Call of Duty has become an entertainment phenomenon across the world. On Xbox, 5 Call of Duty titles appear on the Top 20 list every week; players continue to play Call of Duty at an unpresedented rate. And with that, the servers have to be able handle all of this. Call of Duty games are known for their smooth launch – the game functions as you’d expect it too. Other titles like Sim City, Battlefield face issues at launch and even after trying to hold players on their servers.
So how does Activision do it? It’s because of DemonWare. A company based in Ireland, with a staff of 150 people. Activision purchased and now owns DemonWare, and their server rights and management.
“In 2005, when we were still a pretty small group of people, 12 to 14,” John Kirk, chief technology officer at DemonWare told Polygon in a recent interview. “I moved to Vancouver, Canada to set up a presence. Most of our customers were up and down the West Coast and it was much easier to support them on their own timezones.”
Pat Griffith, Activision’s vice president of online technology, said that they began working with the company initially to support matchmaking and storage systems needs on the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3. But it was their work on Call of Duty: Big Red One and Call of Duty 3 that won the publisher over.
“DemonWare’s level of collaboration with Treyarch on Call of Duty: Big Red One andCall of Duty 3 surpassed anything we’d ever seen before,” Griffith said. “We found the crew at DemonWare to be highly capable. DemonWare quickly demonstrated an exceptional level of knowledge and experience with our game engine and practices in addition to their domain-specific expertise.”
Originally, the first Modern Warfare experienced a rough launch. Activision, DemonWare, and the developers weren’t ready for so many people to play the title that the servers came to a halt. No one expected the amount of players would be online and buy the title.
“The launch of Modern Warfare came at a point where there was a lot more adoption of broadband internet connections,” Griffith said. “We had, and the industry as a whole probably had, some issues across the board.”
“We became more successful then we had prepared for,” he said. “That’s not just in the online world. Our sales of Modern Warfare were above our expectations.”
And from this experience, DemonWare learned and understood what they have to change and focus on to fix their mistakes.
“Many of our lessons about measuring and everything else, they come from that,” Griffith said. “It provided a foundation that we build on. I think that the nascent of our philosophy begins in that Modern Warfare game and what happened in that title.”
Another integral part that makes Call of Duty what it is is the fact if a certain feature isn’t available, they entire system doesn’t crash. For example, if the leaderboards have to go down, your gameplay isn’t affected. Same with the player count and the global map. If those features aren’t working, the core gameplay features will continue to work regardless.
“One of the things that can happen in any online system is if one bit of the system goes down it can take the whole system down,” Griffith said. “I don’t think it’s magic, I don’t think it’s anything that nobody knows, it’s just very hard to try and decouple and almost isolate a group of systems so that one will not have a knock-on effect on others.”
“Only a small subset of those are required to play a game,” he said. “If player counts or the service that creates the global heatmap, if those systems are down, they’re down but they’re not affecting gameplay. People can still get their profiles, matchmake and join a game. That’s what we focus on, making sure those core systems get a lot more attention and a lot more love then the ancillary systems.”
The team at DemonWare works 24/7 at initial launch phases to monitor the situations, and once the graphs and charts stabalize, their focus is reduced, until the next title hits. Daniel Suarez, vice president of production on Call of Duty, says that even to this day servers for old games are getting background updates all the time.
“I believe that DemonWare is crucial to the success of our online games for all of the reasons mentioned previously,” he said. “They give us a stable platform on which to build. They provide us with valuable data about how our games are played. And their collaboration with the game development studios like Infinity Ward and Treyarch has allowed our game teams to focus on making great games.”