Building on strong foundations: Harnessing the right back-end tech for your game

Develop asks the experts about the services available, and why it matters
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These days, nearly all games are online in some capacity, and while single-player gaming is still in demand, multiplayer interactivity, whether that be competitive, co-operative or just social, is becoming increasingly popular.

Together with a modern development model that champions iterative game design and persistent updates on the fly, particularly on mobile, just working on the gameplay is only part of an increasingly complex development process. Many developers now also have to consider how the game is supported behind the scenes.

A myriad of companies have emerged over the years to help build up a game’s infrastructure to handle the title itself, with many services companies coining the term ‘back-end as a service’ (BaaS). But what does that even mean?

Back to basics

“Back-end as a service can be a confusing term,” says John Griffin, CMO of one such UK-based services provider GameSparks.

“In GameSparks, it means providing developers with everything they need from the server-side on a pay-as-you-go basis. There are a number of key things here. The first is the scope of what a back-end as a service should offer. Effectively, it should give the developer a full set of server-side components so that they can plug their game into it easily, saving a lot of development time.

“Secondly, it should give the developer control over the server-side components so that they can do whatever they want and not be limited by our interpretation of what a particular component should do. It should be flexible, allowing them to build on what the core offering already provides. Next, it should abstract the server and underlying network tiers so that the developer does not have to worry about scalability, and finally, it is about making a sophisticated server-side capability affordable and tied into the success of the game in question.”

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It’s about the need to cope with a fragmented distribution environment, now that there are so many different platforms and stores.

John Griffin, GameSparks

Kumakore CEO Henry Yeh further elaborates that BaaS is currently the highest layer of abstraction for games developers to be able to access the cloud. He explains there are numerous levels on the technology stack for server services, where at the lowest level developers can either use their own physical serviers or redeploy onto a cloud service such as Azure or Amazon Web Services.

“There, you directly pay for the instances you deploy, so regardless of how much usage you use, you’re paying a set price for ‘uptime’,” he says.

“Then you have the PaaS’s, such as Heroku, which is the next layer above the cloud, and they actually deploy on the bottom level cloud services, but they manage those services so that a developer only pays based on how much cloud service they use. Finally, the BaaS’s don’t require any level of server programming knowledge, as they expose APIs for the developer. For example, a generic BaaS like Parse could be thought of as an API to expose MongoDB.”

Firms in the space offer support for game features including leaderboards, achievements, virtual currency and goods, inventory management, asynchronous gameplay, push notifications, analytics and player chat.

Though developers could potentially build most of this themselves, Yeh believes as players focus on the core gameplay experience, it is not always worth a studio’s time investing in their own technology given the array of service providers on the market.

“They get user love from building a great game,” he says. “Some developers recognise this key factor is the one that allows them to turn their passion into a successful business. No user ever chose a game for its back-end solution.”

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Back to the future

As games have become more complex, even in just the last few years, so has the infrastructure behind them. Griffin says there has quietly been an “architectural revolution” in the way games are made, particularly in the mobile space.

He says games are becoming dependent on server-side components, driven by the increasing importance of social interaction – something the console platform holders have taken notice of with their new games consoles – as a driver of engagement, retention and player acquisition.

“It’s about the evolution of business models, where in-game revenue streams, like advertising and the sale of virtual goods, have become more important,” states Griffin.

“It’s about the need to cope with a fragmented distribution environment, now that there are so many different platforms and stores, some of which are walled gardens and all of which set version control and release overhead challenges. And it’s also about a mindset shift from product thinking – where the target was unit sales, and the game is largely in its final form at release – to service thinking, where the target is active customer relationships, and where the game evolves significantly post-release.”

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I have seen games fail because of the inflexibility of the platform back-end side not working properly or being flexible enough.

David Lee, Sleepy Giant

David Lee of Sleepy Giant, which operates back-end technology Fofofum, says changes in the field have come from engines such as Unity making it easier for any kind of developer to make a game, the growing number of solutions to maximise revenue and user engagement.

He claims that while part of this started off as simply ‘analytics’, data alone “provides no value”, with companies now also offering a way to auto message users through push notifications or emails.

“The areas I see further growth in would be around more complex automation for marketers since they need to know which ads are bringing in the most return on investment and now with so many systems in place, they need a more robust automation engine that can take multiple event sources and handle more complex rules than what is out there now,” he says.

Griffin says such architectural trends are making life more difficult for developers. As well as working on the core gameplay, they now need to understand the server-side technology if they want to be successful.

“Good back-end technology becomes very important – it’s not just about delivering the server-side features, it’s about how that’s achieved,” he states. “You need reliable, scalable, flexible, well-maintained server-side tools, without distracting too much time and resource away from the tasks that matter most – making and managing great games.

“Do developers get this? The more established certainly do. I think it makes things much harder for indies though as it means they need to have server-side skills as well as client-side, and many of them do not have this experience. GameSparks exists to help indies and level the playing field by bringing enterprise grade server–side capability to them on an affordable basis.”

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A new way to develop

David Xicota, CEO of Gamedonia, adds that big developers have known the importance of good back-end tech for a long time, but believes many indies have missed the value of the tech.

“Sometimes, they do this part too late in the development process − when they already have the game client ready − and end up with a lesser product due to a lack of knowledge in setting and maintaining this infrastructure,” he says.

“It’s the hard way to realise that back-end is as relevant as the front-end. Right now, the back-end requirements have become standards everybody expects.”

PlayFab CEO James Gwertzman says as more titles move to a game-as-a-service, the future of development belongs to those who can operate their live games successfully.

“Operating games effectively is hard, very hard,” he says. “Doing it well requires back-end services, tools for your operations team that support all the various roles involved – customer service, product management, marketing, game design, data analysis, etcetera – and the know-how to actually use those tools successfully.”

Lee counters, however, that he doesn’t believe indies have the money to consider their back-end technology thoroughly, instead building something internally or using systems like Parse or Kinvey to give them 20 per cent of what they need.

For larger developers on big budgets, it’s often a vital piece of their success.

“I have seen games fail because of the inflexibility of the platform back-end side not working properly or being flexible enough,” says Lee.

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Sometimes, they do this part too late in the development process − when they already have the game client ready − and end up with a lesser product due to a lack of knowledge in setting and maintaining this infrastructure.

David Xicota, Gamedonia

A licence to BaaS

Given the importance of building a good back-end, should developers choose to licence it or build their own? Yeh says the BaaS is best used for companies that need to iterate quickly on their games and get features out, and likens it to game engines, where many developers opt for third-party tools instead of creating their own.

“It is not that a developer is not able to build their own tech, but rather, it is not an efficient use of resources,” he claims. “And, when you are developing games as your business, developing new tech may be a fun engineering exercise but not an intelligent business practice.”

Xicota says consideration should relate to how such a service will add to the final product. While BaaS engineers work exclusively in the field, he says it’s something that’s difficult to achieve with an inexperienced team.

He accepts however that multi-disciplined teams could build their own in-house solutions, but as Yeh says, also references how devs are increasingly adopting third-party engines.

“Would it make sense that every studio had to code its own game engine? I don’t think so,” he states.
“That’s why we’re seeing top quality engines thrive. So, why would you want to develop your own back-end when professional and flexible solutions exist in the market?"

Griffin says rather than one or the other, developers can use both. He explains that GameSparks allows studios to use specific parts of its services that can be augmented into their own existing back-ends.

“It’s no longer one or the other,” he states. “For complex games with huge player bases running into the many millions, the costs of server-side technology can run high, not to mention the cost of development and the amount of time it takes.

“I think most companies should look at what they can get from an external supplier now, especially as they can be integrated with existing internal capabilities.”

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