The video game industry is a rapidly growing and highly competitive market, with increased players turning to multiplayer games for their entertainment. In fact, 77 percent of video game players prefer multiplayer games, and the trend towards Live Games or Games- as-a-Service (GaaS) is becoming increasingly popular among developers and publishers. However, this shift in strategy also brings new challenges, including the need for player retention and the expansion of developers’ and publishers’ workloads.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of infrastructure strategy in maximizing the lifetime value of a multiplayer game, and how developers and publishers can use it to retain players and generate revenue.
We take a look at some of the highlights of the past year in this article to contextualize them and assess how the changes help i3D.net provide an even better experience for our customers and users.
Almost half of the global population, or 44 percent of all people worldwide, play games. However, the more staggering number is that 56 percent of the people that play video games play multiplayer games. When looking at the average number of Monthly Active Users (MAU) in 2022, the games in the top all have multiplayer as their main mode of play. This makes sense as the MAU for single-player games will drop significantly after people finish the storylines, versus multiplayer games that offer limitless entertainment in terms of the time one can spend in them.
We see developers making a more multiplayer centric portfolio of games, not just AAA studios, but also the indie studios — look at Mediatonic prior to their Fall Guys release, for example. Obviously, Mediatonic is more the exception to the rule, how Fall Guys blew up overnight is something special. Yet, when we look at what is happening in the industry in general, we do see a trend moving onto a Live Game or Games–as–a–Service (GaaS) strategy that includes ongoing release strategy and usually some form of multiplayer. The now ended FIFA series is an example that transitioned into this format even though there is not much more content released throughout the year: there are minor updates, and the game thrives on its multiplayer feature.
Within the GaaS strategy there are a multitude of options, the FIFA series (up until today at least) charges an entry fee to play the game. However, as we know, Free-to-Play (F2P) games are becoming increasingly the norm these days, forcing the publishers to monetize the game after its release through microtransactions. This shift in games has changed expectations with players; constant updates, features, and engaging developers. If this is not done, players drop off and studios see their MAU drop.
That MAU drop, for single-player games is not an issue per se, the developer is working on the next project already, however for GaaS, it could mean the end of the potential money-making machine. What this also means though is that the core business of developers and publishers expands from “just” making and publishing games to now also including the support of a live service. Just is put between “as” already, making and publishing games is not an easy feat. The addition of supporting a live service and having to deal with infrastructure is something that adds more workload on the developer and publishers.
Essentially, player retention has become more important, while the scope of work for developers and publishers has expanded greatly. What this basically means is that it is not only the game, the mechanics and the story that are crucial for player retention, but also the infrastructure the live service runs on. If either of them sucks, you’ll find your MAU dropping quick and your live game will have to be killed eventually as the costs associated with a live game can become substantial while your potential source of revenue declines.
With increasing player expectations and workload on the development side, it is becoming more difficult to create successful multiplayer games, especially if we consider some hurdles we haven’t even touched yet: DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks, cross-platform complications, changing regulations, frauds, data breaches, uptime of your game, and the list goes on.
Looking at Unity’s Multiplayer Report 2022, we see that almost half of the most prominent features when gamers choose a new multiplayer game are tied into the infrastructure the game runs on. The most important one, at 29 percent, is a lag-free experience, which again is listed as one of the key features for gamers to be able to enjoy their multiplayer experience.
Developers must decide on infrastructure providers to collaborate with prior to building their tech stack. Here are 5 reasons why you should consider hosting in early stages. This decision is often not easy as it is a crucial decision for your development to prevent hindrances to the success of the multiplayer game down the line. The decision boils down to several aspects, with the four most important ones (in our opinion) being:
Do you have the right people employed to get everything to work (and keep it that way)? Do they understand what it takes to run the infrastructure associated with multiplayer games? There is a reason we’re seeing ‘’Senior Technical Designer” and ‘’Infrastructure Engineer’’ vacancies with the AAA, AA and III studios and 99 percent of the indie game founders we speak to have either experience or knowledge about the infrastructure side.
A Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game such as World of Warcraft has different requirements than session-based games such as Rocket League.
If your (expected) player base is predominantly based in the Middle East, yet you select an infrastructure provider that offers great credits but doesn’t have the best interconnection in that region, you are setting your game up for failure.
If your game blows up, you want to make sure you’ll be able to scale up easily to make sure your players can still play your game. Whereas on the flip side, if your game fails, are you making sure your opportunity costs are minimized?
There are different routes to tackle the challenge depending on how you’ve answered the questions above. Looking at the options, we can distinguish distinct types of providers that may be able to help.
Infrastructure providers can be sub-divided into two groups, where both essentially deliver the same service; compute and connectivity resources, they differ in several ways.
Yes, we’re talking about the Microsoft Azures, the Google Cloud Platforms and the Amazon Web Services of this world: giant corporations that use their public clouds to serve various multiplayer games with the promises of endless scalability, pay per use and many added software services. These added software services may alleviate challenges during the development lifecycle, however come at the risk that you may be vendor locked-in and be forced to use their products down the line when your game launches, potentially resulting in bills with more zero’s than you’d like.
Bare Metal, or dedicated server providers (both boil down to the same really), offer the same product as public cloud providers, yet rather than virtualizing the physical machines, offer you the entire server to use. These providers are usually smaller yet have dedicated focus, especially the ones that focus on the video gaming niche offer benefits such as optimized latency for video games and added services.
Software orchestrator providers have built a tool that essentially takes (partial) care of some management of the infrastructural aspect for you, making it more hands-off for the developer, However, this comes at a premium as this group of providers also relies on the first group we’ve discussed here: the infrastructure providers. Aside from that cost-premium, there may also be a question about the feeling your end-user may have, as we’ve seen in the Unity Multiplayer Report 2022, low latency is a crucial aspect for your players to enjoy your game.
The last group of companies are a relatively newer group of providers that position themselves as Backend-as-a-Service and go beyond the infrastructure solutions and offer a broader range of solutions for game developers throughout their game development lifecycle. However, these are important to mention here as they also offer infrastructure solutions, usually comparable to software orchestrator providers. Something to take note here is that you might be at the mercy of the software provider, if structures or functions are altered you must work to make changes which could pose challenges if you keep your user experience in the first place.
There are more than enough challenges in building and supporting multiplayer games, and GaaS over time. Thankfully, however, we work in an industry that embraces challenges and runs on the frontline of technology, so the solutions are available for infrastructure, as we’ve seen through the distinct types of providers discussed above.
That puts the decision back in the hands of developers and publishers —who do you work with to support your multiplayer games?
The solution lies in both ensuring your players have an enjoyable multiplayer experience to keep MAU, and by managing the infrastructure in an efficient manner to make sure the costs do not spiral out of control.
Both aspects: player experience, as well as cost control in the broadest sense are as important since both aspects should be within the scope of lifetime value for your multiplayer game, as on the one hand, the bigger your MAU, the bigger the amount of potential people that spend money on your game is. And its flipside, the cost per Concurrent Users (CCU). As usual, without sufficient margin, how are you going to keep a live service afloat?
We can see a few strategies appearing to tackle them both by diving into both aspects in a bit more detail.
You’ve probably seen click-bait titles from popular streamers or YouTube accounts such as Asmongold TV and Force Gaming along the lines of ‘’Why Is Every Game Dying’’ where they refer to the MAU of various games dropping. Aside from Asmongold TV supplying an exact analysis of why it is click-bait, not important for games such as Elden Ring and logical explanations why it is happening to games such as World of Warcraft, the rest is something you should not pay attention to.
However, that doesn’t mean that MAU (Monthly Active Users) is not important for your game, especially if you are developing a multiplayer title, especially since there is an economic side to MAU, for multiplayer games, both free-to-play or those that come with an entry fee. Why you should find MAUs important is likely not something you’re reading here for the first time. We all understand the economics of higher MAUs leading to a bigger market to sell your microtransactions, and that higher MAU’s make your matchmaking quicker, easier, and more balanced for your players.
Yet the question you should be asking yourself is, is your strategy keeping as many players for as long as possible? As previously discussed, you are building an awesome game, with very intuitive yet hard-to-master mechanics, releasing content regularly, studied the research that shows how you should line up vanity content, downloadable content (DLC’s), battle passes and seasons to maximize player retention, so you have everything covered, right?
Well, yes and no. As with all developers and publishers that are making multiplayer games, your responsibility and the workload has broadened, remember? You now must take care of a live thing, it’s like owning a dog, you can never leave the house anymore.
Yes, you need to be close to your players with your infrastructure. If you’re serving Latin America with servers from the US, chances are they won’t have the best experience, resulting in your potential player base decreasing as players can be brutal on social media when it comes to latency.
However, it is not all about being the closest to your user. Yes, the internet is limited by the speed of light, but the internet is not wireless, which interestingly is what a lot of people think. The data packets from your players will have to go through physical cables and different data centers, from content providers to Internet Service Providers (ISPs). So, you can physically place a server in the Middle East, but if your infrastructure provider does not connect with a bigger part of the local networks, their data packages are still going to be routed through a different region, beating the point of a server at the edge.
Then we have the other side of the spectrum: cost control, in which there is just one thing you must do: make sure, please do, that you understand what you are going to be paying for when your game scales up. Connectivity charges can kill small studios singlehandedly, simply because the connectivity charges weren’t accounted for. So yes, easy integration is awesome, but you will be paying for what you are using or have used at the end of the day. So, sit with your marketing department. Figure out the expected CCU (MAU is not relevant for these cost calculations), just the concurrent users are what you need to build your infrastructure for, start laying out what you need and then compare the providers at hand. I’d always make a comparison between public cloud and bare metal providers, especially if you do not need the tools the public cloud offers. As well as between the infrastructure providers and the software orchestration parties as both sides of the lifetime value (quality + cost) may be given up for that ease of use. And if you lack the workforce yet want to build multiplayer games without (part of) the added responsibility of having to manage a live service, use the backend as a service provider.
It is key to make strategic decisions when it comes to infrastructure used for multiplayer titles, not just for launch but also when building the game. If you’re looking to maximize the lifetime value of your multiplayer game, we’d be happy to help do so from an infrastructure strategy perspective.
Infrastructure plays an important role in the success of your multiplayer game. By incorporating the right infrastructure strategies, you can unleash the potentials of improved player experience and controlling costs as well as maximizing the lifetime value of your game.