4-page Partner Case Study
Posted: 1/4/2012
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Sneaky Games Game Developer Reduces Costs and Achieves On-Demand Scalability with Cloud Solution

Sneaky Games is an independent software vendor that develops role-playing games for social media platforms, such as Facebook, and mobile devices. The small company, which employs 22 people, used a hosted infrastructure at Rackspace to deliver its games to customers, but struggled with costly and time-consuming server maintenance, particularly when the company had to scale up its infrastructure to meet peaks in traffic. Sneaky Games turned to the Windows Azure platform, hosting its games on the cloud service in Microsoft data centers. As a result, the company achieved levels of scalability critical to its success in the social media space and can scale up or scale down its infrastructure in minutes. Sneaky Games avoided the need to hire more IT personnel to maintain its infrastructure and can instead dedicate its resources to developing compelling games and quickly offering them to players.

Situation
Sneaky Games is an independent software vendor that incorporated as a new company in 2009 after six years of creating successful web-based games for the web consultancy Net-Recon. The games it developed for Net-Recon consisted primarily of online games that supported marketing initiatives for companies, such as Logitech. Now, the Austin, Texas–based Sneaky Games develops games for social media platforms—primarily Facebook—and mobile platforms. The company supports 2.7 million registered game players and has 22 employees.

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* We can have new load-balanced instances up and running in Windows Azure in less than 10 minutes. That is significant for any company that develops for the social media space. *

Mark Bourland
Chief Technology Officer, Sneaky Games

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Prior to incorporating, Sneaky Games used hosting providers, such as Rackspace, for its server infrastructure so that it could avoid the capital expenses associated with managing its own data center. Although these infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) options helped reign in hardware expenses, the company was still saddled with costs associated with managing and maintaining the hosted infrastructure. “We still had to manage virtual machines manually, which included provisioning servers, installing and updating operating systems, and configuring our game-server technology,” says David Godwin, Chief Executive Officer at Sneaky Games. “It was a hassle and costly from an IT management perspective.”

As the company grew and attracted more customers, the company’s leadership realized that it would have to invest in additional personnel to manage the hosted infrastructure at Rackspace. Its infrastructure needed to grow at the same pace as its fan base and also needed to keep up with the company’s rapid game development cycle. “There was a disconnect between what the developers could do and what the IT and network teams could support, which is not uncommon in a lot of software development organizations,” says Godwin. “That said, if we’re going to spend the money to hire more employees, we’d much rather hire developers to build the games that increase our revenue than hire additional employees to manage an infrastructure.”

Not only was Sneaky Games concerned about the time, effort, and money required to maintain its infrastructure, but it was also worried about its ability to scale up the infrastructure rapidly. “With our hosted infrastructure, we still had to worry about provisioning machines, configuring them, and managing load-balancing efforts to get the right size infrastructure and high performance that is required for online gaming,” explains Mark Bourland, Chief Technology Officer at Sneaky Games. “This could take hours—or in some cases days—to scale up, and then still required time-consuming maintenance on an ongoing basis.”

Before making its venture into the social media gaming arena, the ability to scale up rapidly was less of a concern because the number of expected players was easier to predict and the company could design its infrastructure to handle an expected volume of traffic. “We switched from creating web-based games for very targeted audiences, which had tens of thousands of users, to developing social media games, which have the potential to attract millions of users at the same time—that was scary for us,” says Godwin. “If one of our games really takes off, the ability to scale up rapidly is very important to our success as a company.”

Although Sneaky Games was pleased that it could avoid the hardware costs associated with an IaaS model, the company hoped to find a solution that would alleviate the headache and cost associated with maintaining its infrastructure. It also wanted a solution that would enable it to quickly scale the infrastructure to support the unexpected—and potentially viral—growth that often accompanies games on social media platforms. “What we really wanted was a platform as a service,” says Bourland. “We needed that additional abstraction layer on top of the infrastructure that would really let us put our computing and storage resources to good use.”

Solution
In January 2009, after Sneaky Games split off from Net-Recon, the company evaluated Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and the Windows Azure platform. After a short evaluation period, the game developer chose Windows Azure because it offered the platform-
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* With Windows Azure, we were able to react accordingly and scale up our infrastructure to handle the doubled load. That reaction time just wouldn’t be possible with any other computing model. *

David Godwin
Chief Executive Officer, Sneaky Games

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as-a-service (PaaS) model that the company sought. “We set up a few servers on Amazon EC2, but it was the same situation as with Rackspace—we’d have to manage and maintain the infrastructure ourselves,” explains Godwin. “Windows Azure was so much easier to use that it was a simple decision to go with the PaaS offering from Microsoft.”

Designed a Scalable Architecture
In April 2010, Sneaky Games launched its first game on Windows Azure just four months after adopting the technology. Fantasy Kingdoms is a social game geared primarily toward females, where game players can create mythical kingdoms, cast spells, enchant their lands, and conjure magical crops.

To start, two developers at Sneaky Games worked to migrate the code base for the company’s proprietary gaming engines to Windows Azure. They relied on their existing developer skills and knowledge of the Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5, Microsoft ADO.NET, and the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Professional development system and finished the project in fewer than three weeks. To build a scalable architecture that would take the best advantage of the Windows Azure platform, the developers reengineered some of the code for its game engine. For instance, it previously relied on relational data on the back end but instead used Blob Storage in Windows Azure to store game and game-player data. “We can quickly add Blob Storage containers when we need to grow,” explains Godwin. “Coupled with the compute processing available in Windows Azure, the storage capabilities make for a powerful combination when we’re looking to rapidly scale up.”

Sneaky Games hosts its gaming engine in web roles in Windows Azure, which serves as the Microsoft cloud services development, hosting, and management environment and is hosted in Microsoft data centers (see Figure 1). It also uses worker roles in Windows Azure and the Queue service for back-end processing tasks. When the gaming company first adopted Windows Azure when the technology was still in its beta release, Sneaky Games also used worker roles to host a web caching service that helped boost performance and reliability of its gaming engine. Then, in 2011, the company started using Windows Azure Caching, which is a distributed application cache service for Windows Azure. With Windows Azure Caching, Sneaky Games can easily increase the size of its cache, depending on how many game players it has. For instance, when the company prepares to release a new game, it can increase the size of its cache to accommodate heavier-than-normal game traffic in just a few clicks.

Image of the Sneaky Games highly scalable architecture
Figure 1 – Sneaky Games uses several components of Windows Azure
for its highly scalable architecture.
Although Sneaky Games no longer uses a relational data structure for game and player data, and instead uses blobs to store that information, the company uses Microsoft SQL Azure to store metadata and logging information that is captured during game play. SQL Azure is a cloud-based, self-managed, relational database service built on Microsoft SQL Server technologies.

Uses a Pay-As-You-Go Model for Infrastructure and Revenue
After Sneaky Games launched Fantasy Kingdoms in April 2010, the company spent the next year developing additional games and finding a revenue strategy that complemented its infrastructure costs. Sneaky Games takes advantage of the pay-as-you-go-model that Windows Azure offers, ensuring that it only pays for the services that it uses. This gives the company an affordable, right-size infrastructure—an infrastructure that is neither under-utilized nor over-taxed. At the same time, the pay-as-you-go model helps the company predict revenue growth with more accuracy because its infrastructure costs are directly proportionate to its revenue.

“We offer our games for free, but we also offer faster game play and the ability to use special features to players who are willing to pay,” explains Godwin. “Those players who pay for their game play make up a relatively consistent percent of our total users, so we can predict that for any number of total users, our revenue will scale with it. With the pay-as-you-go model from Windows Azure, we can predict how much our infrastructure costs will be for that same number of users. In all, it helps us forecast our revenue and business growth over the long term.”

In August 2011, the company launched Vampire Legacy, a role-playing game for Facebook where players can recruit friends to help them in their adventure, learn powerful spells, create weapons, and battle other vampire hunters (see Figure 2). By October 2011, before even marketing or advertising for Vampire Legacy, the game had attracted almost 30,000 registered users. Sneaky Games also prepared to launch another game for Facebook in addition to its first mobile game for smartphones.

Benefits
By using the Windows Azure platform, Sneaky Games achieved the critical levels of scalability that enable it to meet the high-volume traffic demands that can occur with any social media game. In addition to scaling up its infrastructure, the company can just as easily scale down its computing and storage resources, effectively creating a dynamic infrastructure that is the right size for its needs at any time. With its dynamic infrastructure, Sneaky Games has simplified IT maintenance, avoided the need to hire additional personnel, and, at the same time, can focus on developing more games that customers look forward to.

Achieved Business-Critical Scalability
Sneaky Games knows that, with the viral nature of social media, any of its games on Facebook might attract millions of users with
Image from the Sneaky Games game Vampire Legacy
Figure 2 – In August 2011, Sneaky Games released Vampire Legacy
a role-playing game for Facebook.
little notice. With a hosted infrastructure at Rackspace, the company could not quickly scale to meet those potential compute and storage needs. With Windows Azure, however, the company has an elastic infrastructure that can easily expand to accommodate millions of users if needed. “Windows Azure gives us the ability to scale to nearly unlimited proportions for compute and storage,” explains Bourland. “We can have new load-balanced instances up and running in Windows Azure in less than 10 minutes. That is significant for any company that develops for the social media space.”

In one example, the number of registered users playing Fantasy Kingdoms doubled in size in less than 24 hours. “With Windows Azure, we were able to react accordingly and scale up our infrastructure to handle the doubled load,” says Godwin. “That reaction time just wouldn’t be possible with any other computing model.”

Reduced Personnel and Infrastructure Costs
Whereas previously, Sneaky Games was faced with the need to hire additional IT personnel to manage its hosted infrastructure, the company avoids those costs by using the Windows Azure platform. “By using the Windows Azure platform, we do not have to hire additional personnel to maintain our infrastructure, no matter how much it grows,” says Bourland. “Our existing IT staff can easily keep up with our development cycle.”

In addition, Sneaky Games can scale down its infrastructure as demand dictates and avoid paying for infrastructure that it no longer needs. For instance, as games age and fewer participants play them, Sneaky Games does not need an expansive infrastructure. “It is rare for a social media game to live in perpetuity,” explains Godwin. “Players sometimes find other games to occupy their time or we make the deliberate decision to spend less marketing budget on a particular game as we prepare to release something new—either way, the number of registered or concurrent players declines and we don’t need as much infrastructure to support a particular game that we did at the height of its popularity.”

For instance, after Fantasy Kingdoms reached the height of its popularity and before Sneaky Games started releasing additional games, the company realized that it did not need as many compute and storage resources to keep the game running. “We decided that we only needed about one-half of the infrastructure that we were using for Fantasy Kingdoms,” explains Godwin. “In less than 30 minutes, we eliminated half of the Windows Azure instances we were using and cut our infrastructure costs by 50 percent.”

Simplified IT Maintenance for Speedy Go-to-Market Time
Not only does Sneaky Games avoid the need to hire additional IT personnel to manage the infrastructure, the company also frees up employees’ time to focus on introducing compelling games to its customers more quickly. Personnel no longer have to worry about provisioning and configuring servers with each game launch. “In our previous environment with Rackspace, we would have to set up a new server, configure it, install our gaming engine, and tune the infrastructure before we could begin using it,” explains Bourland. “With Windows Azure, it is simply a matter of changing a number in a configuration file and we’re up and running. We can dedicate more time to what the customer wants—new games and new features—instead of dedicating that time to managing infrastructure.”

Windows Azure Platform
The Windows Azure platform provides developers the functionality to build applications that span from consumer to enterprise scenarios. They 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.

To learn more, visit:
www.windowsazure.com
www.sqlazure.com

For More Information
For more information about Microsoft products and services, call the Microsoft Sales Information Center at (800) 426-9400. In Canada, call the Microsoft Canada Information Centre at (877) 568-2495. Customers in the United States and Canada who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can reach Microsoft text telephone (TTY/TDD) services at (800) 892-5234. Outside the 50 United States and Canada, please contact your local Microsoft subsidiary. To access information using the World Wide Web, go to:
www.microsoft.com

For more information about Sneaky Games products and services, email sales@sneakygames.com or visit the website at:
www.sneakygames.com

Solution Overview




Partner Profile

Sneaky Games is an Austin, Texas–based independent software vendor that creates online games for both social media, including Facebook, and mobile platforms. The company has 22 employees.


Business Situation

The company used a hosted infrastructure from Rackspace and evaluated Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, but struggled to efficiently manage and scale the infrastructure environments from either provider.


Solution

Sneaky Games designed a scalable infrastructure and uses the Windows Azure platform to deliver its games on mobile and social media platforms.


Benefits

  • Achieved business-critical scalability
  • Reduced costs for personnel and infrastructure
  • Simplified IT maintenance


Software and Services
  • Microsoft Azure
  • Microsoft SQL Azure

Vertical Industries
Media & Cable

Country/Region
United States

Business Need
Cloud & Server Platform

IT Issue
Cloud Services

Languages
English

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