Committing to a game can be daunting.
This is the fastest changing area of media from the creators' perspective, with the kaleidoscope of new devices, new capabilities, new users, new behaviours and new business models throwing up new challenges and new opportunities in equal measure.
And game development is undoubtedly becoming more complex.
The list of tasks that need addressing is lengthening. It's not enough to just make a great core loop with arresting art. There are many other disciplines to be understood and mastered.
But conversely, game development is also becoming less complicated. There are more tasks to cover, but the level of difficulty of each is trending downwards.
This is partly about best practice being shared so quickly now. But it's also about abstraction, with the emergence of tools that remove the need to dig into the weeds.
A familiar category is game engines. In the past everybody needed to build their game from the ground up.
BaaS solutions do the heavy lifting on the server side to facilitate social and multiplayer, metagame and achievement systems.
Now most developers choose to use a solution that allows them to skip the heavier engineering and focus on the tasks that matter most, namely making and managing great games.
But there are other emerging categories. One of the fastest growing is backend-as-a-service ("BaaS"), as provided by GameSparks and others.
This is an increasingly common choice, including for major players. For example Lara Croft: Relic Run, a current hit for Square Enix created by US-based studio Simultronics, is substantially based on GameSparks.
These solutions do the heavy lifting on the server side to facilitate social and multiplayer, metagame and achievement systems, and the capabilities needed to manage and optimise a game post launch (analytics, segmentation, roles and permissions etc).
Realities of success
These trends towards abstraction are to be mourned in some ways. Solving complex technical challenges has always been part of the thrill of developing games.
But all studios, whether small indies or triple-A behemoths, are constrained by time, money and attention. You need to focus these resources on what is most likely to make you stand out.
Using third party tools may not be as romantic or fun, but it increases your chances of being successful.
Having said that, selecting the right tool can itself be daunting. Getting it wrong can have far reaching consequences, particularly with game engines or BaaS which form such fundamental layers of a game. So the effort of searching out and evaluating options becomes another tax on creativity.
But the good news is that winners tend to emerge because the better developers, who make better games, tend to consolidate around the better tools. The wider community recognises this and follows their lead.
Rules of the game
So what are these studios looking for in a Backend-as-a-Service provider?
Clearly the key benefits are around slashing time and cost and reducing execution risk, and any self-respecting BaaS provider will offer this.
But you need to peer more deeply under the hood for the qualities that distinguish the great from the good.
- Will they help you sleep easy at night in that week you secure an iOS feature?
One of the thrilling aspects of digital distribution, particularly to mobile, is that successful games scale at nose-bleed velocity. Great BaaS providers have the expertise to manage complex infrastructure and ensure everything continues to run smoothly.
- Do they provide a comprehensive feature set?
A great BaaS provider will offer breadth, helping you avoid a patchwork quilt of solutions.
- Will they feel empowering, or constraining?
Most BaaS providers prescribe a way of doing things. The best providers feel like an in-house solution, because you can set them up to work exactly as you need. At GameSparks, for example, we try never to make other peoples' decisions for them. Extensibility and flexibility are fundamental principles.
- Can they continue to meet your needs as you grow?
BaaS is a great option for smaller studios - generally free to use and charged for only when/if you are successful. But what about when you become more established? You will want higher levels of support, more stringent SLAs, implementation support, dedicated infrastructure and bespoke commercial terms. A great BaaS provider will offer all these things.
- And finally, do they have the 'weight' and 'heft' of a quality tool?
- Is it a development environment that is a delight to use?
If your provider is listening they will offer test harnesses, in-line debuggers, import/export code management, snapshots, custom dashboard creation and permission frameworks so that large teams with varied roles can use the same tool.
The emergence of third party tools help more developers do more things better. They help turbo-charge the games-making community and make sophisticated capabilities more accessible to the smaller developer.
But it's the established developer who shows the way. Better tools make better games, and the better developer gravitates to them.
You can find out more about GameSparks' services via its website.