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It’s a mark of how the technology market is often less about academic smarts, and more about determination to stay in the game, that networking Canadian company Quazal now finds itself having fewer discussions about pure networking and many more about lobby services and out-of-game features.
Rewind ten years, and under the name Proksim, the company was out to revolutionise game networking with its clever distributed object technology, Net-Z, which was designed to reduce complexity and bandwidth costs by using a peer-to-peer architecture. But following several business curve balls, not to mention the cheapness of bandwidth, the renamed and resurgent Quazal found its place in the middleware ecosystem thanks to its Rendez-Vous SDK, used for creating game lobbies and adding community features. It now also offers a simplified version called Spark!, which is designed for studios who want to get their game online and working quickly. It’s feature-light, of course, but most games don’t need unique online features, so it fulfills the need for straight-out-the-box deployment. Quazal still sells Net-Z, but it’s certainly not the focus the company founders would have predicted.
“It’s not only about the technology anymore, that’s for sure,” says Mike Drummelsmith, Quazal’s jovial developer relations manager. “Not many people are coming to us just for Net-Z. Generally they come to us for Rendez-Vous and Net-Z, or for Rendez-Vous because they’re using their own networking code. Instead, what we see is studios looking forward to where online services can go from here. The networking itself isn’t changing drastically.”
One of the key areas that’s currently generating a lot of interest is in-game persistence. “Even if individual game sessions are only five minute affairs, publishers are looking at ways to keep their players invested in the game with features such as role playing-style elements, or avatars that evolve over time,” Drummelsmith explains. “Content sharing is big too, such as being able to record game sessions, and create and upload items.”
The shift from being a networking expert to a more service-driven company hasn’t been without physical consequences for Quazal, as it’s had to invest in its own infrastructure. It recently announced it had set up a new dedicated data centre in its hometown of Montreal to handle the demand for Rendez-Vous, which is typically hosted by Quazal. Together with hosting solutions company Canix, it’s also standardised on IBM Blade hardware.
This sort of backend resource is becoming increasingly important, says Drummelsmith, as some clients want Quazal to help out by providing dedicated game services for special projects, especially those who are pushing the envelope in terms of online services.
“For example, we’re working with one title that involves movie uploads, which is reasonably CPU-intensive as we’re doing the processing on the backend,” adds CTO Martin Lavoie. “That’s another nice thing about the deal with IBM. If we need more equipment, it can provision us with new hardware at short notice and we can just rack new blades into our data centre. Otherwise, it can take weeks to expand.”
“Publishers really have to think much more seriously about their requirements now,” adds Drummelsmith. “As soon as they predict they might be dealing with thousands of concurrent users, we start to get serious about planning properly because if you underestimate, things can go bad very quickly. Whereas if you overestimate, okay, you spend extra money but the game runs smoothly and there’s no stress.”
As for future releases of Rendez-Vous, the company is working on making it more accessible and flexible. “We’re opening up the backend to allow people to create more scalable web services, so they can build their community websites around the technology,” reveals Lavoie. “We’re also working hard revamping the tools on the management side of Rendez-Vous so development teams have more reliable access to their servers and more information about what’s going on.”