Handling 2.3 billion API calls over 100 million game sessions with 23 million players - the Playblazer story

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This article is a part of CloudSparks Series sponsored by Microsoft Azure.

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Games have been one of the prime forms of entertainment for human beings from time immemorial. The form and nature have changed from the ancient to the modern times, especially in today’s digital age. Traditionally, games were played in a group or at least by two people against each other. But programming and digitalization has given rise to many single player games as well as multiplayer games where the opponent can be a simulated competitor (a program).

The rise of smartphones has made gaming a part of the daily routine for many youngsters and digital enthusiasts. While monetization of apps has been a challenge since the advent of the app stores, good games have been able to break this barrier easily. Be it ‘Angry Birds’ which became a huge success or the short-lived ‘Flappy Bird’ phenomena which took the world by storm or even the infamous Candy Crush Saga, these have proven that not only games with complex game play and 3D animation can become successful, but also a simple and engaging game can become a world-wide phenomenon.

A few of the Indian gaming companies are also raising the bar by creating high quality and engaging games. From the veteran game makers like RoboSoft and Netzaara to the new-age mobile gaming startups like Octro, Moon Frog Labs and many more are building gaming apps which are creating a buzz not only in

With the rise of the Indian game makers and the surge in the number of ardent game players caused by the sharp growth in broadband and smartphone users, the back-end infrastructure also needs to be enhanced to handle and manage these millions of users to have an engaging and seamless gaming experience.

Nikhil Soman, CEO & Co-founder

That’s where Playblazer comes into the picture. Founded by Nikhil Soman and Kunal Gangakhedkar in January 2013, Playblazer is a cloud-hosted backend service provider that enables social and multi-player game developers/studios to build games quickly leveraging more than 15 pre-built game services that are designed to work together. Nikhil has held Product & Technology Management roles at Hathway Internet, Indiatimes, Geodesic, Reliance Big Entertainment and has been the Founder of Zapak & Dialify and Co-founder of Bigadda.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview with Nikhil.

YS: How did Playblazer come to be?

NS: Like with everything, the only constant in the games business is change. Games have traditionally been designed around the capabilities of hardware devices like consoles, PCs and handhelds. In the past five years, smartphones & tablets are the driving force behind expanding the player base to over 1.7 billion.

The advent of smartphones saw new sensors and touch capabilities driving innovation, but also brought along major changes like shorter format of gameplay, and at the same time growth of social networks like Facebook meant players were demanding more social & online gameplay.

Game studios & publishers are not equipped to deal with the server-side technologies and multiplayer game mechanics. While working at Zapak as well as later at my own game engine startup called Dialify, where we built super scalable server-side game mechanics, we saw an opportunity to provide game developers a scalable platform in the cloud to address this skill gap.

Playblazer was a natural progression for us from our past experiences.

YS: What is your traction till now?

NS: Playblazer was incorporated in January 2013 and in the past two years we have built a platform that has hosted major IP games like Real Steel Friends (by Dreamworks IP & Jump Games) and Panem Run - the official game of ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ movie (by Lionsgate, Robomodo& Reliance Games).Between these two games, we have achieved some really significant performance metrics -- 2.3 billion API calls, over 100 million game sessions and more than 23 million players -- over just 18 odd months. Currently, we are working with almost all the major Indian studios and also with over 60 indie studios around the world.

We run a virtual network spanning both major cloud infrastructure providers (AWS & Azure) and four geographical regions, including the US, EU, LATAM & SE Asia and operate an auto-scaling set of clusters that host customer titles.

YS: Many believe that the success of the Indian gaming industry is still many years away and yet you guys are building a venture in this space -- what do you see and believe that many are missing?

NS: Games are a natural fit with a digital lifestyle, and with the influx of affordable smartphones and ubiquitous 3G data services personal entertainment can only grow. Games package the visual appeal of movies with the competitive element of sports besides adding a number of social engagements and this is clearly supplanting traditional and more passive forms of entertainment.

Playblazer as a platform is globally relevant and many more studios are now starting to take note of hugely successful multiplayer games like Clash of Clans & Boom Beach. Playblazer enables game studios to rapidly adopt new game mechanics without having to reinvent the wheel. This works best at scale, and we have excellent technical skills to create global scale cloud platforms like Playblazer from India.

Infrastructure used to be a major constraint few years ago, but today practically unlimited infrastructure is available at the click of a button. I think we are at the cusp of a new-age of value added services that leverage these advantages to create global products.

So far as India is concerned, this market will undoubtedly be the largest consumer of entertainment in all forms due to the sheer size of our population. But more importantly we have a young (and growing younger by the day) population with over 250 million in the age group of 15-24 years. This is the sweet spot for interactive entertainment. This audience is also socially more active and more participative. They will also have a large disposable income, perhaps much more than earlier generations. All these factors are indicative of our market approaching a new high score and moving up several levels on the global game industry leader board.

YS: What is your first customer success story?

NS: We met Jump Games at the NASSCOM GDC in Pune, and they were keen to take their flagship title Real Steel to the next level in terms of player vs player engagement. We had just announced the release of Playblazer and a casual introduction at lunch led to a more detailed meeting where we closed the deal for the multiplayer version of Real Steel. In this case, Playblazer was a natural fit for Jump Games as they already had a successful title that needed to innovate quickly to reach the next level of success, and our ready-to-go tool set got them quick results.

Within a matter of days their team started integration of Playblazer features and in a little under three months, Real Steel Friends, the PvP multiplayer edition was ready to go live. Manish Agarwal, Amit Khanduja, Sandeep Shetty & Abhishek Vyas -- the leadership team at Jump (now Reliance Games) were immensely supportive and we thank them for trusting us with a Major IP like Real Steel.

YS: What are the big gaming studios and publishers you have been working with?

NS: Reliance Games, Robomodo, and iProf have already built titles with Playblazer, and currently we have two other major studios that are working on games that use Playblazer. Besides these, we have a number of mid-size studios working on multiple titles.

We have recently also started work on a publisher platform with a global major where Playblazer will power their publishing business with a standardized framework that will be used by all their partner studios for 15-20 games to be released over the next 12-18 months.

YS: What is the growth of the Indian gaming industry in the next few years?

NS: India is going to be the largest smartphone & data consuming market within the next two-three years as we leapfrog the PC Internet phase, so the gaming industry will leapfrog as well. We see a major growth in game audiences & monetization once some of the artificial barriers to micro-payments are overcome. As an economy, Indian consumers love sachet pricing, which is the mainstay of mobile gaming for the foreseeable future in the form of IAP (In-app Purchases). Mobile wallets like Paytm and perhaps operator billing will make payment flow easier between products, app stores & consumers and we will see an emergence of players that pay.

That said, the Indian game developers need to ramp up skills in gameplay design and the quality of art. This is critical for success as global titles will continue to be easily accessible to Indian audiences. Some Indian studios have built up credible successes in the global market, and now will start to look inwards to a denser market where user acquisition is going to be cheaper as compared to global markets.

YS: How do you leverage technology to provide a good customer support?

NS: Our team works remotely and a number of our customers work in different time zones. We use Skype, Slack, email & chat to co-ordinate among ourselves and with game developers in customer studios.

An example of a typical engagement is usually half-day visit to customer studio at the beginning of the engagement, which is then followed up with multiple sessions over Skype where we help create the integration plan for the specific game.

We have excellent documentation for our platform, which is always kept updated with the latest features and upgrades. We also have an online API console where developers can try out the Playblazer platform API and its responses before they actually start writing their code.

The other tools we use include ZopIM for a chat widget on our website, Uservoice for support tickets and a knowledge base, real-time analytics suite that we have built internally and a set of custom dashboards that give us a live view of our global infrastructure are other elements of technology that we use for live ops on games.

Automation is the most critical component that enables us to operate a large infrastructure with a minimal team.

YS: How has your partnership with Microsoft been?

NS: We joined the Accelerator program of Microsoft Ventures in July 2014, and while participating in the four-month program in Bangalore we met the Azure Platform team and started evaluating Azure for Playblazer. While Playblazer was built on AWS, together with Microsoft, we saw an opportunity to expand the Playblazer infrastructure with Azure Infrastructure in a number of regions (Azure has announced an India node in 2015).

We also started working closely with their developer evangelism teams that work with a large community of developers, including game developers to bring games to the Windows Mobile App Stores. Under this initiative we have conducted joint programs with Microsoft, Unity & Intel for game developers across Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru & Pune in the past six months and are planning to conduct more such workshops that bring us closer to developers.

We also qualified for the BizSpark Plus program that provides critical growth resources to startups across the Microsoft Technology Stack (we primarily use Azure). Besides this, Microsoft also provided us direct access to their product management teams for Azure over their internal platforms and that has helped us create an even more scalable solution for game studios.

We are now working on a number of joint sales initiatives with Azure teams globally in markets like Korea, the US and Europe to bring Playblazer to these markets. This has already shown substantial benefits in terms of new customer trials coming on board and we hope to grow this into a significant segment of revenue by making Playblazer and Azure an essential part of every game studio resources.

YS: Could you tell us about your team?

NS: Playblazer has been a team of two co-founders for most of our first two years. Kunal and I have worked together for over six years now and have known each other for the past 12 years when we worked together at Geodesic.

Kunal Gangakhedkar is a skilled systems engineer with significant experience in virtualization and scalable infrastructure besides being one of the best systems architect. He has worked at Coriolis for Veritas & Geodesic in the past on diverse technologies, including VoIP, Cloud Platforms, Operating Systems and Databases.

I have led Product & Technology Management roles at Hathway Internet, Indiatimes, Geodesic, Reliance Big Entertainment and have served as Founder of Zapak & Dialify and Co-founder of Bigadda.

In the past quarter, we have added two new members to our team who are working on building integration tools for Unity, iOS & Android and we are planning to bring on board 10-15 more team members to expand our Developer Support, Publisher LiveOps and Integration tools that help studios improve productivity, in-game engagement & retention. We are looking for experienced people in Unity, iOS & Android developers besides Python programmers for these roles.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock

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