It’s one of the most successful technology start-ups to ever come out of the UK and in 2016 secured a $502 million investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, the world’s largest technology investor and the largest ever investment into a private UK company.
However, $2 billion-valued Improbable, whose core product SpatialOS is a cloud based operating system for the design of virtual worlds, has, following a commercial dispute, found itself blocked out of its most important partner platform.
Once a designer has created a virtual world in SpatialOS, it is connected, or ‘plugged in’ to a graphics engine that completes the job by rendering the work into a format that allows it to play on games consoles and PCs. The most popular of these graphics engines is that of a company called Unity. It is claimed more than half of all games on the market today have had their graphics rendered by the engine. They’ve now changed their terms to ban Improbable from using it.
Both companies have made conflicting statements on the reason for the ban. Improbably chief executive Herman Narula commented:
“Other engine providers work with us for free and provide us support. This is how the industry works, but it looks as though they want to change their business model, or maybe they want to build a competing product, we don’t know.”
While Unity’s chief technology officer and co-founder Joachim Ante responded:
“Unfortunately, Improbable chose an approach which doesn’t involve partnering with Unity, but instead involves making unauthorized and improper use of Unity’s technology and name in connection with the development, sale, and marketing of its own products”.
Luckily the spat’s fall-out won’t negatively impact games studios which have existing products designed in Improbable and rendered through Unity. Mr Ante assured publishers whose products are currently in production or live that they will not be affected by the decision to block Improbable’s continuing access to their platform.
Despite its hefty valuation, the investment it has attracted and a huge deal signed last year with Chinese games publisher Netease, Improbable could do without losing access to the gaming world’s most popular graphics rendering platform. Aside from the Netease deal, most of Improbable’s clients are small independent games publishers and revenues have yet to deliver on the company’s promise.
One anonymous gaming industry insider quoted in the Financial Times said that Improbable’s software is relatively expensive to use and appears to target larger, more advanced publishers. However, exactly that profile of games studio is more likely to use their own in-house private cloud server architecture for processing.
The Vision Fund will be hoping Improbable has something up its sleeve to ride this disagreement out and move forward in as positive enough a way to deliver a return on its huge investment. However, the fund is renowned for pushing companies to take a much larger investment than they are actually looking for to give them the financial sway to really attack their market. Perhaps that buffer will come in handy now, or perhaps it’s not Unity who is planning a rival product to Improbable’s but the inverse.