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Five Considerations for Creating an Optimal Online Gaming Infrastructure

Even the most popular and addictive online games can suffer significant player loss if the backend infrastructure can’t deliver an optimal online gaming experience. This piece outlines five infrastructure tips for building and deploying online games.

The online, cloud-based gaming market has seen massive growth over the last five years, with the proliferation of social sites, gaming genres, mobile devices and high-speed broadband connections fueling the prediction that the market will reach $25.3 billion dollars this year, a compound annual growth rate of 13.9% since 2009.

While game publishers tend to focus on the entertainment value and “stickiness” of a game, even the most popular and addictive titles can suffer significant player loss if the backend infrastructure can’t deliver the performance needed to provide an optimal online gaming experience. Making matters even more complex, game publishers must implement a high-performing backend infrastructure at a price that makes business sense. If publishers aren’t careful, they can easily end up implementing a backend infrastructure that exceeds their allocated infrastructure budgets and hurts their bottom lines.

Keeping in mind the need to balance performance requirements and costs, both start-up and well-established enterprise game publishers should take into consideration these five infrastructure tips when building and deploying online games:

Don’t Sacrifice Performance for Increased Speed-to-Market

It’s been said in the online gaming market that revenue equals revenue – meaning the faster you deliver your game to market, the faster you generate revenue and the faster that revenue can be reinvested in the development of features that can grow revenue yet again. In order to move through the test, dev and launch stages as quickly as possible, online game developers and publishers must go beyond implementing rapid deployment strategies and also take a close look at the most effective and efficient infrastructure options.

Today, publishers interested in deploying an infrastructure that lets them bring games to market as quickly as possible turn to on-demand public cloud computing services. Game publishers have traditionally used virtual public clouds, which involve “virtualizing” a server’s resources and sharing them across multiple companies and applications. While virtualized public clouds can be a cost-effective option for start-up publishers that want to quickly launch their game and easily scale capacity as demand requires, they can introduce significant performance issues associated with sharing these virtualized server resources.

For game publishers seeking an on-demand infrastructure that features better performance than virtualized public clouds typically offer, bare-metal public clouds are a viable option. Bare-metal clouds dedicate an entire server’s physical resources to the user, and are also readily available with online provisioning so new game infrastructure can be up and running with an API call or a few clicks of the mouse within a web interface.

Achieve Scalability Without Overbuilding Infrastructure

Publishers often experience a large influx of players when launching their AAA online gaming title. Conversely, Daily Active Users (DAUs) can dramatically decline when the curiosity factor subsides and tourists leave. In the past, overbuilding infrastructure by as much as 25% was the “best practice” for initial launch spike preparations. Competition has since intensified, and game adoption rates have become harder to predict.

Public cloud infrastructure can meet fluctuating demand because of its ability to be easily turned on or off with minimal ramp-up time. For games that have short bursts of play, temporary match play or a limited number of concurrent users, purchasing a new server, waiting for it to arrive, configuring it and racking it in the data center is simply not an option.

For games with persistent worlds where thousands of players interact at the same time, scalability can be achieved through hybrid environments giving users the best of multiple infrastructure services. For example, a game’s leader board, scoring information and other customer data could be located in a colocation or a managed hosting environment, while match play occurs in a high performing bare-metal public cloud. Hybridization also saves on costs versus trying to host a large title or social game relying solely on one type of infrastructure.

Diversify Infrastructure to Minimize Downtime

With the aim of minimizing gaming downtime, online game publishers are opting to build out their infrastructure with resiliency and high availability in mind.

Netflix and others have been vocal about their intention to design their applications and infrastructure deployments to prevent failure, and one of the tactics for building a highly resilient solution involves horizontal scaling. With this approach, multiple servers that are functionally the same are set up to run together using global and local load balancers to route traffic. In the event that one server fails, another automatically picks up the load to prevent downtime. Diversifying these loads across data centers and geographies provides more layers of protection against systematic, large-scale outages.

Games that are more “fault sensitive,” and that have lower latency requirements such as certain MMOG genres, are often deployed in managed hosting, private cloud or colocation environments. Savvy publishers of “fault sensitive” games design infrastructure with high availability in mind, and typically use higher-end equipment and custom configurations that support faster access to storage and more failover options because they were designed to support the specific application. High availability infrastructure and service level guarantees can be constructed for global IP routing and switching, back channel device networking, data center or rack-level power distribution, as well as the server and storage hardware itself.

Don’t Let Latency Destroy Your User Base

Lag is consistently cited as one the biggest areas of concern for online game companies because of its potential ongoing negative impact on subscriber churn and in-game transaction conversion rates. Latency issues can generally be divided into server-side and network-side components, and understanding where your game falls within the latency-sensitivity spectrum is a key component of infrastructure planning. Once you establish these thresholds, applying the right technologies to maintain the user experience becomes much clearer.

Some of the infrastructure solutions used to minimize server-side latency include the use of bare-metal physical hardware and customized servers with specialty elements like high I/O disks and specialty flash drives. On the network side, tech ops teams are overriding border gateway protocol (BGP) routing decisions through multi-carrier optimization, edge caching for static file delivery and other acceleration techniques.

Consider Always-On Infrastructure for Stable Workloads

After heavily investing in other non-infrastructure components, there may be little capital left to support large upfront infrastructure purchases. Particularly for smaller gaming studios with limited funds, they must look to alternative methods rather than try to start out
 with a surplus of infrastructure they may not use or be able to pay off. Similarly, established game publishers need to create baseline demand before committing costly resources. The wrong infrastructure choice can be lethal. More than a few gaming companies have over-invested in infrastructure only to face bankruptcy and restructuring when demand failed to meet expectations.

While game publishers can turn to on-demand cloud infrastructure platforms to minimize initial investments for new games and development projects, the economics of on-demand offerings typically breakdown when companies build out large-scale environments to support more stable workloads and must continue to purchase more “instances” to support the volume of gamers. A long-term hosting or colocation agreement can, over a game lifecycle, make sense if demand levels are relatively stable. When traffic and usage is consistent and predictable, entering into longer-term infrastructure leases and/or purchasing equipment can increase control and lower costs.

The online game industry is poised to grow as much if not more over the next five years than it has since 2009, and an optimal gaming infrastructure is critical to helping game publishers maintain a competitive advantage. Publishers that deliver a flawless user experience, with infrastructure costs that makes business sense, will be the ones that can ultimately attract and maintain a vibrant gamer community.

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