AWS for Games Blog

How thatgamecompany Fosters Human Connections Through Innovative Technology & Developer Mindset

thatgamecompany (TGC) is a renowned game development studio celebrated for its distinctive approach to creating emotionally engaging games that foster human connections. The company creates titles such as fl0w, Flower, Journey, and Sky: Children of the Light within the studio’s ethos: nurturing positive human interactions, fostering empathy, and generating experiences of inclusivity and understanding between players. This vision is not just a part of the gameplay and experience for TGC titles; it is also a developer mindset within the teams who build and run its games. This culture also extends to the underlying technology where cloud infrastructure is crucial for any online game. But here, the technology itself becomes an extension of the culture, playing a pivotal role in the connective experiences thatgamecompany strives to create.

Last year, TGC set an ambitious goal for its award-winning game Sky: How could they connect people and help them share these positive emotions at an even larger scale? The eventual outcome was an in-game concert experience that broke two Guinness World Records. This feat was made possible with groundbreaking technology built by the developers at TGC, running on Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure, and supported in collaboration with AWS team members. Read on to learn more about the unique event, the new player experiences that were created, and how exactly this new technology came to be.

Image: Sky’s immersive in game concert experience breaking a world record for simultaneous emotes

Many in-game concert events are essentially a one-to-many video stream to all the participants, with not much ability for players to directly interact. TGC wanted Sky’s in-game event to set itself apart from other events by helping more players gather directly, and at scale, while including the studio’s distinct and beautiful way of helping people feel connected during the experience. For the music, Aurora, who is well known for her ethereal voice and evocative songwriting, teamed up with TGC for the event, which by many accounts was a perfect match for the experience.

In the first of several events using the new technology, TGC surpassed an initial goal of connecting 4,000 players in one concert stadium, with a stadium being equivalent to one game server. Any additional players over 4,000 would be added to a separate stadium, and so on. Since 4,000 players were connected on the same server at one time, they could all directly interact during the concert as well as during immersive experiences that occurred between songs. These experiences took concertgoers from hearing a song together in the stadium, and then whisked into a unique and immersive cut scene, then back into the stadium for more music. In one cut scene, players took the form of flying manta rays. In another, a school of fish. Who knew the experience of swimming with friends as a school of fish with friends could take people to such emotional places? But it did for many, and this is just one of the connected moments players experienced throughout the event.

Image: Players experience swimming together as a school of thousands of fish and butterflies.

After this first successful event, TGC set its sights on an even bigger goal: connecting over 10,000 players in one concert arena, and thus one game server, at a time.

For such a feat to be made possible, thatgamecompany had to come up with a way to solve scale issues that arise when trying to pack that many players onto one server. TGC developers developed a brand new “Festival Tech“ in-house, running on AWS services. This technology included Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) to power compute for game servers and account servers, Amazon ElastiCache which supported a reservation service to hold participants’ seats in the stadium, Amazon Aurora PostgreSQL as a backend for player account data, and more.

Regarding the technology itself, “Festival Tech” originally began life as an instanced rendering and animation system for schools of fish in Season of Abyss (Sky releases new seasonal content every two to three months), allowing Sky to render thousands of low-polygon fish (low polygon rendering being important when packing lots of elements into one place). At the same time, the player telemetry data pipeline, normally used to help keep Sky a safe place to hang out, was also maturing. By combining these two systems, experiments rendering a low-poly player using a telemetry data stream began. Eventually the player telemetry stream was swapped out for a meshed network approach. Procedural animations were then developed for several models used during sections of the concert, including jellyfish and mantas. Optimizations continued until relatively older devices could comfortably run the technology with more than 4,000 other players.

Image: Sky’s concert stadium of fully connected players.

To orchestrate the whole experience, additional specialized servers were deployed using larger EC2 instances with network topology changes to mesh them together. Normally, server rooms (groups of eight players) do not coordinate or share any information with each other. For this event, servers that host the concert shared information about players across rooms and then rebroadcast that information to all other rooms on that server. A network compression algorithm was developed that transmits thousands of player updates in about the same bandwidth as a 144p video. Because the information is shared, Festival Tech can be leveraged as an in-game lobby or server selector, which is a process that is normally transparent in Sky. There is also a specialized service that takes over as matchmaker for events that leverage Festival Tech. This service leverages Amazon ElastiCache to assign players to available instances of the concert while filling up colosseum instances to make each event have just the right amount of people in it.

Image: Singer Aurora, rendered in a cut scene within the Sky virtual concert.

While AWS services play a crucial role in the day-to-day running of Sky and TGC’s other titles, they play an even bigger role under the pressure of a massive virtual event like a global online concert. Amazon EC2 shines because it has the ability to select from over 700 instance types to best suit the needs of any workload. In this case, EC2 instances with high network throughput and packet rate performance were necessary to ensure traffic between 10,000 players flowed smoothly. Amazon Aurora Postgres is important in this scenario because there was a need for a highly performant backend player database that handles massive concurrency, can scale to millions of players, and that provides fast scaling and replication for high availability. Amazon ElastiCache is an easy choice for database caching, or in this case, matchmaking and server assignment where low-latency retrieval is needed during periods of large game traffic. In addition to using the technology, thatgamecompany collaborated with AWS to perform Infrastructure Event Management (IEM), which is an AWS program offered to customers leading up to the launch of a large game workload. In an IEM, multiple AWS team members work with a customer to identify possible scaling bottlenecks and ensure infrastructure and systems are as prepared as possible for a launch event.

All of this work, technology, and collaboration came together in August of 2023 at Gamescom, when TGC attempted to break the Guinness World Record for the most players directly connected at one time in a virtual world. Players and streamers logged in from all over the world to not only watch, but also to say they took part in, a Guinness World Record. In the end, TGC’s Festival Technology, AWS, and all the planning and collaboration by teams on both sides stood the test; 10,061 players were all connected to one game server. In addition to this world record, TGC also surpassed another world record for the number of simultaneous emotes in a virtual concert event. If this was not enough, thatgamecompany also won awards for “Best Game for Impact” and “Best Mobile Game” at Gamescom 2023.

Image: Tens of thousands of players collaborate to create an in-concert flashmob.

To experience the world record breaking concert yourself, you can watch a replay here. For more information on thatgamecompany and its world record breaking event, visit the overview here.

For more information about how AWS powers thousands of games around the world, visit AWS for Games.

Matt Stevenson

Matt Stevenson

Hetal Kolekar

Hetal Kolekar