After six years and 13 other titles, Finnish mobile games developer Rovio Entertainment has finally launched the first official sequel to the phenomenally successful Angry Birds.
Angry Birds 2 topped 20 million downloads in its first week of release at the beginning of August 2015.
But what does it take from an IT infrastructure perspective to support a world of bird-flinging and thieving pigs for so many devoted users?
“When you talk about games targeted at mass markets – potentially hundreds of millions of users – it creates quite different system requirements than traditional [enterprise] cases,” said Juhani Honkala, Rovio’s senior vice-president and head of technology.
“You could compare it with building a space rocket. Fault margins are a lot smaller than usual – even the smallest mistakes multiply quickly,” he said.
One area where there is no room for mistakes is in providing good gaming experiences, even during peak usage. For Rovio, ensuring such a level of scalability and rapid development has meant building its own cloud-based gaming platform, aptly named Hatch.
It is the bedrock behind Angry Birds 2 and all Rovio games today, and is capable of serving thousands of requests every second and handling all daily analytics data.
“[Angry Birds 2] reached 10 million downloads in three days. With Angry Birds Classic, it took a bit over five months to hit 10 million users. This is big even for us,” said Honkala.
“Because Hatch was built from the start to support strong loads and varying demand spikes, there haven’t been any problems. Hatch has scaled up to support more than 250 million monthly users,” he said.
Hatching a cloud platform
It was all very different six years ago. When Angry Birds launched in 2009, it was run on Rovio’s proprietary games engine without major cloud connectivity. But following the game’s success – in total, Angry Birds games have clocked more than three billion downloads – Rovio started to build a more scalable cloud-based back-end system.
The move was such a success Honkala no longer sees traditional in-house datacentres as a viable alternative in gaming, as user numbers can spike rapidly at great scale. Consequently, a company needs to be able to swiftly adjust capacity according to user load.
“When we started to build Hatch, the world was a different place. Many people came to me and said ‘Why aren’t you building your own datacentre? You shouldn’t use the cloud, it cannot be trusted, it’s too expensive’,” said Honkala.
“But the benefits of cloud started to be clear even back then. And if you look now, cloud services are cost efficient and there is a lot of competition. The flexibility of cloud services and ease of development are very important to us,” he said.
Rovio already had a large user base when it started developing Hatch, which put major emphasis on scalability and automation in architecture and software stack decisions.
This meant deploying modern technologies capable of handling large amounts of data, such as Java, in product development, the Angular web application framework, NoSQL databases and analytics based on a combination of Hadoop and additional real-time systems.
Rovio’s IT ideology is based on building large networks of subcontractors, meaning Hatch has been designed not to be dependent on any one cloud provider. Honkala believes tying yourself too tightly to a single provider, such as an automation system that is only compatible with a specific service, is one of the biggest risks in cloud adoption.
“For example, you want to keep the possibility to optimise costs later by switching over to another cloud provider, or you might want to find to a good provider for other markets, such as China, separately,” said Honkala.
“We have built Hatch on the principle that it can be easily moved to different cloud service providers and have successfully run Hatch services on top of three different cloud architectures,” he said.
Boosted by automation
While its infrastructure was different in 2009, so was Rovio as a company. Despite recent difficulties, it has catapulted from fewer than 50 employees to more than 700 and branched into merchandise, publishing and even the film industry, with an animated movie in the pipeline for 2016. All of which meant the company had to become as efficient as possible.
“We have invested a lot in automation at every step,” said Honkala.
“For example, game builds are automatically created for different platforms. Our cloud services can be taken into production automatically, which means if we build or try something new, it is an easy process to test it and take it into production,” he said.
In addition to using commercial automation tools, Rovio has built its own cloud automation system into Hatch. It enables automatic updates, as well as automatically setting up servers and their support systems in the cloud.
Having an almost fully automated production chain is a long way from a small gaming studio relying mainly on manual work to hone its first gaming success.
“When the business grows and you start to have many games, it becomes vital to be able to minimise mistakes and make the business more stable,” said Honkala.
“We can update all our services automatically without any downtime. This is [needed] because we have lots of users and a global business, so there aren’t really any quiet moments and service breaks are always a bad thing for fans,” he said.
Finding added value
While Hatch is in the hands of a near 70-member team located mainly in Rovio’s headquarters in Espoo, Finland, Angry Birds 2 has been developed in the company’s games studio in the neighbouring capital city Stockholm.
A notable change in Angry Birds 2 is the greater emphasis on social features, video rewards, in-game payments and cross-promotion between games, which all increases the vital role of Hatch. More of these features are planned in the future.
After achieving a reliable and stable infrastructure, Rovio is turning its focus to building added-value features on top of Hatch. This means developing new advertising types that fit Rovio’s game mechanics and ambitious new social features, which even allow for the organisation of events inside games.
“It is important to continuously offer something new through in-game events [e.g. Valentine’s Day or Christmas special promotions], especially in Asia. We want to bring this same event thinking into gaming in western countries,” said Honkala.
Rovio’s bird-flinging won’t stop any time soon but, behind the scenes, the gaming world has come a long way since the original Angry Birds took flight.