As the games business turns increasingly to the online space, so the matter of the ever-changing connectivity landscape becomes more important.
We caught up with Vlad Ihora, the head of games at TeliaSonera - the company that handles the networking for Blizzard in Europe, among others - to find out how the online environment had changed in the past year, plus what the chances of success were for OnLive.
Q: We last spoke about a year ago - what's been happening in the TeliaSonera games business since then?
Vlad Ihora: Aside from the commercial perspective, which has been very good for us - even under the crisis period - we've added more customers like Activision Demonware. We've started a very nice co-operation with them in New York, and now we're expanding further in the types of services with them.
Specifically we're supporting quite a lot of their servers that have game stats for players, in some of the most successful games, like Modern Warfare 2 - which is one of our favourites, and has been doing pretty well...
It's linked very well with the relationship with Blizzard, because it's part of the same family. That helps a lot - by having a very good co-operation with such a relevant company that also allies itself with such a giant as Activision, which wants to learn from that good online experience that Blizzard has had...
Q: TeliaSonera's been very big in Europe, and goes back a long way - but how is the US market for you?
Vlad Ihora: It's the same stuff. From a technical perspective our network is the same wherever you go - US, Europe or Asia. But it's not about the technical part, it's how well known we are outside the European arena. In the US, the reason why we're a tier one network overall is because we have our own network, and we've linked it with the one in Europe, we have the same quality, and everything else.
From a commercial perspective we have a focused team in the US, we're actually pushing quite a lot more effort into the US business development side. Demonware is a US opportunity with a US platform - not an insignificant one - and we're seeing quite a different attitude towards setting up new platforms, compared to to Europe.
I think our strong point is that we can serve our customers the same way - be they in the US or Europe, they get the same sort of quality and people. We have, for example, US companies that are working with us on platforms in Europe, and vice versa. But yes - it's a market that's quite different from a cultural perspective then Europe.
Q: You work with Ankama - as a French company, does it help your discussions with them when you can talk about the US business? For any MMO publisher the US market is bound to be attractive.
Vlad Ihora: It helps immensely. Their approach to their games isn't French-focused - it's globally-focused, so they have tonnes of people from Brazil playing a game on a platform which is in Paris. I'm not going to flog the quality of the network, but that gives you an idea of how good it is.
Why does it work? Well, in our case the connectivity to South America is based on private peering, so their game allows... it's not the sort of delay you could have in a first-person shooter, because it's slightly different in terms of design - but it still depends quite a lot on the overall end-to-end quality, and that happens fine.
For them it was very important to consider whether they should put a new site in the US, or pass all the traffic through existing links. I think it might come, as they're an expanding company, and they're looking at Asia as well - currently Asia also runs via Paris - and I think we'd most likely end up setting up small satellite platforms to allow further expansion into these new geographical regions.
But it definitely helps that it's not just that we can give them a European network, but also global coverage - that's incredibly useful. And for other companies in general, the question of how to approach other regions... some companies would just come in and say: "Yes, just spread your servers everywhere!" But that's not always the best course - you just have to look at the best location, and how the technical setting can work to get the same quality everywhere. It's very much game dependent.
Q: Last year we talked about regional trends, and the next territories to watch. Have you seen any development there?
Vlad Ihora: Absolutely - Europe has grown in general. Some people would say that a crisis helps gaming, because people stay at home, but there's been a constant growth in the normal regions, such as the UK, France, Germany and Italy. Spain has also grown a lot - but specifically Turkey has been an interesting success story.
We've had a lot of companies set up in the social gaming scene - the types of games that work there aren't necessarily the subscription-based models or first person shooters, but more like casual and social gaming, microtransactions, and so on.
They've got some very interesting ways of charging people via premium SMS systems - not so much on credit or debit cards, but pretty much anything else goes. The question is how on Earth to get into Turkey from a network perspective, because sometimes we have customers come to us telling us they tried... but they traced the traffic and it was going via the US - regardless of how basic the game becomes, it's still a bit of an issue.
That helped in our case, because of our direct connectivity to Turkey - we ended up developing connections from Germany and Austria, directly into that country.
Q: How do you view the Facebook boom - a lot of users on the networks there, so that must be good for network companies... I guess it doesn't come as much of a surprise?
Vlad Ihora: No, definitely not a surprise, because it's intrinsically linked with the evolution of social networking. If you want to see it from a business perspective, it's pretty good for Zynga to have an alliance with Facebook, do revenue sharing, and so on.
I think the question comes, as they've already reached the critical mass, they now have to make the games a bit more interesting - and that becomes a bit more exciting for the operators all of a sudden. Until now it's been a very low demand kind of area from a connectivity perspective - the most important part has just been keeping it online. If it's there and available, there's no real question of delay or packet loss, but as they start to develop a bit further it starts to get interesting on the applications side.
From a technical quality perspective the most important servers to be kept protected are the database servers or billing servers, because those are the live elements - and there aren't that many. I think from a trend perspective these are the companies that will be most interested in virtualised services in the future - where you can scale up and down quite easily, instead of having to just go for dedicated platforms.
It makes a lot of sense - it's a very fluctuating-focused sort of business, whereas the dedicated platforms are for games which demand a really strong presence and a lot of exchange with the servers.
In general we've noticed a lot more openness to the outsourcing idea - there's been a period of centralisation within the industry, obviously, with companies involved in mergers and acquisitions, and unfortunately some that have failed as well. But in general there's far more focus on how the whole infrastructure thing works - and instead of people coming in and spending a whole bunch on hundreds of servers, people have become far more interested in the outsourcing thing.
Q: Something else that's emerged in the last twelve months is cloud gaming - particularly OnLive. How do you view it from a technical standpoint?
Vlad Ihora: Obviously remote gaming is a very important part of the future. Unfortunately it's not necessarily a strong part of the present as yet. It's not anything to do with OnLive or other such companies, in terms of their algorithms or service in itself - it has a lot to do with the rest of the components in the value chain.
Look at it from a very basic perspective - who do you have as part of the value chain? You have the end user, who will obviously want the advantage of not having to pay for a console... although console prices have been dropping... Then you have the network itself from the operator, and then the connectivity to the global internet.
The choice of where the actual servers for OnLive and other such operators will be placed will be the first point at which it will be established just how these services are going to work. Secondly it will be how they can secure the points between the servers and the end-users.
From a technical standpoint nothing is impossible - techies love a challenge - but when you mix the technical with the business, it becomes a question of how the members of the value chain will benefit from allowing these services to exist and prosper.
There are have been tests that show the feasibility of the product on a dedicated fibre optic line - perfect, no question about it. It's not a shot in the dark, but I think it would be interesting for companies like OnLive and others to work with the likes of us and our peers, just to try it out - see how it works.
If you don't do anything about the network I can tell you now it's not going to work - there will be clogs and issues with round-trip delay. So how would it work if you try and create that linkage between operators and their networks to make sure there is a certain quality of service which allows for these products.
Q: The internet is quite a patchwork...
Vlad Ihora: The idealism is to be commended, but the reality is slightly different.
Q: And there are a lot of people who don't have fantastic broadband connections... but at the same time the product is in beta and the testers do seem to be pretty optimistic. So how long do you think it will be before the world is ready for console quality remote gaming that can be pretty much available to everybody?
Vlad Ihora: If you want to put it on a regional basis, I'd say... looking into the way that broadband networks are being deployed and upgraded around the world I'd say Asia would be the number one to benefit. Maybe South Korea would be the first location to have something operational on this level - but again, with the OnLive servers placed in South Korea. You're looking at the South Korean internet, more or less.
From a regionalisation perspective, South Korea could be live with OnLive or other services, followed I think very closely by Western Europe or the US. The segmentation of types of network providers, and the type of fibre deployments in Western and Northern Europe is tremendous - there's a lot more focus on that in the UK, France and Germany.
Provided the OnLives will adopt a more local, rather than regional approach, then it could become realistic within one and a half years, shortly after Asia.
Vlad Ihora is head of games at TeliaSonera. Interview by Phil Elliott.