We were at Game Developers Conference Online in Austin last week to catch up on the latest trends in one of our key customer verticals. The time we spent deciphering T-shirts with arcane game references and investigating the ubiquitous affinity for 8-bit game art notwithstanding, this was a really informative and useful conference. We had the opportunity to meet more than a few talented game developers, project managers, writers, and artists, all ready to discuss their craft. I’ve summarized some takeaways we thought were worth passing along below.
Free-to-play game monetization
Different platforms generate vastly different in-game monetization yields. Tommy Palm at King.com mentioned that their mobile users were much more valuable than web users (3x higher). Why? Mobile gamers are willing to pay more because micro transactions happen more smoothly on mobile devices than on a website. Also there is an “everything is free” mentality on web which isn’t the case for mobile.
Teut Weidemann at Ubisoft offered up industry monetization conversion rates (paying active players/total active players) by distribution method: for social network based games (1-3%), browser based games (5-15%), and client-based games (20-30%).
Multi-platform game production
Unity’s Adam Gutterman discussed the challenge of multi-platform game production amidst fragmenting game markets, authoring tools/game engines, devices (particularly Android but also Apple), distribution platforms (Game Center, Facebook, Gree, etc.), and third-party technologies (e.g., Tapjoy, Flurry, Playnomics). He also contended that HTML 5 isn’t a great option for multiplatform yet because: (1) it lacks digital rights management standards and code is often completely exposed; (2) discovery/rediscovery methods for game aren’t fully baked; (3) it’s very difficult to optimize for different browsers. Interesting to note however that there is some big investment going into HTML 5 gaming companies and some of the largest games in the world have already ported their games to an HTML 5 platform including Bejeweled and Angry Birds. HTML 5 isn’t currently supported by Unity so perhaps that explains some of the near-term skepticism.
Online gaming infrastructure (a topic near and dear to our hearts)
We heard more than a few developers and tech ops speakers advocate for the use of a CDN to reduce bandwidth costs, improve performance, and distribute load (both friendly and malicious). Of course we would argue that IP route optimization can benefit dynamic elements of any online game – avoiding trouble spots to specific geos that arise across the Internet every day.
Jesse Willett and Hao Chen with Zynga talked about the need to verify your CDN cache policies to make sure users are getting the right file. (Quick Tutorial: CDNs store static files at edge servers around the world so users far away from the origin server can quickly retrieve files, thereby making an object/page load faster. When the source files are updated at the origin, you need to make sure that those users served by the edge don’t continue to get the old file because it has the same name/URL). Unlike some CDNs (e.g., Amazon’s CloudFront), Internap provides a “wildcard purge” feature that eliminates all old copies of files stored in edge caches to ensure files pointing to a URL are the latest. Even with this feature, the Zynga guys advocated for changing the URL itself every time a file is changed. This ensures that old copies don’t slip through the cracks via 3rd party reverse proxies or files cached in the browser itself (which can’t be addressed by a wildcard purge).
BioWare’s Dave Moore talked about how the tech ops team for Star Wars the Old Republic (STWOR) used their CDN to direct a portion of gamers (~10% at peak concurrence) to a waiting room to ensure the game servers weren’t overloaded on the go-live day (exhaustive load testing couldn’t predict the huge demand they saw day 1).
STWOR, as well as several other MMOs that we spoke with hadn’t yet started to use public cloud for their production environments. Many well established social games (often cross platform) were also using custom infrastructure environments rather than IaaS. Public cloud with Hadoop and other MapReduce implementations plus My/NoSQL, however seemed to be widely used by many of the mobile, asynchronous game publishers we talked with. Some of Internap’s gaming customers are also using the fungible capacity of our AgileCLOUD to dynamically increase the load they can take at launch.
Some of the many recommendations we heard for lowering latency and improving game performance included: aggressive minimization of disk i/o (via replication and caching), iterative fixes of design bugs, effective load balancing across servers, racks, data centers and geos, separation of production environments (e.g., forums and authentication servers independent of game servers) and old-fashioned equipment scaling.