When Pixel Pandemic released an online role-playing game built on the company’s own game engine, the game quickly generated worldwide demand. Unfortunately, the company’s existing server infrastructure could not scale up to meet the growing demand. Pixel Pandemic needed to guarantee a high-quality game experience wherever and whenever the game was played, and it wanted to do so without investing time and money on a large computing infrastructure. To power its online role-playing games, Pixel Pandemic used Windows Azure to manage and deliver its Pixel Persistent Browser Based Game Engine on the web. Now Pixel Pandemic has the flexibility and reliability it needs to meet demand anywhere in the world and do it at lower cost.Situation
Based in Denmark, Pixel Pandemic
is a small development studio focused on persistent browser-based online role-playing games, computer games that are played through an Internet browser and that can be continued through successive playing sessions. Because persistent browser-based games can deliver the depth of experience provided by application-based games without requiring special software, they are a fast-growing segment of computer game development. Ebbe Brandstrup, Kristian Hansen, and Thomas Jacobsen founded Pixel Pandemic in 2010, and the studio is still managed by a lean, five-member team of highly qualified game developers.
||By using Windows Azure, we can deliver games to places we couldn’t otherwise have reached, make deals we couldn’t have made, and produce higher-quality games than would otherwise have been feasible.
Chief Technical Officer, Pixel Pandemic
At the end of 2010, the small studio made a big impact on the game industry when it launched its first game, Zombie Pandemic
, powered by the Pixel Persistent Browser Based Game Engine. Zombie Pandemic
generated 100,000 page views when it was first introduced in December 2010. By March 2011, the game was getting more than 3 million views a month, and by midyear, Zombie Pandemic
was receiving 10 million monthly views and registering 25,000 new users a month, and it had registered a total of 300,000 players around the globe.
Pixel Pandemic designed the Pixel Persistent Browser Based Game Engine as a reusable framework for building and supporting its own and third-party games, and Zombie Pandemic was intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of the game engine. Pixel Pandemic used the navigation, interaction, and integration features in the Pixel Game Engine to give Zombie Pandemic the rich and dynamic environment, complex storyline, and engaging player experience that makes the game successful (Figure 1).
These features, however, require a lot of computing and data-storage capacity for the game to perform in ways that players demand, and the rapid growth of Zombie Pandemic began to strain the capacity of the company’s hosted server infrastructure. Even after optimizing the game code and paying for more capacity in a hosting provider’s data center in Germany, Pixel Pandemic could not provide satisfactory response times for players in Asia or the United States, two areas where Zombie Pandemic had found a growing audience.
For Pixel Pandemic, it was critical to meet demand and guarantee high game performance for players anywhere in the world. “One of our core business strategies is to partner with game publishers in different regions,” says Ebbe Brandstrup, the Chief Technical Officer at Pixel Pandemic. “They all expect us to deliver fast game response, and if we can’t guarantee a high-quality game experience wherever and whenever demand occurs, then we could miss those opportunities.”
As a small, young company, Pixel Pandemic could not afford to build and operate its own worldwide server infrastructure, which would require maintaining data centers in Europe, Asia, and the United States. In fact, even the traditional hosting arrangement that the company already had was getting to be more work than it wanted. Pixel Pandemic did not want to sacrifice its agility by having to invest a lot of time, energy, and money in maintaining a large, complex computing and data-storage infrastructure.
|Figure 1. With Windows Azure, Pixel Pandemic has the computing capacity it needs |
to support advanced features in the Pixel Game Engine and give Zombie Pandemic an
engaging player experience.
“We are game developers. We don’t want to spend our time being web administrators or database administrators,” says Brandstrup. ”We want to focus on the core of our business, not IT maintenance.”
Pixel Pandemic knew that it could use cloud technology—off-site computing resources delivered as services over the Internet—to support the game engine that it had built to run its online role-playing games. In June 2011, the company decided to manage and deliver its game engine on the web by using Windows Azure
, the Microsoft cloud service development, hosting, and management environment. Windows Azure provides on-demand compute, storage, networking, and content delivery capabilities through Microsoft data centers around the world.
Because the company developed its game engine using the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 development system and the Microsoft .NET Framework, it was able to operate Windows Azure with its existing development environment. By choosing Windows Azure, Pixel Pandemic can deploy all the computing power it needs without a large capital investment or staffing commitment.
||We are game developers. We don’t want to spend our time being web administrators or database administrators. We want to focus on the core of our business.
Chief Technical Officer, Pixel Pandemic
“Windows Azure interoperates seamlessly with our Microsoft development environment,” says Brandstrup. “We don’t have to provision and update web servers and database servers because everything is already built into Windows Azure. If we had to do all that ourselves it would take away all the time we have for developing games and building our business.”
Pixel Pandemic uses the Microsoft SQL Azure self-managed, relational cloud database service and Windows Azure Table Storage to manage the status of individual players in the game and efficiently scale up data-storage capacity as demand occurs. To ensure acceptable game speed, the company uses Windows Azure Caching to minimize the amount of data that players must retrieve from the game engine database.
“Caching is really important when we have thousands of players interacting at the same time, each maintaining their own character and interacting with the environment around them,” says Brandstrup. “If we couldn’t use Windows Azure Caching, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the accelerated response times that we do.”
Users can play Zombie Pandemic or other Pixel Pandemic games for free, subscribe to a membership that includes premiums such as virtual game equipment, or purchase specific virtual equipment (Figure 2). Pixel Pandemic partners with game publishers to distribute its games and pays a percentage of the revenue generated through memberships and virtual purchases. The company pays a monthly fee for the Windows Azure resources it uses as it uses them, and it can scale Windows Azure up or down as demand requires. Pixel Pandemic expects to release five more online role-playing games on the Windows Azure platform by the end of 2013.Benefits
By supporting the Pixel Persistent Browser Based Game Engine with Windows Azure, Pixel Pandemic has the flexibility and reliability it needs to meet demand anywhere in the world, while it controls costs and saves time. Now the company can drive the success of its games, establish new partnerships, and pursue new opportunities as they occur.
|Figure 2. Users can play Zombie Pandemic or other Pixel Pandemic games for free, |
subscribe to a premium membership, or purchase specific virtual equipment.
Instant Scalability, High Performance
With the vast computing capacity and near-instant scalability that Windows Azure provides, Pixel Pandemic has the power it needs to support its game engine and deliver high game performance to players anywhere in the world. “We needed to support a much more complex game engine than anything that’s on the market today and do it as a small, lean team,” says Brandstrup. “With Windows Azure, we have the computing horsepower we need.”
||Demand changes quickly in this space. By using Windows Azure to scale up quickly and meet demand as soon as it occurs, we can avoid missing a big business opportunity.
Chief Executive Officer, Pixel Pandemic
Without having to incur the risk of developing capacity that it may not need, Pixel Pandemic can use Windows Azure to scale up its capacity as demand builds. The company’s costs grow only as its revenue grows, and it can take advantage of opportunities wherever they occur. “Demand changes quickly in this space,” says Thomas Jacobsen, CEO at Pixel Pandemic. “By using Windows Azure to scale up quickly and meet demand as soon as it occurs, we can avoid missing a big business opportunity.” Enhanced Profit, Low IT Costs
To make its business model work, Pixel Pandemic must keep its IT infrastructure and maintenance costs low
relative to revenue generated per player. By using Windows Azure to reduce its hosting and IT maintenance costs, optimize game performance, and reach more players, the company expects to reduce per-player costs by one third and more than triple its per-player margin from U.S.$0.32 per player to $0.98 per player (Figure 3).
The company’s most significant savings has been in the time and energy it would have taken to manage the infrastructure it needed. Brandstrup estimates that Pixel Pandemic will be able to reduce the cost and time of releasing new games by almost two thirds. “By using Windows Azure, we save almost 40 hours a week on server maintenance,” he says. “So we can remain agile, innovative, and competitive even while our infrastructure needs grow.”More Business Opportunities
By October 2011, Zombie Pandemic
had half a million registered users, and Pixel Pandemic expected the game to have 120,000 active, income-generating users by the end of 2011. By supporting its game engine with Windows Azure, Pixel Pandemic can distribute games through many different networks and for all PCs and mobile devices equipped with a web browser. The company is signing new agreements with partners to publish games through Facebook, Google, and many smaller regional networks. “By using Windows Azure, we can deliver games to places we couldn’t otherwise have reached
, make deals we couldn’t have made, and produce higher-quality games than would otherwise have been feasible,” says Brandstrup.
|Figure 3. By using Windows Azure to reduce IT costs, optimize game performance, |
and scale its service to meet any demand, Pixel Pandemic expects to reduce per-player
costs, increase per-player revenue, and more than triple its per-player margin.
With Windows Azure, the costs incurred by Pixel Pandemic are proportional to growth in game usage, and that enables the company to negotiate profitable terms with its distribution partners. Most importantly, the company can pursue these opportunities without incurring high capital and operational costs.
“As a small company entering a really competitive space, we wouldn’t have been able to deliver a competitive product if we had to build or manage our own infrastructure,” says Brandstrup. “By supporting our service with Windows Azure, we can pursue business opportunities globally without increasing staff, investing in hardware, or finding local hosting partners.”Windows Azure Platform
The Windows Azure platform provides developers the functionality to build applications that span from consumer to enterprise scenarios. The key components of the Windows Azure platform are:
Windows Azure. Windows Azure is the development, service hosting, and service management environment for the Windows Azure platform. It provides developers with on-demand compute, storage, bandwidth, content delivery, middleware, and marketplace capabilities to build, host, and scale web applications through Microsoft data centers.
Microsoft SQL Azure. Microsoft SQL Azure is a self-managed, multitenant relational cloud database service built on Microsoft SQL Server technologies. It provides built-in high availability, fault tolerance, and scale-out database capabilities, as well as cloud-based data synchronization and reporting, to build custom enterprise and web applications and extend the reach of data assets.
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