Running an online gaming service? Then a CDN might make all the difference

Akamai is one of those companies that keep the internet running smoothly – without it gamers simply wouldn’t get today’s slick online experience. Marketing director for gaming Nelson Rodriguez tells MCV about his work with big publishers, how gaming is changing, and discusses game streaming R&D and AR security

Can you explain what Akamai does in layman’s terms?

Akamai invented the Content Delivery Network (CDN) business. The internet is terribly built and terribly designed, still it’s a brilliant outcome for something that has been developed over years and years. Business relationships and peering agreements that means the route the data takes is non-optimal, it’s a labyrinth. The CDN business was designed to try solve those inherent problems. 

The first one we solved was how we can get cacheable data to the end user as quickly as possible. Akamai doesn’t have data centres, instead we have 200,000 points of access across the globe, with most people being no more than one or two hops away from one. Installed at carriers, ISPs, leased boxes at providers, and now moving into mobile as well. 

That’s part of the magic, that’s why the internet works as quickly as it does for many people – getting them that game file as quickly as possible. We work with most of the big publishers and competitive gaming companies: EA, Sony, Activision, Ubisoft and more.

So Akamai handles a lot of gaming data?

Akamai got into games as there were lots of big files, but then realised it could do things for games that most businesses didn’t need.

We’ve gotten into multiplayer, helping maintain the connection, helping speed up the connection to endpoints that are far away. The big changes are coming in Latin America, in Africa, where better networks are coming online. Five years ago you couldn’t launch a big title in Nigeria and have a good multiplayer structure, that’s changing.

Two things are happening, the end point networks are getting faster and we’re coming up with better routes to get to those users. Connecting them with low latency connections that are key for gaming.

How is technology changing gaming?

The key changes in the games space over the last 15 years have been friction reduction innovations. It’s not a question of whether your game has space marines or unicorns, it’s not game mechanics, but the rise of mobile, casual and free-to-play have been the key changes.

You can play anywhere, putting machines in everyone’s hands, you don’t have to commit to £50 upfront and by the same token casual games. Imagine going to EA ten years ago and saying to them: your games are going to cost $1 or less and players are going to control them with a single thumb and the resolution of the devices will be smaller and less powerful. It would have sounded crazy.

This game type is compulsive, but we’re still at a place in the industry where there are frictions that have not yet been solved. My son refuses to download games because he can’t wait, it can take hours to download, so it’s often still quicker to go to the store and buy the game. We helped solve that problem for streaming video and we’re helping mitigate it for games.

What about streaming games to users, as with Nvidia’s GeForce Now?

There are several R&D teams I’ve met with at the big publishers working on hybrid streaming-download technologies. The characters are locally installed but the backgrounds are streamed, as they change at a less critical rate, which reduces the latency concerns. 

The key thing is whether my character moved when I told it to – did the bullet go where I wanted? It’s one of the hybrid experiments for game streaming that’s being worked on. Streaming games will come but the goal at present is how quickly can you get a local copy delivered. 

Are there any issues particular to augmented-reality games such as Pokémon Go?

If you look at AR in gaming, it creates an additional strain in networks, because key elements of gameplay are dynamically generated. Let’s say your visit San Francisco and you install an AR game, the game has no idea you live in London normally, so when you start to play at Waterloo it’s calling the server in a way that it didn’t expect. 

It has no idea where you’re going to go, calls to the server could overload the system. If your AR game is more popular than you expected it’s really hard to keep it standing. A thousand people standing at the Sydney Opera house all trying to capture something, that’s going to create data problems and that becomes a potential security weak point.

Next week we’ll be talking further to Rodriguez on choosing the right network strategy for your game and the security issues that face our industry.

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