Hi-Rez launches latest Rogue Company game with Azure
Known for building an inclusive gaming community and its rich repertoire of award-winning games, Hi-Rez Studios traditionally built its games on-premises. But as it looked forward to launching the latest free-to-play version of its highly successful Rogue Company title, Hi-Rez sought a platform that could scale to meet expected demand. It chose to use Microsoft Azure to support its players with a low-latency, premium gameplay experience that matches its vibrant visual worlds.
"With a public cloud like Azure, we don't see the underlying mechanics, and we don't need to. Developing our game on Azure has shown us that we can depend on the platform—it's refined and scalable."- Bob Bousquet: Director of Information Technology Hi-Rez Studios
Hi-Rez Studios has a lot of laurels to rest upon. Its popular Smite game—a third-person multiplayer online battle arena game—engages more than 35 million players worldwide. Other successes include Global Agenda, Paladins, Realm Royale, and of course Rogue Company, now free-to-play in open beta as of October 1, 2020. But as the company planned the launch of its latest Rogue Company version, Hi-Rez focused on surpassing previous successes. It wanted a technology solution that could help it reliably deliver both scalability and performance. Hi-Rez chose Microsoft, answering its ambitious performance goals ahead of launch by designing the game to burst to Microsoft Azure.
Gearing up to launch the latest Rogue Company
With its newest release, the elegantly styled Rogue Company aims to attract more players than ever before—it’s free and cross-play. Featuring a cast of unique rogues with their own gameplay styles plus a trove of new game weapons and gadgets, Rogue Company is an ambitious venture. “We must focus on the player experience,” says Rob Pedrosa, Director of Live Game Operations and Customer Support at Hi-Rez Studios. “New player and revenue growth are at stake with every launch.”
The company maintained on-premises infrastructure until mid-2018 when it began testing Azure. “We came from the very old mindset that everything has got to be bare metal because the code depends on high-performance machines that we’re throttling 80 or 90 percent of the time,” says Bob Bousquet, Director of Information Technology at Hi-Rez Studios. “With a public cloud like Azure, we don’t see the underlying mechanics, and we don’t need to. Developing our game on Azure has shown us that we can depend on the platform—it’s refined and scalable.”
Hi-Rez optimized its SQL database platform with Azure SQL Managed Instance and the Azure SQL Database Hyperscale service tier. SQL Managed Instance provides the simplest migration path for its older databases, and it also runs scheduled monitoring tasks and sends alerts as needed—capabilities not available in analogous solutions. The company uses SQL Database Hyperscale to provide massive scale for anticipated player growth. “Our previous on-premises model confined us to the CPUs, memory, and drive space that we had. We scaled them as best we could, doing a lot of performance tuning within the code,” says Joey Smith, SQL Server Database Administrator at Hi-Rez Studios. “But with Azure infrastructure, we don’t have to worry about that anymore. We scale up or down with the click of a button, especially on the Hyperscale side.”
Partnering with Microsoft, capturing a technical advantage
For Hi-Rez, technology was only one part of the equation. “I’ve found Azure to be by far the most responsive provider,” says Justin Driggers, Platform Engineer at Hi-Rez Studios. “The Microsoft team really listens and actively helps us resolve issues, immediately granting our requests to increase quota. It’s a night-and-day difference from other providers.”
Smith’s database team faced the challenge of bringing an exciting game offering to market—in a new technical environment. “None of my team had experience with this new technology,” he says. “The Microsoft team provided support and showed us best practices for the direction we wanted. It was extremely responsive.”
Pedrosa found that support began not with the technical expertise Microsoft shared, but from the account level. “We had such an engaged Microsoft account team that our teams easily got the technical support they needed as they negotiated the learning curve that’s part of using a new technology.” Microsoft also provided high-priority launch support to Hi-Rez for its Rogue Company launch, posting technical teams on standby.
Hi-Rez optimized its costs and commitment, too, through Azure pricing flexibility. “With Azure, we can quickly scale up to extremely high numbers to handle player traffic,” adds Driggers. “If that traffic ebbs, we’re allowed to dial it back down without having to pay for that scale indefinitely.”
Accessing powerful solutions and services
Hi-Rez uses Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) to achieve its technical goals, confident in the support behind the solution. “Kubernetes has a lot of community backing,” says Driggers. “With that and support from multiple major cloud providers, the tooling is superior to any other solution out there right now.” The company counts on a range of third-party tools that work together with Microsoft technology, like HashiCorp Terraform, an open-source tool for managing and provisioning cloud infrastructure. Hi-Rez also uses Helm, an open-source package manager for Kubernetes, to deploy its application stack using Helm Charts, which are packages of Kubernetes objects. Hi-Rez can allocate resources or request specific amounts of resources per instance.
When Smith and his database team first moved Hi-Rez to Azure, they manually spun up several virtual machines (VMs) as a test, adding a flurry of services to them. Contention for services had always been a serious issue with the company’s on-premises infrastructure. That issue dogged the test environment until the team introduced a proof of concept for using Kubernetes on Azure and AKS.
“With Kubernetes and AKS specifically, the performance differences were striking,” says Driggers. “Kubernetes does a great job of packing as many services as it can into one VM without succumbing to resource contention. We’re guaranteed a dedicated CPU core that no one else can touch. That’s beneficial from an application perspective, especially in the gaming industry.”
Besides the performance advantage, Hi-Rez realizes operational benefits. “By using Kubernetes, we basically have another Ops team at our disposal because it lets us know about alerts and monitoring information, like how much disk space is being used. That frees up our Ops team to focus on more value-added activities,” adds Driggers.
Part of the power that Hi-Rez now harnesses to bring Rogue Company to players around the world comes from the Azure Virtual Machines Fsv2-series based on the 2.7 gigahertz Intel Xeon® Platinum 8168 (SkyLake) processor with hyperthreading enabled, made possible by a partnership between Intel and Microsoft. “It’s hands down faster on our CPU-heavy gaming applications,” asserts Driggers.
The team creates private connections between its Azure VMs and the few services that are still running from the Hi-Rez colocation facility (colo) via Azure ExpressRoute. “We depend on Azure ExpressRoute for those servers still at our colo,” says Bousquet. “It’s been very solid.”
As it looks forward to the eagerly anticipated Rogue Company launch, Hi-Rez relishes the increased creative space that its agile environment affords. “Using Azure technologies helped us take a little more risk in the way that we refactored our core because we have so many options available to us,” says Pritesh Patel, Senior Producer at Hi-Rez Studios. “And once we choose the best one, it’s plug and play.” And that’s just what Hi-Rez looks forward to delivering to millions of Rogue Company fans.