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Making Online Games Work

TeliaSonera's head of gaming tells us how to run an MMO.

As the demand for online gaming has grown massively in the past couple of years, so has the need to integrate online solutions into business planning for games publishers - while the likes of Blizzard can hit headlines with massive numbers and revenues to match, actually connecting everybody while maintaining smooth frame rates is another matter.

To find out how it's done, and what companies might do to better plan for all eventualities, spoke to Vlad Ihora, head of gaming community at TeliaSonera International Carrier, the company behind the network that runs World of Warcraft in Europe.

What is the business as you see it?

As we see it, it's purely coming from the online component, because sometimes the online side is a bit left over, and people say, "Massively multiplayer online games," but the online is taken for granted.

In effect, online is connectivity, but it's so much more. It doesn't just take a pipe to connect your game to the internet, it takes the servers, the specialists, and so on — and we provide all that. It's more to do with what the customers require.

So let's say you have a game that's just started, and you know you're potentially going to hit it big, but you don't know how big, or how it's going to happen and when. But at the same time you can't afford to just have a small site that's going to give in after 10,000 customers.

You have the issue of, "Where am I going to go out and get all these services, do I need to worry about this?" I'd say you do need to worry about it. Probably about eight to ten months before you launch you should really consider purchasing these kinds of services.

And then there's a big question mark over where you're going to go and get them, because you know where you're going to get your engine, you know where you're going to source your developers, but you have an issue on how and where you're going to source your online services.

Sometimes there are companies who go head first into the game, and then suddenly realise — so in a nutshell our business is providing online services for enabling games to go online, not just from the connectivity side, but also the co-location side, the servers themselves, the monitoring and specialised professional services on top.

It's all about providing what the customer wants. Experience to-date tells us that this is the right way forward. You can't enter such an evolving and maturing market that's growing so fast and think that vertical products are going to work. Because it you look at vertical products in the telecommunication world they work perfectly, but translated to the needs of online gaming they are completely useless.

Or you can get a big pipe from one guy, get some space from another guy, go to a hardware manufacturer and get some boxes — but do you know how to put them together? Probably not, so you will someone to do this for you, and we're also in the game of integrating such solutions.

So, although it sounds almost corny, it's almost like saying it's a one-stop shop. We create your solution based on the big basket of products we have available.

What made you decide to go into this sector of the industry in the first place?

Before I was wearing the gaming hat, I was wearing the strategy hat, so for us it's always been a sector of high interest. We've been in the gaming industry, but almost in the dark side of the gaming industry — the unknown guys — for more than eight years.

It's come down to the point of serving very big customers in the gaming industry, and identifying the huge potential in such a fancy and interesting market, that we felt we should focus more on.

And by that we have actually identified three areas to focus on that we see as the future of telecoms and internet: mobile, media and gaming.

Gaming desires a community - we're giving it a community. But for us it's not a community of residential services, it's a community of gaming companies, who we want to bring together and give them the services that they really deserve to have.

So for the consumer, the less visible you are, the better?

Of course, yes. For us, our customers are the gaming companies - we don't really want to be in front of the consumers at all. We are a wholesale organisation when it comes to these sorts of services. We don't have any interest in providing games ourselves, or anything like that. It's purely about enabling our customers to do the best that they can for the end users.

You provide the services for World of Warcraft in Europe?

There's not that much I can say about it, although what I can say is that it's been a very good relationship with Blizzard from day one, when we started working on BattleNet, we continued this relationship with World of Warcraft, and we are able to evolve as their game evolves.

It's a wonderful journey that we have undertaken which has opened up our eyes so much more to what is the set-up.

It's a great example of a game that transcended expectations. Was it a challenge to deal with that?

It's been a positive challenge to deal with, of course. The fact that we've maintained a very close communication has allowed us to be ready for all these upgrades, and to be honest that's the kind of thing that we're trying to apply to all our current customers.

We have to talk to each other, not because I want to ask you how your day was, but because I want to be aware of how your next [day] will be, how your customers are growing, and be there for you when you tell us you need to increase by X per cent, and not be like some other companies who might look at the terms of the contract and reply that it's not possible for another six weeks, or something.

No, it's better to know eight weeks in advance that you will need something, so we can be there for you, and that's what we've done from day one with most of our customers.

Start-up costs for online games are very high - do you think that companies are approaching the subject in the right way?

I don't think they could do any better when it comes to the datacentres, because they have to come to the likes of us anyway, but I think they could do better when it comes to the design of the actual platform itself.

You mean the way the game is designed?

The actual design of the online platform, according to their requirements, so they ask if they actually need that level of servers.

Because they think that if they change the number of servers, they're going to need less, or more, and they go along and change it on the last day - but then the question on their side is down to the costs that are rising as the launch becomes closer, and sometimes they have some leftover cash, decide to buy the servers and are happy because they've used the CapEx.

Maybe you don't need to buy that. Create a reserve for that many, and really make it available for hiring more developers for the next patch, or the next version - and lease some servers, and lease them from the perspective that you're going to have them available for three months when you have a burst.

But when that burst cools off, you still have the option of buying - or you have the option of giving them back. The biggest thing we've been having with customers was being flexible to them both on the way up and on the way down.

Because everybody thinks, "Up, up, up, buy more, overprovision, overprovision!" But sometimes it's honest to explain that they don't need all this. Maybe they're better off with a good, safe platform and the option to upgrade quite easily, having a few servers in the back.

And of course connectivity isn't a problem, because we can implement another few gigabytes of traffic in a couple of days, even less, potentially just a couple of hours.

But the point that is more troublesome sometimes, having a hundred more servers than the level it should be, there are power issues, and these things are the ones that can change quite a lot the budget of the company.

So, in terms of what we see that companies should really do better? It's really to plan the online side more, and allow the likes of us, the carriers, to talk to them on a far more sensible specification.

Because I don't know what sort of bandwidth they will need if they don't tell me how much each bandwidth each customer is going to take up, and how many customers they're going to have.

From these really basic numbers we can create a schematic, and they can ask how much will it cost, when can it be delivered, then they have a clear option ahead of them and they can focus purely on the game because they know the online component is ready.

It's something we're really trying to do with companies today - we know they may launch next year, but it's good to just get this out of the way now, and make sure they know they have somebody to rely on.

Because this may sound funny, but we've been around since 1853, and hopefully we'll be around for a few more hundred years, but we're quite stable, and we like to do things properly. We do move aggressively and quickly, because we do like gaming, and we want to be in gaming, but when it comes to the certainty of service, we like to be prepared.

So what do you do when a location floods?

Well, redundancy is a huge point. You should never depend on one site. The way we're designed, our network and all our co-location space and everything else, is to not depend on one single point of failure, because there is - by definition - a potential point of failure.

So for us everything is fully managed, everything is inter-connected, so all the customers we have benefit from the same thing.

When it comes to data centres, of course we've taken all the measures not to be faced by such issues, and therefore we have fire protection, flood protection, electricity protection - protection for everything, and then double what you need, triple maybe.

But I've been getting questions from customers asking if they need one site, or two sites - and my honest answer is to try starting with two small sites instead of one huge oneâ¦even though it may sound a bit paranoid, redundancy is key.

The online game space has grown a lot - how far along are we on that curve?

Right now we're definitely in the ascending phase. I mean, from our side we've seen the whole evolution of telecom services going nuts on the broadband penetration, crazy on the mobile penetration, and so on, and so on.

As an industry, online is very much in the ascendency right now. If you look at a normal product lifecycle, which is a bit of an ascending curve, then a flat line, then descending at some stage, I'd say we're just starting to rise.

It's not an overly optimistic prospect, because if you look at all the serious agencies that are doing market research and documentation on all that stuff, probably even as recently as the last couple of years, they were saying that it wasn't possible to have one game that would reach more than 2.2 million customers, and crazy stuff like this.

All the data has been completely ravaged by what we're seeing today [World of Warcraft recently announced 9 million active subscriptions] and also our message to the telecoms industry is, "Don't think that we're guiding the market - it's guiding us now."

And that's how it should have been from day one - it's the consumer that has the power, by the fact that it's the consumer that demands the services, the consumer is going to pick up on three games instead of playing just one, and generate so much more bandwidth. And this is pushing the entire industry from a less consumer-friendly model to a more honest, less decentralised way of seeing things.

So the market is in ascendancy, and we are more than happy to be moving along with it.

It's funny, because we've seen a lot more companies suddenly start thinking that gaming is interesting, and they've done so because they've seen it in the papers. They should really get close to these guys, as we're trying to do, to see that this is a really fascinating area - come on, in effect it's fun, making money out of fun is ideal.

What's your take on the way that broadband services are developing?

It's all to do with how each broadband company within its own region see the implementation of higher speeds. At the end of the day there's quite a funny relationship between the speed that you have at home, and the actual speed you get connecting to the internet.

You may have a great implementation of fibre-optic that's going to give you 100mbps, but that's 100mbps to your local provider, not necessarily to your front door, and it's the broadband provider itself that needs to increase its usage.

Of course in terms of broadband penetration western and northern Europe is going to be the primordial area, that's very much in the lead, and I think you're looking at huge figures already in terms of market penetration.

Southern Europe, by the fact of having Italy, France and Spain as growing markets, means that broadband penetration is going to pick up so much more in these areas.

Then central and eastern Europe is following up strongly with new, modern payments going, with new broadband systems going in, again - that's going to grow.

The question is - yes, we've had 512kbps, we've have 2mbps, we've had 4mbps - how far is it going to go? Well, it's only going to go as far as the broadband operators themselves want to give you.

Because the actual market itself on an overall pricing level has suffered certain depreciation, then stability, then ascension - and right now we're in the ascension, purely because of the type of services we now see as connectivity.

Vlad Ihora is head of gaming community at TeliaSonera International Carrier. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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