much further we can progress gaming with a technology the industry is still harnessing — Artificial Intelligence. When AI is available everywhere, developers will use it to optimize almost any element of a game — from the distribution of resources in an online shooter, to populating and evolving expansive virtual worlds with minimal manual intervention, to unlocking deep personalization of in-game agents at scale.
Leveraging AI and machine learning will also give game makers the ability to craft in-game interactions with non-playable characters or NPCs in a way that is virtually indecipherable from a human interaction. So, instead of a pre-scripted, pattern-based logic for NPC behavior, this would make it possible for an NPC to engage in a way that is dynamic, contextual and absolutely believable. For example, imagine that you’re playing Madden, and you’ve just thrown your second interception of the game against the same cover 2 defense that caused the first turnover. Instead of the commentator simply stating that you threw a pick, the AI enables contextual, real-time commentary to reference the fact that you’re throwing to the sideline against a cover 2 defense and should have thrown against the weak zone over the middle to your tight end, who was open on the route. This would certainly push the game into a greater level of contextual and experiential realism. The AI is working with your gameplay. It’s responding to your needs as a player.
Another use of AI is truly profound — to have computers assist creators in some of the most artistic of human endeavors — making art. We are today innovating with AI to write and perform original music in a way that is truly relevant and personalized to every moment of gameplay. Imagine a world where a huge and talented virtual orchestra is behind every game, and new and unique scores get written depending on the current scene you are playing. Each environment may have its own musical motif, which gets merged with the motifs of enemies or allies who may be present. In addition, imagine that as the action gets more intense — the pace of the music picks up to match. Music is truly one of the strongest ways to evoke powerful emotions that make gameplay even more immersive. Beyond music come other forms of art, including character behavior and even raw story telling. I can’t wait to see what amazing studios like BioWare do when the legendary story tellers at their studio are paired with the power of AI to create even richer, unique, and personalized stories for the world at large.
As with all of the features we described, our vision with AI is to create something transparent, seamless, and additive for the player, but never intrusive and never something that would imbalance the experience. Games are supposed to be fun, and we want to give developers a tool to enable AI in the right way for the right contexts, so that fun is always at the center, while also keeping gameplay fair.
A new platform
We’re busy integrating all of this new functionality, directly into a revolutionary new gaming platform that we’re calling Project Atlas. Project Atlas is designed to seamlessly converge EA’s Frostbite game engine and game services as well as artificial intelligence — giving rise to a new game development platform, optimized for a cloud-enabled world. This will be a fully integrated platform, capable of building the scalable, social, and large-scale experiences of the future. So, while in the past, features like cloud hosting, matchmaking, marketplace, data, AI, achievements, and social were separate from the development tools in the engine, the Project Atlas platform will be able to implement all of these services natively within a unified solution.
This is the convergence we believe to be so exciting and so liberating. The cloud distribution of engine services will free the game engine from the processing constraints of any single computing device, bringing more possibilities for deep personalization. A world full of user generated content will be possible with the growing ubiquity of cloud computing. As these begin to take shape, what’s actually happening is that they are blurring the line between engine and services. The two formerly distinct worlds of engine and services are merging, and what is emerging is the need for a next-generation unified platform.
Here are some of the ways we see Project Atlas in action:
Power Made Easy
The industry has seen some pretty incredible technological advances recently, for example:
- Low resolution standard dynamic range to Ultra HD high dynamic range.
- 4G and WiGig connectivity to 5G in the future.
- A plethora of 3D graphics innovations in lighting, texturing, and drawing objects.
- Big data, server-side neural network algorithm training, with client-side inferencing.
Each of these technology evolutions has the potential to improve game experiences. The paradox, however, is that with every generational uplift, the effort involved in game asset creation required to benefit from these new innovations becomes proportionally more expensive. Without significant automation, it becomes almost untenable to scale beyond current game sizes because the demand on creator hours and cost does not scale. Take the demands of an open-world action-adventure game, for instance. There is a requisite asset density — the number of mountains, trees, enemies, and vehicles per block of land — to keep the world engaging and interesting for players to explore. It’s common for it to take a staff of more than fifty artists at the peak of a game, working hard because every asset requires weeks, months, and even years of work for developers to design and place by hand. Or, the tradeoff has been to have repetitive, copy-paste in-game environments that, while they could cover a vast expanse, were unrealistic and boring.
With Project Atlas, we are starting to put the power of AI in the creative’s hands. In one example, we are using high-quality LIDAR data about real mountain ranges, passing that data through a deep neural network trained to create terrain-building algorithms, and then creating an algorithm which will be available within the platform’s development toolbox. With this AI-assisted terrain generation, designers will within seconds generate not just a single mountain, but a series of mountains and all the surrounding environment with the realism of the real-world. Channeling my 15-year-old self as a burgeoning game maker, I’m especially excited about what all this means for developers large and small. And this is just one example of dozens or even hundreds where we can apply advanced technology to help game teams of all sizes scale to build bigger and more fun games.
With Project Atlas, we’re now working to optimize cloud distribution of engine services to process the rendering, physics, and simulation of a game instead of being entirely constrained to the specs of a single client-side computing device. With Project Atlas, which is cloud native, we’ll have the ability to break from the limitations of individual systems. Previously, any simulation or rendering of in-game action were either limited to the processing performance of the player’s console or PC, or to a single server that interacted with your system. By harnessing the power of the cloud, players can tap into a network of many servers, dedicated to computing complex tasks, working in tandem with their own devices, to deliver things like hyper-realistic destruction within new HD games, that is virtually indistinguishable from real life — we’re working to deploy that level of gaming immersion on every device.
Integrating distributed networks at the rendering level means infinite scalability from the cloud. In typical multi-player games today, game performance is a balancing act of the demands of different resources and quality constraints — memory, CPU, GPU, fidelity, resolution, and framerate. Today, the balancing act of all those different constraints generally tops out at about 100 players competing at the same time on a map of a few dozen square kilometers. But the cloud starts to erase those limitations. Thousands of players could compete on a single map hundreds or thousands of kilometers wide, in a game session that could last for days, weeks, or years and with the progression and persistence of realistic seasons and campaigns. Technical limits expand exponentially and game designers get to focus on maximizing fun.
Enabling the engine to run on the cloud also means we can evolve collaborative tools that are core to the actual design process. Previously, it was easiest when only one developer was working on a map at a time to avoid forcing a difficult merge with another developers changes. But with the right design of the engine, multiple designers could share that map and enable simultaneous updates in a truly collaborative and creative environment. This means that, whether you’re on a team of 500 or just 5, you now have the ability to scale games, and create immersive experiences, in unprecedented ways.
Blurring the Line Between Playing and Creating
We’re also seeing that players are craving even more creative control. Modding, streaming, skinning, watching — I can’t think of the gaming platform of the future that isn’t, at its heart, embracing players who tweak, create, and share in very profound ways. But as it stands, modding a game generally requires deep technical experience, sometimes bordering on hacking.
As the development platform of the future hosts the game content workflow and pipeline in the cloud, we can more easily and safely open up powerful avenues for players to create within games and services. You can dream, turn your own vision into reality, and share your creation with your friends or the whole world. You can potentially even market your ideas and visions to the community. To unlock that potential, you need a cloud-enabled engine that seamlessly integrates services. You need an accessible build of the game and a moddable asset database. You need a common marketplace for sharing and rating player creations. All that doesn’t exist yet today, but this is exactly what we are working towards with Project Atlas.
Players and developers want to create. We want to help them. By blurring the line between content producers and players, this will truly democratize the game experience.
Choice, Security, and Control
There is an exciting future on the horizon as we continue to lean into the power of AI, cloud, and data. Another reality that comes into sharper focus in this heightened digital age is the need to ensure that every game and experience continues to stay fun, enjoyable, and safe. A network-empowered game experience is one that is deeply wrapped in connected services, but also requires a greater exchange of data and information. As such, there is an absolute need to protect player data and privacy.
This is just another one of the many ways that Project Atlas can further help empower game makers. When the engine and services were separately developed and operated, developers had to manage and secure separate data pipelines. With the unified platform of Project Atlas, game makers will have the ability to seamlessly deploy security measures including SSL certificates, configuration, appropriate encryption of data, and zero-downtime patches for every feature from a single secure source. This means that they can focus on what game makers are best at — creating the best games.
Taken as a whole, developing the technology behind Project Atlas — increasing scalability, enabling power easily, unlocking AI, and enhancing security — are all just one step towards the future.
What’s so different here? Some of this already exists.
Right now some of these capabilities exist separately, but are too hard to use, and have to be manually connected and configured as each new capability emerges. That creates a huge set of opportunities.
The opportunity cost can be seen in creative discovery, quality of games, and innovation. This hits especially close to home for smaller and indie developers where human capital is finite. If you’re investing time and effort in one aspect of development, you’re taking away from something else. Right now, developers have to spend a lot of time making fragmented services work together. They have to spend time on manual configuration, integration, logging, and coding. Time and resources that could have been spent on creating new gameplay, concepts, story, or characters. We’re solving for some of the manually intensive demands by bringing together AI capabilities in an engine and cloud-enabled services at scale. With an integrated platform that delivers consistency and seamless delivery from the game, game makers will free up time, brainspace, and energy for the creative pursuit. This means more capacity to discover the next great thing. Games aren’t just another piece of software. This is about empowering game makers to focus on what matters most — the creativity, the artistry, and the fun.
What’s next? And when?
There is so much already underway to bring Project Atlas to life, and we’re going to make sure this thing is forged from fire. EA is home to dozens of world-class studios and technology teams, with some of the best creative and technical minds in the entire industry, and they are our secret sauce. The entire company is locked arm-in-arm envisioning, building, testing and deploying the tools in development everyday. Believe me, this is a set of partners with very high expectations and we don’t want them to hold back. They pressure test what we create, and make it better.
As we increasingly work with partners outside of EA to make the platform better, we also look to them to share and exchange insights and ensure that the platform we’re building meets their needs. And as always, our players will continue to serve as a guiding light, telling us what they want to see in future gaming experiences.
Without a doubt, this is going to be an exciting journey, and I want to invite you all to join us. I welcome you to check back here for regular updates about this project. And if you like making games, come work with us and help us make that future a reality.
I can’t wait to see what we’ll create together.