Playing to Win: As the gaming industry transitions more to online and mobile, so does Electronic Arts—with a superefficient hub to process millions of transactions a day.
by Tara Swords
In the early 1980s, if you wanted to play video games, you probably did like everyone else: went to your local mall to push quarters into Pac-Man or Donkey Kong arcade machines. So when Electronic Arts (EA) launched in 1982, it was something of a pioneer in a cultural movement that has since become a highly competitive, multibillion-dollar industry: in-home video gaming. By bringing games to the living room, EA introduced a new form of interactive entertainment to people of all ages and has since spawned some of the most commercially successful games in history—FIFA, Madden NFL, Battlefield, and Medal of Honor, to name just a few.
Today, EA is riding another trend revolutionizing the industry: networked, social, and mobile gaming. In 2000, when gamers played EA’s hit title The Sims, they likely used CDs to install the game on their home PC and played by themselves. Today, they might just log in to Facebook and interact socially with characters that digitally represent their real-life Facebook friends.
“It used to be where you ship out a disc in a sleeve, and people would buy an Xbox or a PlayStation 3 console. You’d put the game in, and then a gamer would play,” says Mark Tonnesen, CIO at EA. “And that still happens quite a bit, but we’ve seen a pretty precipitous decrease in the volume of that business, and we’ve seen a huge increase in digital gaming.”
In fact, EA’s leadership team estimates that in 2013, approximately 40 percent of the company’s revenue will come from distribution of digital content. That can include anything from games downloaded to a PC or console to games purchased and played on a smartphone.
Those figures track with the industry in general. Lewis Ward, research manager at International Data Corporation, says by 2015, approximately 47 percent of video game sales will come from digital purchases. And that has major implications for an innovator like EA. “I don’t think you just wholesale shift that [packaged] business model and you’re done,” Ward says. “Games are becoming more of a service rather than a product, which has all kinds of implications on how you monetize it.”
EA’s leaders foresaw this shift years ago; many of the company’s games already allow friends from opposite sides of the world to play together. EA has also been developing mobile games for years and has made a number of acquisitions, including PopCap Games, to grow the mobile and social business. “EA, with the acquisition of PopCap, seems to understand the urgency of going digital and going more mobile over time,” Ward says.
Before EA’s management could fully act on that urgency, however, it needed a fundamentally different IT infrastructure.
Digital revenue for EA is growing at the rate of 30 percent, led by direct-to-consumer channels including Origin, EA’s online store—with transactions processed by credit card providers and some processed by PayPal. The company also receives microtransactions when, for example, gamers purchase content through an Xbox LIVE account using their Xbox consoles. To complicate matters, data comes in from multiple service providers around the world, amounting to 1.5 million transactions every day.
“We just got overwhelmed, because you’re getting all this data in different formats,” says Deepak Advani, vice president of enterprise services at EA. Because people use that data throughout the organization, he says, it needed to be translated into a standard format. “We tried to do it manually, but there was nothing to control it. There was too much manual intervention, when people are touching the data. Once they touch the data, there’s a question of integrity.”
Left unaddressed, the challenge would only grow. “The volume was increasing on the digital side, and there was no way we could operate this way,” Advani says.
Even if EA’s IT leaders could find a way to tackle the company’s existing challenge, there was another problem on the horizon: the ways in which gamers buy and consume content will continue to evolve. EA’s IT staff needed to build flexibility into the infrastructure so it could adapt in ways it hadn’t yet envisioned. It needed a scalable, future-proof solution.
EA found an answer in a hub-and-spoke architecture that would reduce the number of interfaces through which it gathered data, standardize data formats, and institute publish/subscribe connectivity. A publish/subscribe model enables data to be published once and automatically sent to other users who have subscribed to it—thus easing reuse of existing assets throughout the organization. To build this hub, EA IT leaders turned to Oracle.
In spring 2011, EA management engaged Oracle staff to design and build the iHub, EA’s data integration solution, based on Oracle Fusion Middleware. The joint team reviewed the mission, desired outcomes, and target key performance indicators (KPIs) of the project. Then they reverse-engineered those outcomes to come up with a project plan. Meanwhile, millions of transactions kept rolling in daily, so there was urgency behind the initiative.
The iHub is the underlying intelligence network for business transactions, and it’s been wildly successful.
“Generally, when you’re on a project, it takes three months to build a team, set everything up, and start delivering these integration services,” Advani says. “We basically took two weeks to set the project up, and we were delivering in four weeks. We were adjusting and building as we went.”
Within three months, the iHub was fully functional with more than 60 interfaces for internal and external service providers. Today, it facilitates those millions of transactions from around the globe and puts them in a standard format for use and reuse in financial and business intelligence systems. EA uses a number of other Oracle solutions, including Oracle E-Business Suite 12 and Oracle SOA Suite, both managed on Oracle Cloud’s Managed Cloud Services, and Oracle Business Activity Monitoring to track key documents such as POs and invoices from Oracle E-Business Suite 12 all the way to trading partners.
Transactions that took four hours now process in just two. And that’s at their slowest—most complete much faster. “The iHub is the underlying intelligence network for business transactions, and it’s been wildly successful,” Tonnesen says. “In the packaged goods business, you do a mass release and a shipment of product, then there’s a series of big transactions, then it stops. In a digital world it’s all real-time microtransactions, and there are millions of them.”
Management’s motivation for building the iHub was to receive, standardize, and integrate financial transactions. But the company worked with Oracle to build the hub in such a way that it can process many other types of data.
“We now have a consistent, stable, scalable solution to move information and move transactions,” Tonnesen says. “It could be demand plans, it could be quality information, it could be bug information, it could be anything. And we have a way of managing that with a very limited staff and at a low cost, because we don’t have to rebuild things over and over.”
Tonnesen and other EA leaders already envision innovative uses of the iHub for consumer analytics. For example, EA’s IT systems track data about gamers that can be used by developers to build the next generation of games. Knowing every move gamers make—the weapons they select, how fast they advance to a new level—helps developers learn when gamers are getting frustrated and when to offer a power-up to keep game play advancing. But EA may have half a million gamers to track in a single game.
“That’s a massive amount of information, and now you’ve got to get that in real time to an analytics engine so that people can understand what we need to be doing differently,” Tonnesen says. “All of that’s got to happen in real time, because a person’s in the game right at that moment. And so it is facilitated by a high-speed hub that gets you the kind of information out of the game that gives you the ability to sell content to the consumer.”
The joint team implemented the project using a real-time deployment methodology, meaning that they deployed it as they built it. Tonnesen says the success of that experience led the team to understand that if they want to deploy new content based on user behavior, real-time deployment is the best way to do it. “You’re online and you need new content. Maybe it’s another level or world that you’re going into, or it’s new enemies,” Tonnesen says. “All of that is made possible because of the real-time nature of how you develop, deploy, and deliver.”
While the iHub processes data the company needs for everyday operations, the value isn’t just practical, Tonnesen says. It’s also highly strategic, because the new architecture delivers information that enables business leaders to make critical decisions that will ultimately determine the direction of the company.
“The real benefit of iHub is bringing that information to our executives, to the decision-makers. Bring that information so people can make decisions, and then feed that back into the engineering community who are building the next release of a game, or building new content, or an expansion pack of an existing game,” Tonnesen says. “This really is the way of the future. In the digital world, this is the only way you can be successful.”
Tara Swords is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.