PlayFab and Microsoft joined forces three years ago, and this week we’re celebrating by honouring the amazing community we’ve built together. I spoke with James Gwertzman, General Manager for Gaming Cloud at Microsoft and co-founder of PlayFab, about his time in the industry, the story behind PlayFab, and where gaming is heading in a post-Covid world.
Sara: You have a long, impressive history in the gaming industry. What is it about gaming and game development that excites and inspires you?
James: Oh my gosh, that goes back to when I was as young as I can remember. I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of art and technology, and that has been a thread throughout my entire life. Back in highschool I was on a stage crew for my theatre programme working as a set designer and a light designer, and for a while I thought I wanted to work on visual effects for movies. But I also loved computers, and being both a computer science major and a theatre nerd meant I had to figure out how I was ever going to combine the two. It wasn’t until a couple of years out of college that I stumbled into the game industry.
While I’d always loved playing games, I’d never really thought of gaming as a career. It was when we were launching Xbox back in 2001 that I suddenly realised, wait, I can make games for a living? This could be a thing? So I ended up quitting Microsoft to go and make my own game studio, that was how I got started. I’ve never looked back; I love the pace of innovation, that art and technology intersection, and being at the bleeding edge of everything. The people in the games industry are phenomenal, and I’ve been lucky to have made a lot of friends across my 20 years of working with games.
This is sort of a segue into why I started PlayFab. I’d been in China for five years running a game studio for PopCap Studios, and this was right on the cusp of the transition of games as products to games as a service. Watching the games industry meant seeing some big stumbles, with games being launched that didn’t do very well because the technology couldn’t keep up with the games. I remember thinking, wow, if there are billion dollar companies that can’t successfully roll out the technology necessary to run these games, what hope do small indies ever have? That was really the inspiration to create PlayFab, that there might be an opportunity to build a next generation cloud platform for gaming that would solve these problems at scale, not just for small indies but for the big studios too.
It was audacious at the time but we did it, and we actually got to be fairly successful. The run up since we got bought by Microsoft has been phenomenal because if you’d told me that one day all of Minecraft would be running on PlayFab, or Halo, or Gears of War or the new Flight Simulator, that’d have been crazy to imagine. With some of the work we’re doing now, sometimes I have to pinch myself.
In my new role, I have an opportunity to not just look over PlayFab but Microsoft too, to figure out where we take technologies like Azure, Teams and Visual Studio for example, and how we can use them to craft these amazing end-to-end experiences and solutions for game developers help them to realise their dreams.
So taking this all full-circle, I now have a massive set of resources I can play with in order to deliver on the vision under which we founded PlayFab in the first place.
S: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on gaming?
J: I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe that we’re going to go back to the same “normal” – I think life has fundamentally been altered, but not in a bad way. Covid has shown us that we can, as a society, behave differently. For example, I don’t expect to ever be spending five days a week in the office again, rather that I’ll be mixing my time between the office and home. I want to go back to the office at some point, I miss my colleagues, but I’ve also really enjoyed working from home and I think we all recognise that it’s actually a viable way of working in ways that we hadn’t before. I think there will be some fundamental changes happening in the game industry because of this.
In the case of gaming, I think there’s going to be a couple of ways there are going to be lasting impacts. The first is on the creative side, looking at the game creation process. Every game developer has had to struggle and figure out how to make games from home, and games are especially challenging to create from home because of the sheer size of the data involved. Halo, a flagship franchise, delayed its launch partly because of the work from home impact and how hard it is to build this massive game outside of the office.
There’s a lot of ways in which the cloud can help with that. We’re learning how to do things such as, instead of moving all the data down to the worker at home, having the worker at home work inside the cloud to keep the data and workload there. There’s also Teams; we’ve all now mastered Teams and understand the opportunity for online collaboration. I don’t think anything will ever truly replace being in a room together with your colleagues, but we’re getting pretty close.
The second is on the consumer side. People spending more time at home due to Covid has been meant that all of the numbers have gone up – people are gaming more than usual. Part of what we’re recognising from this is the power these online experiences have to bring people together. People are playing games with their friends, and while it might not be as much fun as being able to go to the pub with them, it’s not bad either.
Social experiences like concerts and big events that attract thousands of people may still be a long way out in coming back, but there’s an opportunity here for online versions. Fortnite is famous for putting on online concerts that have had tens of millions of players log on to experience a concert together in real time. That’s amazing, and it’s not a surprise we’re seeing gaming heralding these experiences.
S: How do you see Microsoft helping developers retain players when lockdown ends?
In terms of retaining players, I don’t think that we need to do anything especially out of the ordinary to do that. Gaming continues to grow as a source of entertainment – we’re now the second largest form of entertainment, second only to paid TV, and if you look at the numbers I think it’ll pass paid TV in just a couple more years. One of my own predictions is that traditional media entertainment and gaming are on a convergence of paths, and I’ll give you two examples of where they’re converging.
One of them is on the production process side. I mentioned that we’re working to move game development to the cloud, but one of the areas where we’re still weak is in managing big digital assets. Things like GitHub are great for source code, but not so great for these large binary files. It turns out that my colleagues in our media and entertainment vertical are working with Hollywood on asset management solutions. They’re working specifically with Disney, Universal Studios and a few other companies specifically to help them manage these large digital assets. Once we combine that technology with existing solutions such as GitHub, there’ll be a really good solution here for managing games.
On the flip side, traditional television production is now using technologies from the game industry in a couple of interesting ways. For example, The Mandalorian is famous for being one of the first TV shows to use virtual sets, where instead of having a green screen for a backdrop, they have giant video walls that use the Unreal game engine to project virtual sets in real-time. This means that when the camera is moving on the set, they’re updating what you’re seeing in the background to keep the parallax and the perspective correct, and as a result you don’t have to do as much post-production as you would with a green screen. That’s especially important on a show like The Mandalorian, where his suit is so shiny that had they chosen to use a green screen, they’d have spent so much time taking the green out of the reflections. Plus with this method, you also get reflections on his suit of the environment around him in a realistic manner.
S: How important are game developers to Microsoft and how are we helping them?
J: One of the headwinds that my team faces at Microsoft is frankly one of awareness. People know about us for Xbox, but I don’t think they know about us necessarily as a solution for cloud gaming, which is a real shame. Because of our long history with Xbox, and because our own first party game studios that are using it exclusively, we actually support some of the world’s biggest games and we continue to invest in making ourselves ever better for that.
One of the biggest challenges my team has is just getting the word out, and letting people realise that Microsoft has this phenomenal set of solutions for game developers. Not just that we have Azure, and everything Azure does around gaming such as traditional infrastructure as a service, raw compute and so on, but we also have PlayFab and these dedicated services custom built for gaming, and all the things we’re doing there such as chat, multiplayer, analytics and so forth. If you haven’t taken a look at Azure recently, take a second to look as we have some really good things coming.
For Microsoft, game developers are incredibly important. Our reputation, justified or not, is that we’re better in the enterprise space than we are in the startup space. I think that’s a shame as we have some great technology here, but I think that as we get better at attracting game developers, we’re also getting better at the self-serve onboarding and discovery motions that we need to get better as as a company.
S: Can PlayFab help indie game developers as well as AAA? What are the differences in approach, and is it recommended?
J: In the beginning, as we were a new and disruptive technology, we were able to attract the developers that really needed our services the most, while the big AAA companies were either waiting on additional features or were more apprehensive due to how small a company we were at the time. The majority of the teams we worked with were indie developers.
That said, the pace of growth has been so fast that we’ve suddenly become good enough for the AAA companies. Almost all of our first party studios are using us, and we’re starting to now land other big companies outside of Microsoft. Doom Eternal from id Software is a famous one, and Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky is another big game that is using PlayFab. Historically everyone had to build their own technologies from scratch in the cloud, but we’re starting to see this transition where more and more of us will simply use off the shelf services like PlayFab, and that creates this great flywheel where the more developers that are using our services off the shelf, the more we can invest in making them ever better.
We have this additional accelerant here at Microsoft where we can also leverage a lot of the investments we make in our Xbox team, to take a lot of those technologies out of Xbox and release it to the world as part of our own offerings. It’s something we’re actively doing as part of this space.
S: What can developers learn from the LiveOps approach?
J: It used to be that you could just build a game, ship it and then you were done. Now you launch a game and it’s just the beginning, a kind of marathon where you continually update, grow and invest in your game.
I think that continual engagement loop, where you’re engaging your players and updating and understanding what they’re doing, is really important. This of course applies to any interactive experience, not just games, so any piece of software that you’re running as a service is going to have this update loop and there’s a lot we can learn from them.
For a lot of developers, data analytics is a lot like flossing your teeth, where you know you should do it, you know other people are doing it and you know it’s a healthy thing to do, but it seems hard to approach if you’ve never done it before. PlayFab has made this process very simple, making it easy to gather the data, put it into a data warehouse, and start running reports on it.
Frankly we could do even more, and we will do even more in the future, making it even easier to get great results, and being able to hook up things like machine learning to start automating the process of looking for insights.
S: What does the future of game development hold for game developers? What’s coming?
J: Games were products, then they became services, and now we’re in this new zone where games are becoming communities. We’ve talked about this notion of the “citizen creator”, the idea that everyone is a creator now. It used to be that the only people that could make games were the game studios – but with software such as Unreal and Unity bringing game creation tools to the masses, it became easy enough that even three-person teams could start making games.
Now with things like Minecraft and Roblox, 12 year olds are making games within other games. The games themselves are becoming platforms for other games, and that’s really fascinating. Then you start to have communities of players in these spaces that are contributing back to the environment by creating things like texture packs and levels. then uploading them for others to enjoy.
Going back to the earlier point of convergence of entertainment, we’re also starting to see games be culturally relevant in ways they weren’t before. Big game releases, whether they are a success or a flop, are being covered prominently by newspapers, and it’s really telling. This is our generation’s media. Would something like TikTok have happened if it hadn’t been for the comfort the next generation has with gaming technologies and tools? I don’t know, but there’s a fluidity there that my generation doesn’t have and certainly my parents’ generation never had.