Games as a Service: What does it mean for indies?

Games as a Service: What does it mean for indies?
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

March 3rd 2014 at 1:05PM

The term is batted around the industry all too regularly, but Mediatonic CEO David Bailey explains what the model really means for smaller devs

The phrase 'Games as a Service' has long since become a buzzword in games development, a term used so often it is beginning to lose meaning.

UK firm Mediatonic has just launched Games as a Service platform GameFuel, an initiative that helps indies and smaller studios harness this increasingly prolific business model. Here, Mediatonic CEO David Bailey offers more insight as to what 'Games as a Service' really involves, how studios can benefit from it, and how previous developers have abused it.

What does Games as a Service actually mean? How do you define it?

When I think about Games as a Service, I think about games that deploy a web-based infrastructure so that they can be continuously updated. Developers use this to react to audience behaviours and deliver events and features that nurture long-term engagement.

It’s a response to a consumer shift that has impacted not only the games industry but entertainment in general. The internet encourages people to graze on content and to access media through lots of devices, in the same way consumers are gravitating towards platforms like Netflix and Spotify.

The world’s biggest tech companies are racing towards an Internet of Things. This means we can expect many more devices to emerge for entertainment and the cloud will be the common element that connects them all. As a result, Games as a Service has become a critical operating model for modern games companies.

But developers and publishers often underestimate how differently an organisation needs to act in order to deliver a successful service. The biggest problem I encounter day-to-day is muscle-memory within these organisations. Video Games have been shipped as products for decades and many decision makers and influencers have deeply ingrained behaviours from this experience.

The hardest piece of this is puzzle is in aligning teams with the philosophy of being data-driven, fast, customer-centric, and avoiding building “one person’s folly”.

Traditionally video games companies have been organised to ensure that hundreds of engineers and artists can build out the artistic vision of a handful of mangers. This can be a tough approach to change after decades of shipping boxed-products.

Developers and publishers often underestimate how differently an organisation needs to act in order to deliver a successful service. 

What is the single biggest challenge when using this model, and how can it be overcome?

Operationally, it’s much like running a web application business in parallel to a game development studio. So logistically there’s a lot to do and many new technical hurdles to overcome.

The simplest solution to all of this is to deliver as much of your service as possible through a cloud infrastructure so that you can manage your game across every device and territory from one centralised place. However, this does create engineering and operational complexities that aren’t always obvious until you’ve been through the process a few times.

What are the best examples you have seen of games as a service, and why do they work?

The Japanese are still the best at this; when we work with Japanese companies we go to market with a year’s worth of live ops events already in the plans. I also take my hat of to companies like Supercell who have managed to keep their teams lean and have built a services culture throughout their business.

Any particularly bad examples you want to highlight?

Super Monster Brothers was pretty special:

How can this model benefit indies in particular?

Games as a Service is blurring the relationship between publishers (as the traditional source of decision- and money-making power) and developers (as the source of creative ingenuity and labour). GaaS means that, as a developer, the power to extend the life of your game – and therefore extend your income from it – is now largely in your own hands, rather than in a publisher’s.

Mediatonic has launched a Games as a Service platform called Game Fuel. How does this work?

Game Fuel is the product of several years’ work and hard experience in publishing games as a service with companies like Microsoft, Disney and Time Warner.

Essentially the technology allows a developer or publisher to analyse and manage almost any aspect of their game that is driven by data from a centralised cloud application. That includes a massive amount of game features such as content, monetisation, difficulty, level design and son.

Even if that game is deployed across multiple platforms such as mobile and web, or across many different territories, Game Fuel means you can deploy content (or roll it back) with one click. In essence, it means that members of the team can deploy tweaks and new content without the need for getting engineering involved, and push those changes out immediately to players.

Games as a Service means that, as a developer, the power to extend the life of your game is in your own hands, not the publisher's.

When you play a game that is powered by Game Fuel, you download the whole product in the first instance just like any other title. When connected, the game will look for updates from the cloud. This takes place seamlessly and without interrupting the user whilst online. When the game is offline, you continue playing the version of the game that was true at the last time you were connected.

The rise of utility computing has been the catalyst that’s enabled us to take this approach. We now have a huge amount of compute power and storage available at the click of a button, allowing us to do things that just wouldn’t have been economically viable even a relatively short time ago. This means we spend less time thinking about things that are secondary to our business, and allows us to focus our engineering effort on what really matters: building great games.

We strive to understand player behaviours in as much detail as possible: what they enjoying, and perhaps more importantly where they are getting stuck or frustrated. This kind of level of detail and agility isn’t available in off-the-shelf solutions so we’ve invested heavily in our own analytics infrastructure. The big data landscape can be intimidating as it’s evolving very quickly and is still a relatively niche skillset. We’ve recently transitioned to HDInsight on Windows Azure, which allows us to use a tool chain and languages that we’re familiar whilst reducing the operational overhead by moving to a PaaS solution.

What success have you had with it so far?

We’ve been using Game Fuel for some time on projects that involve large publishing companies. A recent example was Amateur Surgeon 3 which hit No.1 in the AppStore charts in the US and UK.

In the case of Surgeon, we were able to analyse player behaviours and tweak the game accordingly at soft launch. For example, we found we were losing a lot of players in one early surgery. Dialling back the difficulty, we were able to double player retention even before going to global rollout.

It also means we’re able to deliver new content – and do cool things really easily, such as the Amateur Surgeon and Pocket God cross-promotion we ran earlier this year.

The service also powers a number of virtual worlds and mobile titles available internationally – with totally different, regionally relevant content across countries, which Mediatonic has built internally. It’s been proven to be super-scalable, managing many millions of players across numerous territories.

All the major tech businesses are going to be bringing disruptive web-connected devices to the market and this will only increase the importance and ubiquity of Games as a Service.

What developments do you expect to see from the Games as a Service model in 2014? Will more people use it? Will it evolve?

On the hardware-side, we are seeing a race for position in devices and services. Google’s acquisition of Nest for $3.2billion, Apple’s iTV rumours, Microsoft’s investment in Windows Azure and Xbox One – all the major tech businesses are going to be bringing disruptive web-connected devices to the market and this will only increase the importance and ubiquity of Games as a Service.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Games as a Service moving away from its current status as a disruptive concept, and towards being simply the way people make and play games.