What happens when your online game does too well?

Indeed, these are the kinds of problems we would love to have, but when they actually occur we need solutions nonetheless. So, how do you handle the issues that occur when audience demand overwhelms the infrastructure you have provisioned to serve your content?

A few years ago, my company was approached by Latin Interactive Network (LIN), a publisher of online games across Latin America, including countries like Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. LIN handles several successful MMOs in these territories, including the Spanish-language version of Audition Online, a unique free-to-play dance battle game. Audition is a big favorite, and in Latin America alone, the game is now played by half a million players per month. This is welcome news for LIN, of course, but not always so welcome for Audition gamers who may be stuck using outdated and underpowered infrastructure...

Not long ago, I wrote about the difficulty of expanding the online games business into Latin America, and I cited sluggish Internet speeds and failing downloads as one of the biggest obstacles to distribution. Audition Online, for example, has an installer client that is 2.2 GB, and daily patches ranging from 60MB to 200MB. LIN had been using a traditional Content Delivery Network (CDN) to push this data to their users, and every time a new patch went live, their CDN usage would spike.

Speeds would slow to a crawl and file transfers would drop as hundreds of thousands of users all attempted to fight over FTP connections. With only so much bandwidth to go around on the already-taxed Telefonica network, the CDN could only serve so many users at once, which was leading to failed patch deliveries, frustrated players and decreased user retention.

I’ve written before that ease of delivery is crucial to success in the F2P market. If a user hasn’t paid into your game yet, there is no commitment to keep them from walking away if they feel frustrated when trying to download. For LIN, suddenly having a game be “too popular” was catastrophic: the upper limit for their audience was being defined by the capacity of their CDN.

Pando was able to solve LIN’s specific problem by adding client-side patching to assist the overtaxed CDN servers.  By distributing the high data volume across the network, rather than trying to force it all through a single main artery, LIN saw download speeds increase tenfold and the patch completion rate jumped to 99 percent. This in turn led to a larger audience, more concurrent users, and an overall increase of in-game purchases.

Adding secure client-side delivery is not the solution to everybody’s network problems. The ultimate lesson here is to remain flexible and be prepared to explore outside of traditional protocols.

To many people today, clicking a download link on a web page seems as simple as turning on a light switch or a water faucet. In truth, there are many variables affecting online media delivery, including concurrent demand, network capacity, and the physical location of CDN servers (just to name a few).

As the Internet and wireless networks become even more popular media distribution platforms and as cloud services expand, data volumes will climb exponentially and network capacity issues will arise. The solution may come in the form of different protocols, better compression, or eventually higher capacity networks. No matter which methods we come to rely on, there will always be periods of peak demand -- new game patches, prime-time video streaming, and more. We need flexible networks with elastic capacity to handle those moments.

We all want to deliver the next big MMO title.  But even a blockbuster like Audition can only go so far if we can’t get it in front of our players.

Robert Levitan is CEO Pando Networks. Prior to founding Pando, he cofounded iVillage, Flooz.com and YearLook Enterprises. In between starting companies from scratch and some adventures in world travel, Levitan serves on the board of the Executive Council of New York and New York Cares, a service organization that coordinates volunteers who work with children, the homeless and the elderly.

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