Innovation

Game companies are forerunners of the next wave of business tech innovation

In an interview with TechRepublic, Albion Online developer Sandbox Interactive explains that innovations common in today's business technology environment were pioneered by video game developers.

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Image: Sandbox Interactive

Game companies are early adopters. Many innovations common in today's enterprise and SMB technology environment—the cloud, micro-payments, robust mobile apps, SaaS, and cyber-attack mitigation solutions—were first pioneered by video game developers.

For Sandbox Interactive, developers of a mobile and PC game released this month called Albion Online, the cloud was instrumental in keeping costs manageable while still developing a AAA product that hosts hundreds of thousands of concurrent users.

The game deploys a hybrid of mechanics used in traditional multiplayer games like World of Warcraft coupled with loops used in modern mobile free-to-play games. The product is buy-to-play and costs $30 dollars, half the price of products distributed by major publishers. The price, said the studio, filters out resource-sapping trolls but is accessible to most of the market.

The gaming market is a growing at a rapid clip, driven in large part by the cloud and mobile apps that lower production costs and speed the development process. Newzoo, a site that tracks business technology trends in gaming, reports that gaming was nearly a $100 billion market in 2016 and is expected to grow 20% by 2020. Mobile games and apps enabled by the cloud gobbled up 30% of the total market.

SEE: Intellectual property: A new challenge in the cloud (Tech Pro Research)

Albion Online is as much of an economy simulator as it is a game. Hosted in the cloud are hundreds of so-called mega-servers—shards that are seamlessly blended to allow thousands of users to play simultaneously. Nearly every item in the game is created by players, and virtual items are bought and sold at in-game auction houses at prices set by the market. This keeps gamers engaged longer, said Stefan Wiezorek, CEO of Albion's parent company, Sandbox Interactive.

TechRepublic spoke with Wiezorek about what enterprise companies and SMBs can learn about tech from game companies.

Can you explain the emerging games-as-a-service model?

We do not think games-as-a-service is an entirely new concept. Depending on how exactly you'd define "Games-as-a-Service," you can see its emergence ever since games went online. For online games, nothing stops a developer from patching, improving, and expanding it post release.

We think it's best looked at from two points of view: the product side and the revenue side. These two components are often linked but do not necessarily have to be.

Even if there are no further revenues tied to this, it will often pay off in the long term for developers who do this. A great example here would be Blizzard, who have kept extensively supporting even those games that are not generating any subscription or in-game revenues. Starcraft:Brood War was released in 1998 and has received tons of patches and balance updates since, the latest one being rolled out in April 2017. Blizzard's strategy of supporting and improving old titles gives them the benefit of selling box copies of said titles for longer, but more importantly, significantly improves the reputation and trustworthiness of the developer. After all, if I spend money on an online game, I want to know if it will receive ongoing support or if a developer will just take their money and run once overall numbers go down.

SEE: What startups and enterprise companies should learn from game devs (TechRepublic)

Now, in most cases, games-as-a-service entails a more direct link between the revenues generated by the players and the services provided by the developer. Ongoing revenues —generated through subscriptions or in-game purchases—allow a developer to substantially improve and expand a game post-release and hence are ideally able to provide the players with a great game experience that never grows old. This concept is even more important for very ambitious and complex games that provide ample opportunities for expansion. When we release Albion Online we will by no means consider the game "complete." There is a huge list of ideas, concepts, and features that would perfectly fit the game and that we plan to add in regular expansions post-launch. As our business model—games-as-a-service—already provides us with an ongoing revenue stream, we can roll out further expansions free of charge.

Your game is very similar to a AAA, enterprise-grade product. What can enterprise companies learn from nimble game companies?

Our main advantage is that we are not part of a large corporate structure and are not reliant on external funding from publishers. This is what actually allowed us to realize Albion Online. The game's concept is extremely innovative, and larger companies tend to perceive this as a risk rather than an opportunity and hence would not even attempt it. From our point of view, the opposite is true: Rather than trying to compete in the MMORPG space with "just another World of Warcraft clone," our goal is to fill the Sandbox MMORPG niche, which, as we see it, has been lacking great releases over the past 10 years. This is not for lack of ideas, though. Sandbox MMORPGs are probably the hardest type of game to make; it takes a lot of endurance, innovation, and trial and error. Smaller independent developers often lack the time and funding to make this work. In our case, thanks to having collected $9 million from our founders and additional funds from friends and family, we have managed to grow from a small indie developer to a medium-size one, giving us enough power to take Albion Online across the finish line and beyond.

How has the cloud changed the business of games?

Thus far, at least in our case, the most noticeable change is reduced server costs and easier server administration. We feel that a true transformation would happen if the actual graphics processing would happen in the cloud, too, with the client just acting as a streaming and input device. If that happens—and is technically feasible—suddenly system requirements cease to be an issue, creating vast opportunities for better and more immersive games on any device.

What emerging technologies are most important to your product?

When we started working on Albion Online in 2012, having decided on the Unity game engine, we made the bold decision to support iOS and Android tablets, despite the fact that hardcore sandbox MMORPGs simply do not exist on these platforms and are considered to be exclusive the domain of PC gamers. What was important for us here was that we would make no compromises on the game just to make it work on tablets, and when we figured that this wouldn't be the case, we went ahead.

We feel that mobile gaming, in particular on tablets, is slowly graduating towards more complex games. A ton of PC players also have a tablet and will very often miss "proper" games on that device, even though it's technically possible. Albion Online will be one of the first games that breaks this wall.

Our vision with Albion is that tablets essentially become a 2nd device for people who mainly play on PC. After having some challenging PvP combat using your mouse and keyboard, you might want to do some crafting on your sofa while watching a movie. It's a little bit similar to what Nintendo is currently doing with its Switch console.

How are game mechanics deployed in companies outside the game industry?

Using game mechanics outside of games, to influence and direct human behaviour, is called gamification. It has a lot of applications in business, education, sports, and other fields. Ultimately, its goal is to make doing or completing certain tasks more pleasurable, and hence, increase the likelihood and quality of these tasks being done.

An example from sports would be fitness watches and trackers that become more and more popular. You can track your performance, share it with others, complete certain tasks, and have little contests with other users—all of these elements being a core component of almost all games.

Another example would be various apps and tools in the education sector, ranging from "brain trainers" to apps that teach you how to code. Most of these again use classical game mechanics such as tracking your score, giving you rewards for completing certain tasks, and telling you which tasks to do next.

What's important to understand about gamification is that something does not have to look and feel like an actual computer game to be "gamified."

It's very much a question of degree. The underlying goal is not to turn an activity into a game; this is rather a means to an end. The goal is always to increase motivation, perseverance, fun, and quality of outcome for people doing certain activities and tasks. If somebody found a way to make doing homework as enjoyable as playing console games, they'd probably do more for the quality of education than any school reform could.

What does the near future—say 18 or 36 months—of game tech look like?

Something we believe in is the evolution cycle of games on new devices, from simple to more complex. When the first personal computers came about, the first games we saw were very simple titles, such as Pong, Tetris, etc. Then, over the years, games become larger and more complex, ending up with titles such as World of Warcraft or Civilization.

We saw the same evolution pattern on consoles, in the social games space and in the mobile games space, each device being at a different stage of that evolution right now. High end consoles are now almost at the same level as PC games, social games progressed a lot but were largely overshadowed by mobile games, and mobile games we think will continue on their evolution for years to come, until they'll be very similar to where consoles are now.

SEE: Augmented reality gaining more traction than virtual reality in the enterprise (Tech Pro Research)

While Albion Online is first and foremost a PC game, it also tries to be far ahead of the curve in the mobile space, and we are hoping to be one of the first movers for more complex and deep tablet games.

From a purely tech point of view, the main thing to watch is of course the development of VR. Some people are skeptical about its long term prospects. We do not share this skepticism; we believe it's here to stay and to take a massive role in tomorrow's game world.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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