It was way back in the summer of 1991 that Sonic the Hedgehog first chased rings across our 2D screens. Gaming has come a long way since then. From a static TV and console setup to online PC gaming in the noughties and now to mobile and virtual reality. Surprisingly, for most of those 25 years, the underlying infrastructure that powered these games hasn’t really changed much at all. It was all relational databases. But with ever increasing need for scale, flexibility, and creativity in games, that’s changing fast. SEGA HARDlight is leading this shift by adopting a DevOps culture and using MongoDB Atlas, the cloud-hosted MongoDB developer data platform, to deliver the best possible gaming experience.
Bringing Icons to Mobile Games
SEGA HARDlight is a mobile development studio for SEGA, a gaming company you might have heard of. Based in the UK’s Royal Leamington Spa, SEGA HARDlight is well known for bringing the much loved blue mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, to the small screen. Along with a range of Sonic games, HARDlight is also responsible for building and running a number of other iconic titles such as Crazy Taxi: City Rush and Kingdom Conquest: Dark Empire.
Earlier versions of the mobile games such as Sonic Jump and Sonic Dash didn’t require a connection to the internet and had no server functionality. As they were relatively static games, developers initially supported the releases with an in-house tech stack based around Java and MySQL and hosted in SEGA HARDlight’s own data centre.
The standard practice for launching these games involved load testing the servers to the point of breaking, then provisioning the resources to handle an acceptable failure point. This limited application functionality resulted in service outages when reaching the provisioned resources’ breaking point. As the games started to add more online functionality and increased in popularity, that traditional stack started to creak.
Mobile games have an interesting load pattern. People flock in extreme numbers very soon after the release. For the most popular games, this can mean many millions of people in just a few days or even hours. The peak is usually short and then quickly drops to a long tail of dedicated players. Provisioning for this kind of traffic with a dynamic game is a major headache. The graph from the Crazy Taxi: City Rush launch in 2014 demonstrates just how spikey the traffic can be.
We spoke with Yordan Gyurchev, Technical Director at SEGA HARDlight, who explained: “With these massive volumes even minor changes in the database have a big impact. To provide a perfect gaming experience developers need to be intimately familiar with the performance trade offs of the database they’re using.”
SEGA HARDlight knew that the games were only going to get more online functionality and generate even more massive bursts of user activity. Much of the gaming data was also account-based so it didn’t fit naturally in the rows and columns of relational databases. In order to address these limitations, the team searched for alternatives. After reviewing Riak, Cassandra, and Couchbase, but feeling they were either too complex to manage or didn’t have the mature support needed to satisfy the company’s SLAs, the HARDlight engineers looked to MongoDB Atlas, the MongoDB developer data platform.
Then came extensive evaluations and testing across multiple dimensions such as cost, maintenance, monitoring, and backups. It was well known that MongoDB natively had the scalability and flexibility to handle large volumes and always-on deployments but HARDlight’s team had to have support on the operations side too.
Advanced operational tooling in MongoDB Atlas gave a small DevOps team of just two staffers the ability to handle and run games even as millions of people join the fray. They no longer had to worry about reliability, maintenance, upgrades, or backups. In fact, one of the clinchers was the point-in-time backup and restore feature, which meant that they can roll back to a checkpoint with the click of a button. With MongoDB Atlas and running on AWS, SEGA HARDlight was ready to take on even Boss Level scaling.
“At HARDlight we’re passionate about finding the right tool for the job. For us we could see that using a horizontally scalable document database was a perfect fit for player-account-based games,” said Gyurchev.
“The ability to create a high traffic volume, highly scalable solution is about knowing the tiny details. To do that, normally engineers need to focus on many different parts of the stack but MongoDB Atlas and MongoDB’s support gives us a considerable shortcut. If this was handled in-house we would only be as good as our database expert. Now we can rely on a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and best-in-class technology.”
HARDlight’s first MongoDB-powered game was Kingdom Conquest: Dark Empire, which was a frictionless launch from the start and gave the engineers their first experiences of MongoDB. Then in a weekend in late 2017 Sonic Forces: Speed Battle was launched on mobile. It’s a demanding, always-on application that enables constant connection to the internet and shared leaderboards. In the background a three-shard cluster running on MongoDB Atlas easily scaled to handle the complex loads as millions of gamers joined the race. The database was stable with low latency and not a single service interruption. All of this resulted in a low-stress launch, a happy DevOps team, and a very enthusiastic set of gamers.
Gyurchev concluded, “With MySQL, it had taken multiple game launches to get the database backend right. With MongoDB Atlas, big launches were a success right from the start. That’s no mean feat.”
Just as the gaming platforms have evolved and transformed through the years, so too has the database layer had to grow and adapt. SEGA HARDlight is now expanding its use of MongoDB Atlas to support all new games as they come online. By taking care of the operations, management, and scaling, MongoDB Atlas lets HARDlight focus on building and running some of the most iconic games in the world. And doing it with confidence.
Gone is the 90s infrastructure, replaced by a stack that is every bit as modern, powerful, and fast as the famous blue hedgehog.
SEGA Hardlight is looking for talented engineers to join the team. If you are interested, check out the careers page or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.