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Azure PlayFab: The world's biggest dev tools you've never thought of

Microsoft's James Gwertzman tells the Academy about his mission to help developers succeed

Making games is more accessible than it ever has been. There's now a myriad of game engines to choose from, most of them for free, and an equally important accessibility of storefronts in the PC space. Between Steam, Epic Games Store and, among others, the barriers to publishing a game have been hugely reduced.

And not only are games simpler to make and publish, but the range of creations you can easily make is wider than ever. For a long time, aspiring developers would perfect their craft with 2D platformers and Flash games, but now the improved accessibility of tools means they can be much more ambitious, much earlier. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is a good example of that evolution, initially created by Brendan Greene because he found the multiplayer games he was playing too repetitive.

But there's one aspect of making games that has still a long way to go in terms of its accessibility: building backend services, managing multiplayer features, maintaining servers, creating matchmaking services, hosting and analysing players data, and everything that goes into running a live, multiplayer game.

As noted by Linode's Will Blew in a recent Academy guide to building your back-end in the cloud: "Making the right choices around how you run and support your game over time can be daunting, but there are lots of options available to help."

Microsoft's James Gwertzman

One of those options is PlayFab, a back-end live ops tech company acquired by Microsoft exactly three years ago. Now operating as Azure PlayFab (Azure being Microsoft's cloud platform), it's keen to conquer more of the industry.

"PlayFab has grown almost ten times since [the acquisition], in terms of both the number of monthly active players, [and] the number of games on the platform," says James Gwertzman, PlayFab co-founder and now Microsoft's general manager for cloud gaming. "All of Microsoft's first party studio games are now on Playfab. We get to host Minecraft, Halo, Gears of War and the new Flight Simulator, and I literally get a visceral thrill every time I see a game using one of our services.

"How do we ultimately deliver that platform that Phil [Spencer, head of Xbox] sold me on, to help the world's game developers be more successful with their games? I'm now responsible not just for PlayFab, but also for Azure, and frankly any [Microsoft] service in the game development space. My job is basically to figure out what game developers need, work across all of Microsoft to deliver it, whether it's working with Playfab, Xbox, Azure, Dynamics, Teams, and stitch together end-to-end solutions from across Microsoft to the games industry."

Gwertzman is keen to advocate for both Microsoft's cloud and its dev tools, reintroducing its basics to the Academy, and show how it's bloomed since the acquisition.

The challenges facing Azure PlayFab

Despite running some of the biggest titles in the world, Azure is still somehow less known in the gaming space than Amazon Web Services for instance, which is a challenge Gwertzman will have to tackle as he works on growing the cloud.

"I joke all the time that Azure is the world's best cloud for gaming you've never thought of. I think Azure has a reputation as being a cloud that is really focused on the enterprise. If you're an insurance company, or a big bank, or maybe an agriculture company, then I'm sure Azure is a great cloud, but if you're a game developer, you might think Azure's not the cloud for you.

"We had all these great relationships in business, and frankly I think we struggled a little bit to bring in the digital natives"

"And to be honest with you, that's probably going to be the single biggest headwind that we're going to be working on now that I'm in this new role, because I think Microsoft's cloud kind of does have that reputation. And it has a lot to do with where we came from."

He points out that clouds like Amazon's initially targeted startups and entrepreneurs -- early tech adopters that typically include game developers -- and is now trying to figure out how to tackle enterprises and big companies. Microsoft came from the other direction.

"We had all these great relationships in business, and frankly I think we struggled a little bit to bring in the startups, the digital natives, the companies that are really focused on the cloud from the very beginning -- and I'd say most games fit in that category," Gwertzman continues. "The single biggest customer on Azure for gaming today is [Microsoft's] first-party studios. And because of that we've been running big games -- and small games -- at scale at Azure for years. So we know how to do it and the platform itself keeps getting better.

"One of the customers probably that is most advanced in terms of use of [Azure] is Nexon. [Korea] is probably the market in the world where we're the farthest along. It's our sort of test market and it's going really well. So we're going to hopefully be expanding that later to other markets. But it's been a real learning [experience] for me and now our challenge is: tell the world that Azure is open for gaming and, in fact, James Gwertzman wants Azure to be the world's best gaming cloud platform."

A lot of the services provided by PlayFab are about making communication easier. In 2019, it launched PlayFab Party, which enables real-time translation and transcription into voice and chat services. It also created a feature called Playfab User Generated Content that, as the name suggests, lets players create and share content.

Providing these services creates a moderation challenge for the developers using them, and Gwertzman agrees that it's a domain that PlayFab needs to improve.

"[One of] the next major chapters is going to be moderation, community safety tools, anti-toxicity filters, and such things," he says. "You can't have a community without moderation tools and the ability to spot bad behaviour and bad actors. So we recognise that and that's next up on our list.

"We have some basic technologies built into PlayFab -- we have a profanity filter for things like display names, and Azure has some cognitive services that we've enabled that can do things like automatic captioning. So we've started with features to assist those with disabilities. So if you're hearing impaired, we actually have technology now that can create captions for your voice chat. We've made it relatively easy to turn it on in any language, so I can actually speak to you in English and you can see it in Russian or French. But now the next step is absolutely moderation and safety because that's really important."

"When it breaks at 4am we're the ones who have to fix it, not you"

PlayFab also has to convince developers who want to build their own backends that going for a third-party is the right move for them. Gwertzman agrees that not everyone wants to have services that work out of the box, but says he wants to make sure that PlayFab is seen as a good option for people who need the flexibility, too.

He argues that going through a company like PlayFab instead of building your own back-end is simply a faster route to market.

"Not every game can afford to take the time to build all the services themselves. The downside of using an off-the-shelf service is that it's not as flexible as doing it yourself. Obviously. But the advantages: it just works. And it's tested, and it's proven, and when it breaks at 4am we're the ones who have to fix it, not you. That's the short view: it's going to save you a lot of time, and frankly money.

"Because it's way cheaper to simply pay us for the service, where we're spreading the cost across thousands of developers, than to build yourself where you're maybe spreading the cost across one game, two games, three games. So it's just gonna be much more cost efficient in terms of total cost of ownership."

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

"A continuum of services"

One of the biggest selling points of Azure PlayFab is that it's platform-agnostic, despite being owned by Microsoft.

"[Before the acquisition], we were very focused on trying to meet every developer on every platform," Gwertzman says. "And one of the fears that I had when we were acquired is we were going to shift that focus to stop supporting all the platforms. And I'm happy to say that Microsoft's been really good about recognising the value of the platform, as it has to work with everything."

In addition to iOS, Android, Xbox, and PlayStation, which it supported before the acquisition, PlayFab also added Stadia and Switch support since becoming part of Microsoft. The company announced last week that PlayFab Party is now available via Unity as well, making it easy to integrate the service in any game built with the engine.

"I think we're the only division within the Microsoft gaming group that has PS5, Switch, and Stadia SDKs"

"I think we're the only division within the Microsoft gaming group that has PS5, Switch, and Stadia SDKs. We go through special legal hoops to get approved for all this stuff. So we'll continue to support all the different [platforms] and that's big because we've always supported indies really well. Initially most of our studios were indies because they were the ones who needed services like ours the most, and were willing to take a chance on a startup. Now that we are no longer a startup, we continue to support indies."

But it's not only the indies who go for PlayFab -- the platform is currently used by Roblox for instance. Gwertzman says the idea is for the service to scale easily, giving the same level of tools to "Halo, down to a 12-year-old building a game within Roblox."

To that end, the company introduced a new pricing system late last year, switching to a pay-as-you-go model meant to provide a more accurate representation of developers' usage. Initially, PlayFab had a pricing structure tied to the number of monthly active players you had. The company chose that model assuming that developers might not know what their consumption was going to look like upfront, so it seemed like an easier way to proceed.

"Everyone had goals around how many players they [are] going to have," Gwertzman says. "So we decided we're going to charge per player, and that'll make it a really easy calculation to figure out how much it would cost. [And] it was. Except it had one giant glaring flaw in it, which is: games are so different in their consumption services that we were literally losing huge amounts of money on some games and way overcharging other games. And so it was just a bad model. And furthermore we had this weird thing where it created no incentives for games to be efficient in using the services, which is part of why we were losing so much money on some games.

"And so we moved to a consumption model recognising that while it was going to make figuring out your bill a little complicated, it was going to provide a way closer alignment between what games were actually needing and wanted, and our own ability to deliver services."

The reasoning behind this pricing was also to bring Azure and PlayFab closer together, to ultimately become a package of services.

"Playfab is called Azure Playfab, but it doesn't actually have much to do with Azure today. Our goal is to really bring these things together and have sort of a continuum of services, where you can use Azure services integrated nicely with PlayFab, and all this is like one big Azure.

"[Microsoft has] already announced we have a cloud for healthcare -- Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare. My vision is to one day announce Microsoft's gaming cloud, or entertainment cloud, where we have everything you need for entertainment in one cloud offering. And so that's what we're working toward and having a consumption model was going to fit a lot better with that kind of ultimate package of services."

The future of PlayFab: Machine learning and AI

Looking ahead, Gwertzman says he's excited to figure out how to bring the same levels of tools to all the developers in PlayFab's ecosystem. And he says Microsoft is interested to invest in machine learning and AI to tackle that challenge.

"How do we help people make games faster? It's going to be one of our focus areas. I can already tell you one example of a technology we're testing right now. We've taken an AI-based recommendation engine that we're using with some of our largest retail customers, and we're now doing a test of it inside of Minecraft, to help recommend things out of our marketplace for developers. And if that works we're going open that up and make that available to everyone within Playfab.

"We [also] have a project on the way on the testing side. How do we actually use machine learning on AI for testing? Whether it's bots who run through your game and test it for you, [or] even things like while you're playing the game we can be watching and look for things like texture flaws. We can have the computer looking over your shoulder monitoring for these kinds of glitches that we can find for you. So there's a lot of ways machine learning can be used in the production process and help developers build better games faster."

Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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