Big data and battle tanks: Inside World of Tanks' powerful infrastructure

Tracking the scores, progress and behavior of millions of players around the globe playing an online game is no laughing matter, according to T.J. Wagner, an executive producer and creative director for World of Tanks publisher Wargaming West, who spoke to Network World last week at PAX East.

World of Tanks is a multiplayer-only online wargame, which features two teams of players duking it out in a vast array of mid-20th Century armored vehicles. Players gain access to more powerful tanks and better equipment by playing matches and, if they find the rate of advancement too slow for their taste, by paying real cash for in-game currency that can be used to purchase premium account status and new tanks.

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It's one of the most successful titles using this "free-to-play" model, with about 50 million registered accounts, according to unofficial statistics from WoT News. Games industry researcher Newzoo says World of Tanks is the second-most-played MMO game in the world as of October 2014, trailing only the wildly popular League of Legends.

Launched first on PC in 2010, World of Tanks came to Xbox 360 in February 2014 after publisher Wargaming acquired Day 1 Studios, which has since been renamed Wargaming West, to port the game to the console.

Wagner is one of the Day 1 employees acqui-hired by Wargaming in 2012. He oversees almost all aspects of the console edition of the game, which is headed to Xbox One in the third quarter of 2015.

One of the big challenges in creating the console version of World of Tanks, he said, had to do with the fact that the game doesn't network the way almost all other games on Microsoft's Xbox Live network do.

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"We're totally server-authoritative, so all movement, all shots, everything is all calculated on the server and then sent on to the client," Wagner said. "Almost all Xbox Live 360 games are peer-to-peer, which means you're only as good as your connection to the other players in the game."

That can lead to issues with unscrupulous players, he added.

"A big thing on Xbox Live since the beginning is people throttling their routers or pausing them so that they will lag out on the other person's screen and can't get shot," Wagner said -- something that can't happen on World of Tanks.

The graphics, the rendering, the heads-up display all gets done in the client -- then it connects to Wargaming's main service, called BigWorld, which runs the actual game processes. But it's a lot more complicated than that.

"There's like 16 other services ... on the console," said Wagner. "Purchasing, that's one service. User login, inventory database, authentication, their achievements, another one called Backyard, which is our customer service tool."

A lot of the vast scale of World of Tanks is made more digestible by intelligent use of some well-known big data technologies, like Hadoop and Tableau.

"Before we were acquired we had a really, really bright guy ... really into data mining. So he wrote this whole back-end tracking system called the Reflection system, that can keep track of every player's movement, every click through the UI, everything but in a very quick way and in a small data set," he said.

The result is that the company has vast sets of actionable data on everything from in-game behavior to purchasing and conversions, which Wagner said he uses extensively -- and not just for work.

"I think I have like 105 custom reports that's anything from purchasing to movement heatmaps to kill/death heatmaps," he said. "One thing I do that's probably not fair is look at the kill/death heatmaps when I'm playing -- I look for the best areas to snipe from."

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