And it recognizes that, despite the failure of Google’s own Stadia cloud gaming service, the cloud is critical to the operation of all modern game companies, including the “live service” games (from Fortnite to Warzone to Genshin Impact) that are taking over much of the industry.
It makes sense that Google Cloud’s live service technology, which has powered the likes of YouTube and Google Search, can enable game companies to pull off flawless launches and scale up to millions of users without skipping a beat, said Jack Buser, director of game industry solutions at Google Cloud, in an interview with GamesBeat.
If you recognize the name, Buser was the head of PlayStation Home virtual world back in the day. And he joined the Google Stadia effort early on in 2016. But he switched over to Google Cloud a couple of years ago to help Google take the tech for its Stadia service and bring it to all game companies.
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“The Google Cloud leadership decided that they wanted to have a global games organization. And they tapped me to come on over and lead it,” Buser said. “It’s been a wild ride.”
That was about the time when games started shifting from single-player game launches once every five years or so to online gaming experiences that players could return to every day and always find new content.
And as computing demands grew, big gaming companies went to Google for help. The rise of mobile games multiplied the value of live services games. Mobile gaming star Supercell generated $1.9 billion in revenue last year on revenue from five live services games — the newest of which was four years old.
“The top games are all live service games, all of them,” Buser said. “So whether it be a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, or whether it be a live service mobile game, or whether it be a battle royale,” Buser said. “The common thread is that these games are being updated over the long term based on player behavior and wants and desires. You have to understand your players. You got to be able to not just attract them into the game, but retain them for long periods of time. It’s very different from the old cartridge and optical disk days.”
It takes a lot of Google Cloud employees to pull all of this technology together.
So the strategy is to take the best of the Google Cloud, including Google Kubernetes engine, Spanner, Big Query, analytics and then give all of that to game developers so they don’t have to worry about those things.
Three strategic areas
Buser said Google Cloud is focused on three strategic areas that are critical for powering live games:
- Serve players everywhere: Google Cloud helps developers connect players with game servers built on the world’s largest, most secure network.
- Collect and organize game data: Live games can’t forget player progress. Easily store critical game and player data at massive scale with extremely low latency necessary.
- Unlock player and game insights: Google Cloud helps developers understand what’s working to find and retail players with Google’s analytics and AI.
Buser believes live-service games, which some players don’t like as overly focused on monetization, are taking over. In 2022, the top 10 most-played games were all live services, continuously delighting players with new content, features, and gameplay.
Today, the model is prevalent across the industry, among all platforms and genres. And with a projected 3.6 billion players by 2024, the opportunity for live games has never been larger.
Game companies always push technology the hardest. And some of the earlier custom technology is becoming outdated and the tech is now here to run things on a global scale, Buser said.
Buser hopes that the technology filters out beyond the biggest game developers and publishes to help the small game developers who have hit games that can also reach millions of players in a short time.
Live service games
Google is no stranger to this model, operating some of the world’s largest live services like Google Search and YouTube to billions of users around the world. Likewise, Google Cloud is committed to bringing the best of Google to game developers who are delivering live game experiences to players everywhere, Buser said.
“This is a very opinionated strategy to effectively solve what we strongly believe is the future of this industry,” said Buser. “I play a lot of games. Nothing breaks my heart more than when I’m playing one of my favorite games and I see these issues manifest themselves. It doesn’t have to be that way. These problems are solved problems at Google.”
Google’s mission is to put secure servers in place to connect players with the games they want to play. The server infrastructure should be adaptive, or able to serve games to players whether a launch draws 1,000 players of millions. No game should ever have to become unavailable or go lock out players because too many players are trying to connect at once, Buser said.
“This is a solved problem,” Buser said. “You don’t have to worry about that stuff. You can focus on making a great game.”
The games require hyperscale technology, with super low-latency live service platforms, Buser said.
“Companies are coming to us because Google is at our core a live service company,” Buser said. “It’s who we are in our DNA. The tons of security has to be bullet proof. And games go from zero to millions of players seemingly overnight.”
Success shouldn’t worry a game developer. To that end, one of the most important capabilities Google Cloud can provide is scale. Kubernetes is recognized as one of the best ways to handle computing scale. The Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) gives game developers the capability and confidence to scale to serve even the largest player audiences. It’s the most scalable and automated managed Kubernetes service, capable of running 15,000-plus node clusters, outscaling other cloud providers by as much as 10 times, Buser said.
While GKE works for a range of compute tasks, game workloads are unique. Ubisoft used Google to create Agones, an open-source game server orchestrator for Kubernetes. Using Agones with GKE enables developers to focus on player experience instead of infrastructure.
“At Ubisoft we needed a centralized, standard solution for game servers. We partnered with Google Cloud to develop Agones as a result, maximizing players’ engagement and trust over time.” – Pierre Romagné, vice president of engineering and platform at Ubisoft, in a statement.
“Agones, which is also open source, teaches Kubernetes how to handle a game server. So we’re able to actually take these legacy monolithic virtual machines running on premises and actually get them up and running on Kubernetes,” Buser said.
Collect and organize game data
Live games can’t forget player progress. Live games are persistent. Players earn levels, add friends, buy skins. Even the smallest bits of data can be prized by players, down to every shot they made (“How accurate am I getting?”). Multiply this desire with the potential for a game to have millions of concurrent players. The challenge seems daunting.
The hard part of data management is when new players flood into game servers and companies have to track all that data and manage it properly. And privacy laws are shaping what big companies can or cannot do with their data. Sometimes player data can’t be moved beyond country lines. Google offers guidance on such data management.
Older games can access a lot of servers, but they typically fall down when the servers all try to access the same database at once.
As for launch day outages, Buser said, “This should not exist. It’s because this technology exists. In today’s world, with this technology, we are running some of the largest live service games you could possibly imagine. And more often than not, we’re there on launch day. Just bored. Because it just works.”
Google created Cloud Spanner, a globally distributed database, to fully address data scalability. Spanner provides a single, logical, horizontally scalable database that can process more than two billion requests per second. This means game developers don’t have to compromise between performance, manageability, and scale (no more sharding!). They can have a single database that scales to handle the largest player audiences.
“At any given time, we have about 5,000 Spanner nodes handling traffic… All of them work together to support millions of players playing all across the world at a given moment,” said James Prompanya, senior engineering manager for Pokémon Go at Niantic, in a statement.
Beyond scale, Spanner can also reduce costs (up to 50%) while improving player experience through latency reduction (up to 25%). That way, for example, when a player unlocks a new skin, they can equip it immediately.
Unlock player and game insights
Live games need to continuously evolve in the right direction. Google Cloud helps developers understand what’s working to find and retain players with Google’s analytics and AI.
Developers need to understand what works and segment players accordingly. Take, for example, Square Enix, a global games publisher. They’re using data and analytics to build a Single Gamer View in order to understand and engage their players, resulting in increased engagement and customer satisfaction.
“A lot of the big game companies have silos of data,” Buser said. “Each individual game studio will do it differently. And within a studio, they’ll have multiple silos of data. Marketing data over here, revenue data over there, player data over here. So the challenge is how do you get all those silos together so that you can have that single view of your player and truly understand both your players and your business.”
And Google’s BigQuery is a catalyst for generating insights for large game developers. It’s used by nearly all of Google Cloud’s top game companies. When it comes to data analytics, BigQuery helps developers analyze and unite huge amounts of player and game data.
From predicting the success of a new feature to personalizing offers based on player behavior, BigQuery helps game companies find answers to questions they may not have thought to ask. Or thought who to ask. BigQuery is designed for approachability, so employees across the business can generate insights using data previously locked in silos. BigQuery goes further with built-in ML and Vertex AI to unlock insights across the organization.
A cloud ecosystem
Google Cloud for Games is an ecosystem that includes not just Google Cloud, but also solutions from enablers like Ubitus, Incredibuild, HeroicCloud and Unity.
“We are excited to work with Google to provide developers with the most robust tools and infrastructure to build, launch and grow games seamlessly at a global scale,” said Jeff Collins, senior vice president of Gaming Services at Unity, in a statement.
“This is sort of the punchline here. We talked about game servers, we talked about databases, we talked about analytics. But I think the magic really happens when you’re unifying all this stuff together,” Buser said. “This ecosystem really unifies the notion of performance, and understanding as one cohesive whole, as one way of solving for a live service platform, the best possible way. This ecosystem for live games builds something that is greater than the sum of the parts.”
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