Ian Atkinson is VP of Product Development of fofofum, an integrated game management software and infrastructure services solution, which is part of the Sleepy Giant Entertainment group.
Mobile games are increasingly being run as a service-based business model. With this comes the need for more comprehensive game management solutions to take those games to the next level.
Ten years ago, 'game backend' meant the necessary multiplayer and networking components to have a single or multiplayer online game function.
Nowadays, game backend is comprised of multiplayer networking, game management systems, and deployment and monitoring tools.
While developers often build their own multiplayer networking layers, companies such as Google, Exit Games and Smartfox have proven technologies that make it unnecessary for developers to build internally.
With player demand for increasing graphical quality and real-time multiplayer capabilities, not to mention community and social graph support, commerce, messaging and more, the complexity of mobile gaming backends is increasing.
The key context
We've seen this before.
Over the past decade, PC and console gaming made huge leaps and bounds in the quality of graphics, audio, and gameplay performance through radical improvements in backend management and services. Video game development is complex by nature, and game management solutions are designed to manage those complexities.
But developers must first understand and then weigh the pros and cons of building or buying a game backend to support their needs. Far too many studios leap into this decision before fully understanding the time, costs, scale and support requirements.
To this end, online game pioneer Pat Wyatt (Undead Labs) recently provided a video series that aims to provide more insight, and you can watch the videos here.
To further help, we've put together a list of key factors to consider when deciding whether to build or buy your game management system:
Where you do want your team to focus?
If the game backend is critical to the gaming experience, such as in an MMOG or MOBA, or if you're planning to use the same backend to power a number of games, you'll want your development team to have control over the direction of the backend.
Choosing to develop your own game management system allows your team to organically build directly into the game's software and infrastructure.
If the game backend is not as critical to the overall gaming experience, then the focus of your development team should be on building the game's core features and mechanics. This will likely result in having less time available to build the backend components, and can lead to some key problem areas at launch, such as an influx of players hitting the servers all at once, resulting in server downtime and scalability issues.
Developers who build their own backend components often do not separate out the game management system from the networking layer code, creating scalability issues.Ian Atkinson
Could you imagine having 10,000 users playing concurrently and only 10 users can open your item shop? Or, having gameplay come to a halt when prime time hits and players start logging in?
Developers who tend to build their own backend components often do not separate out the game management system from the networking layer code, creating scalability issues when any load is presented on the system. Furthermore, the approach of not separating backend components complicates troubleshooting and increases risk when fixing one bug introduces more bugs to other layers of code.
If you want your team spending more time on game development and less on backend components, then licensing is the way to go.
How will you handle resources?
If you have an internal team, then you'll need development resources dedicated to building, running, and maintaining your game backend components - almost exclusively.
If you don't have a team that can work exclusively on the backend, you'll need to schedule in flexible development cycles to lend resources away from front-end game development to focus on your game backend at critical times leading up to and following the launch of your game.
If you don't have or can't spare dedicated resources, then the advantage to working with a game backend partner is that you don't have to spend time and money to hire and manage resources for backend integrations and operations. Additionally, your core development team can focus solely on what they know and do best: make games.
Does your team possess the skill sets to manage game backend?
Building your game management system makes sense if the team has intimate knowledge of backend software and infrastructure, hands-on experience with DevOps and NetOps processes, and knowledge of how to build infrastructure for stability, scalability and security.
Additionally, your development team should know how to build agnostic game technology that will work with future games across multiple platforms.
Would you want your development team to handle scaling issues with login problems for a multiplayer game when their experience has been with single-player games?
If your team doesn't have the experience necessary to manage a game backend, then it makes more sense to partner with a backend solutions provider with deep expertise across the industry that has continued visibility into existing feature capabilities and new feature developments, as well as exposure to and management of complex problems in game backend infrastructure.
How will you handle maintenance and updates?
Like all software, your backend game management system will require maintenance and upgrades. If you have the budget to continue investing into R&D for your game backend, and your team has the expertise to clearly configure the server configuration and software deployment systems for new feature updates, then building your game backend is the right way to go.
But while you may be focused on mobile now, what if market trends show players shifting to another platform, or a new platform emerges? If you are willing to invest in upgrading, or possibly re-architecting your configuration and deployment for cross-platform support, then build is the answer.
If you'd rather let external backend experts invest time, resources, expertise and budget into evolving the Game Application Management Systems, then hiring an experienced team and licensing a game management solution is the way to go.
An additional advantage to outsourcing is that backend providers have a vision across multiple clients to provide best-in-breed features for game software and architecture.
Are you willing to take on the risk?
If your answer is yes, then your development team will need to have intimate knowledge of your game backend, and a well thought-out strategy and plan for building your backend long term.
A key advantage of buying your backend is reduced cost.Ian Atkinson
If your answer is no, then you should work with a dedicated backend provider who can not only take on the burden of backend risk, but also quickly assess needs and provide solutions to implement in the most effective manner.
In the best scenario, your backend provider minimizes integration and uptime risks and can solve complex problems to minimize your overall project risk.
How much budget are you willing to dedicate to your game backend?
When you build your game backend, you're committed to developing your software and implementing architecture in the most cost effective way for your studio, including your game management system development, your infrastructure, DevOps, and ongoing NetOps support for the long term.
Additionally, you're committed to ongoing R&D to support scale, reliability and changes in gaming environment.
A key advantage of buying your backend is reduced cost in overhead of platform and integration teams, minimized rework, improvements and efficiencies in the system, and ongoing R&D is included.
Ultimately, each of the key considerations listed above have the potential for significant cost overruns in resources, maintenance and risk management.
Whether you're questioning how much time, money, and manpower (not to mention blood, sweat and tears) to invest into your game management system, in the end, you should consider where you want your team to focus their time and skills.
Also, consider what kind of company you are building towards the future.
Hopefully, this article has shed some light on the subject of building or buying game backend to help guide you, so that you can further guide your game studio to the next phase of growth.