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Yager: "The Cycle would not have been possible without AWS”

The ground-breaking studio behind Spec Ops: The Line, talks about its latest game, tech, AWS, and self-publishing

Founded in 1999 by five friends -- Uwe Bennecke, Roman Golka, Philipp Schellbach, Timo Ullmann, and Mathias Wiese -- Yager is the German poster child of indie gaming.

Yager has managed to rise above the competitive noise with titles such as Spec Ops: The Line, Dreadnought and its recently released The Cycle. In 2012, the studio walked away with six awards at the German Game Developer Awards for Spec Ops: The Line, and in 2020, it landed the title of Best Studio in the German Computer Game Awards.

In a recent online seminar hosted by games:net berlinbrandenburg, Sebastian Baehr, head of AWS Game Tech DACH, hosted Joakim Ohlander, technical director at Yager, to unpack how the company uses AWS technologies to make its game publishing ambitions a reality.

"Our first ever game was called Yager. Using its own engine, it was launched on Xbox and PC in 2003 and started us off down the road of game development," says Ohlander. "The second was Spec Ops: The Line, which is probably one of our most well-known titles. It was the first time we'd used a proprietary engine -- we used Unreal Engine 3 -- doing AAA game title development."

"The Cycle is a Battle Royale title that allows gamers to team up, to go it alone, and to explore a new world on their own terms."

Joakim Ohlander

What followed the launch of Spec Ops: The Line was a string of awards and critical acclaim for a title that gamers still enjoy today. The third person shooter was nominated for Best Gaming Moment and Best Shooter at the Golden Joystick Awards, and won Best Narrative and Cinematography at the Inside Gaming Awards 2012.

The success was supposed to be followed by Dead Island 2, which unfortunately never saw the light of day due to publisher conflict. The team then reorganized itself and developed Dreadnought. Built on Unreal Engine 4, this was Yager's first exploration into free-to-play gaming. Dreadnought also saw the studio shift its distribution approach towards Games-as-a-Service (GaaS), replacing the traditional box product that had defined video game delivery in the past.

The self-publishing tightrope

For Ohlander, this shift changed how the studio approached game development and technology, and set the foundations for its first self-published title: The Cycle. This competitive multi-player quest shooter was a departure from the traditional in more ways than one for Yager.

"The Cycle started out as a concept in one of our internal Pitch Jam sessions, where we spend the day brainstorming ideas for games that we believe will define the industry over the next five years," says Ohlander. "Unfortunately, even though we believed in the game, at the start no publishers and investors [did], so we decided to publish ourselves for the first time."

Yager's first self-published game, The Cycle

This decision introduced more than one challenge. Yager had no self-publishing experience and had to set up a team with the expertise and knowledge needed to get the title off the ground. At the time, funding was limited and the small number of staff imposed a further challenge. This meant the studio had to compensate through a lot of co-development on other projects, to extend the runway of The Cycle. The game was ambitious and beautiful, and Yager had the tenacity and agility to pull it off.

The Cycle took two and a half years to develop. The team ran six monthly playtests, processing gamer feedback to improve the experience and iron out minor issues. This was then increased to weekly playtests for more than three months, and finally Yager shifted to daily playtests, refining the game at an intense pace until it was ready for launch. The entire iteration and playtest process took just over a year, but it was worthwhile.

"From the moment you drop down onto this beautiful planet, you have 20 minutes to fight for glory before you escape," says Ohlander. "This is not a traditional game about killing and winning; it's about completing objectives and managing to escape the confines of the planet. It's a Battle Royale title that allows gamers to team up, to go it alone, and to explore a new world on their own terms."

Architectural ambition

The tech and time investment required for The Cycle meant the studio needed to look into new ways of managing its architecture and technology. The engine powering the platform is Unreal Engine 4; the microservices are managed by Docker, communicated through protocol buffers written in C# and orchestrated in Kubernetes; while everything is hosted on AWS. AWS' cloud platform gave Yager notable benefits in prototyping because cloud elasticity and on-demand operation minimized reactive working. This resulted in predictable costs and more informed financial and game development decision making.

"This game would not have been possible without AWS. This was the technology that gave us the infrastructure and allowed us to scale," says Ohlander.

"We paid extra for scale so that our teams could fix things reactively while still living normal lives."

Joakim Ohlander, Yager

Yager didn't have any data center facilities when it started, Ohlandar and the team didn't know how many people would playtest on any given day and they didn't have the infrastructure required to scale the game on demand. AWS allowed Yager to focus on the development without having to worry about data center capability, infrastructure, or scaling up to manage 4,000 players on a playtest. The AWS Cloud provided the technology and scale that not only optimized game performance, but also enabled developers at Yager to achieve a better work/life balance. As Ohlander points out: "We paid extra for scale so that our teams could fix things reactively while still living normal lives."

Running on AWS also means Yager can take advantage of multi-regional hosting across the USA, Asia, and Europe. As players surge to the game, Yager can adapt to provide localized sessions, which for Ohlander is "awesome for a 50-person team". The flexibility to scale, change, and adapt on-demand makes a significant difference to how the game delivers experiences to players.

"The final point that's really worth making is around GaaS and the value of business intelligence," he adds. "We started with an internalized solution using a database that would directly query the data, and as we playtested, we had to do a lot of partitioning, moving the data every 24 hours. This took a lot of valuable time away from our developers. So, we started using Amazon S3, Amazon Kinesis Data Firehose, and AWS Glue extractors to find the specific schema and query the visualization tools."

Yager uses Amazon GameLift, a dedicated game server hosting solution, to scale its games for its track record in scale and quality. This has also helped the studio to develop more attuned skill-based matchmaking in games. The Cycle is now available on the Epic Games Store for download and is set to be released on multiple platforms in the near future, including PS4, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch. While the company is still doing a lot of testing with the title, the investment into tech has allowed Yager to explore new options and innovations.

"Now we're exploring how language and complex rendering can get smarter and how this evolving cloud architecture can potentially change the future of games development," concludes Ohlander.

You can catch the on-demand recording of Joakim's session online here.

Arni Birgisson is senior game tech developer advocate at Amazon Web Services, leading its Game Tech developer advocacy efforts in Europe, Middle East and Africa. With over 20 years of industry experience, his expertise covers a broad spectrum of topics ranging from mobile game backends and cloud infrastructure, to system management and networking. To learn more about how you can run and operate games at scale, visit the AWS Game Tech website.

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