Azure enables successful global service of PSO 2
In the present day, good games can be played by anyone, regardless of where the players are. However, delivering such games to people around the globe without changing what makes the game interesting requires overcoming several technical challenges.
In April 2020, SEGA started the service of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) named Phantasy Star Online 2 in North America. As of October 2020, the global version of the game is played in more than 185 countries and regions worldwide. The company is required to provide the service in an area far wider than Japan—without causing lags while players are enjoying actions in the game—and that is why it chose Microsoft Azure as its platform.
Selecting the cloud as a foundation to mitigate risk in a game project with flexible sizing
SEGA Corporation is a member of SEGA SAMMY Group. This company develops, manufactures, and sells video games, and is known for creating best games in the industry. Phantasy Star Online (PSO2), one of the largest MMORPGs in Japan, is made and run by this company.
PSO2 is an action role-playing game (RPG). In this game, players can enjoy raising their character, communicating with other players, defeating strong enemies, and exploring for valuable items in the world in which science fiction and medieval fantasy are fused together.
The first Phantasy Star was released in 1987, and its sequels have been loved by many all this time. PSO2 is the newest title in the series, with "infinite adventure" as its concept, meaning it has contents that let players keep playing it for a long time. This game has been released for multiple platforms. It was launched as a game for Windows PC, and then for PlayStation Vita and subsequentially for PlayStation 4 (PS4). Later, when the game started its service for Nintendo Switch, it did so as a cloud gaming service. The year 2020 marked the eighth anniversary of this game.
PSO2 had been running its service only in Japan. However, according to Hisashi Endo, Technical Director of 2nd Program Section, 2nd Department of CS R&D No.3, 3rd Division at SEGA, the idea of running its service overseas had been on the developer's mind for a long time.
"Since the game has been well received in Japan, we had wanted to expand its service to overseas markets for a long time," explains Endo. "The North American market is particularly large among the global markets. However, to run the service overseas, we must overcome various difficulties, including operation and maintenance of overseas servers and providing user support that fits with local culture. We had an ambition for expanding our service to overseas, but it required time to embody our plan for that."
One of the largest technical issues was a game server. The company could borrow a datacenter in a foreign land, but that would require travelling long distances for maintenance work. According to Mitsunori Fujimoto, Manager of the Development IT Support Team at SEGA, because of this, the team started to consider using the public cloud.
"At SEGA, we started to use a cloud service for the foundation of our game in 2008, which was a relatively early period in the history of cloud computing," explains Fujimoto. "It is quite hard to predict whether a game will become a hit before releasing it. Compared with on-premises, cloud computing allows more flexible sizing, so it can mitigate risk in the game project."
Thus, they started to research public clouds to see if any of these services could work as a game server of PSO2. During the research, however, it realized the huge difficulty unique to an online action RPG.
Azure Ultra Disk Storage: Enabling performance without spoiling playability
Endo explains that the result of researching cloud services of several companies showed none of them could satisfy the required level of performance.
"PSO2 relies more heavily on a performance of game server than that of client terminals, explains Endo. "We conduct on-premises server operation when servers are in Japan, and we tune servers to shorten the response time of queries issued to a database to 1 millisecond or less. If a platform cannot assure both IOPS and throughput at high level, it spoils the action element of PSO2. During our first research, we had to conclude that none of cloud services could satisfy our needs."
"To start the service of PSO2 in North America, it is difficult to adopt a cloud service as the game foundation." That was the gist of the report Endo began to write for his superiors in October 2018. Just around that time, he heard about Microsoft Azure Ultra Disk Storage (formerly known as Ultra SSD).
Ultra Disk Storage is a top-tier disk storage on an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) virtual machine (VM) provided by Azure. It supports high capacity, high IOPS and high throughput, and enables operation of workload with very high IO demand.
"At that time, Ultra Disk had not been released yet, but members of Microsoft Japan negotiated with their headquarters and prepared an environment for us," recalls Endo. "We immediately checked its performance and the result was surprising. It was more than equal to the performance of the on-premises server tuned for PSO2. It looked promising, and we became so excited. We could not start our service of PSO2 in North America without Azure."
It was the first time that Azure was chosen for the foundation of consumer service provided by SEGA. However, Fujimoto says with a smile that migrating from on-premises to Azure "did not cause any hardship to us."
"It was the first time for us to use Azure on a massive scale, but we actually started that quite smoothly," notes Fujimoto. "PSO2 had been running on a Windows server, so we had expected that the game would be compatible with Ultra Disk as well, and it was even better than that. Because Ultra Disk showed very high performance, we did not have any trouble in the migration and the tuning. Of course, we found a difference in usability between on-premises server and Ultra Disk, but thankfully, we received immediate support from Microsoft for our technical questions. If I have to speak of any hardship I experienced, it would be that since Ultra Disk was a very popular service, at the start of our using it we had difficulty in securing instances."
Handling server accesses three times more than expected, thus living up to fans' expectations
In 2020, PSO2 finally started its service in North America. It was released for Xbox One on April 14, and for Windows PC on May 27.
"Of course, we had done research to see how many players would play the game," says Endo, "but in the end, we would never know until the game went live. Right after its release in North America, the number of players was three times more than our expectation."
Endo continued, saying that because of the functions of Ultra Disk Storage, the company could handle this unexpected number of accesses flexibly.
"The Japanese version of the game, which is run with on-premises operation of the server, is designed to limit the maximum number of concurrent accesses per one world, depending on hardware ability," explains Endo. "If a number of accesses exceed this maximum number, we need to replace a hardware. However, Ultra Disk has a function to dynamically change setting capacity, IOPS, and throughput. This is why at the time of releasing this game in North America, we could change the setting for the number of concurrent accesses to three times more than that of the Japanese version, without stopping our service. Even after that, we have repeatedly optimized the sizing of the cloud as the number of users increased or decreased—thus reducing the cost without spoiling our services."
Release of PSO2 in North America had been anticipated by gamers in the region. When it was announced at Xbox E3 Briefing 2019, audiences became so excited. Using Ultra Disk Storage as the game foundation enabled SEGA to provide this game to the users without letting them down.
Fujimoto evaluated the operation of Azure with the perspective of administrator.
"I had an impression that it is more stable than other cloud services. Even when a failure occurs, it provides us detailed information," says Fujimoto. "It reports the cause of a failure very quickly and with details, which helps those of us who operate the cloud service a lot. Also, we found that Azure has an excellent dashboard. Even when we changed a configuration, it showed us clearly the cost, such as 'How much is the price related to this project?' This kind of usability for administrators should be advertised more by Microsoft salespeople."
"When I first heard the explanation about it," recalls Fujimoto, "I thought that the pricing plans were too complicated and proposed prices were not cheap at all. I began not liking it, and even thought that 'I would never use this service'. However, as I heard more about it, I gradually started to think 'this may be good, after all'."
Fujimoto continues about why his impression was changed.
"The biggest reason was the salespeople," Fujimoto continues. "They often visited us and repeatedly made explanations and proposals. People from Microsoft did not finish their explanation with 'We are sorry, but we have to follow the decisions made by headquarters', and instead responded to our requests flexibly as a provider of enterprise computing products. I started with the worst impression of your service, but ended up introducing it to our product. Isn't that like a romance drama, with marriage as the final episode?"
Achieving global release of PSO2 with Azure as its foundation, continuing to provide new games in future
With success in North America as a start, SEGA continued releasing PSO2 globally. On August 5, 2020, the game started its service in 33 countries and regions including Europe, India and Oceania. As of October 2020, the game is played in about 227 countries and regions around the globe. Their global expansion of the game has been steadily ongoing.
"'Providing the game made in Japan to people around the world' is one of the goals of SEGA," says Fujimoto. "Releasing PSO2 around the globe with Azure as its foundation is a huge success, which will surely boost up our motivation."
In July 2020, a Microsoft online conference called "Xbox Games Showcase" was streamed, and during the streaming, it was revealed that PSO2 will evolve even further.
Endo concludes, "In 2021, we will start Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis, which is the updated version of PSO2. It is the newest one in the series with a renewed game system and graphics engine. Of course, we aim to release it in not only Japan and North America, but countries around the world as well. To handle this kind of huge project, I will need to learn more about how to operate Azure."
SEGA became the first company to adopt Ultra Disk Storage in the video game industry and succeeded in releasing widely in the game world. In 2020, the company celebrated its 60th anniversary since its foundation, and it will continue providing innovative content to the world.