Gearbox and MMOS Use AWS to Create Minigame That Helps Scientific Research


Usually players settle into a video game to enjoy downtime, connect with friends, and escape reality. But players of the hit game Borderlands 3 can now play for a real-world cause. What they play for fun in the game helps scientists with vital research on the human body in real life.

The game within the game, called Borderlands Science, enables players to help map the human gut microbiome. It’s the result of an international partnership between game developer Gearbox Software (Gearbox) and Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS), as well as researchers and scientists at McGill University and the Microsetta Initiative (TMI) at UC San Diego School of Medicine. TMI is the world’s largest open-access human gut microbiome reference database and has DNA sequenced more than 25,000 samples from some 20,000 participants. McGill University developed bioinformatics to improve analysis of that data through puzzles and solutions. TMI can apply that technology and, once the analysis is done, use the results for biomedical research. But McGill University needed help to organize the masses of data. McGill University and MMOS, which focuses on bringing citizen science activities to video games, saw a unique opportunity to create a game that would combine the strengths of humans and computers to advance scientific research.

“Humans have extraordinarily developed pattern-recognition abilities,” says Attila Szantner, CEO and cofounder of MMOS. “Citizen science aims to combine these skills with the extremely fast calculation capabilities of computers and machine learning (ML) to tackle traditionally computationally expensive problems. This combination yields invaluable data for scientific research and creates a unique opportunity to do science outreach toward communities that are harder to reach by traditional communication tools. Since citizen science relies on a large number of participants, and the project itself is set in a real-time, demanding gaming environment, our services were best placed on cloud computing resources.”

MMOS partnered with renowned game developer Gearbox, whose Borderlands series had garnered a following of tens of millions, to help bring the video game to life. Using an array of offerings from Amazon Web Services (AWS), Gearbox and MMOS collaborated on Borderlands Science, in which players’ skills are crowdsourced to map the human gut microbiome and collect data to be used for ML algorithm training with the goal of improving sequence alignment.

Borderlands Science

It was a no-brainer for us to continue to use our experience and the quality of service that AWS provides.”

Jonathan Moreau
Lead Server Programmer, Gearbox Software

Wading into the Citizen Science Initiative

Citizen science, or the involvement of ordinary citizens in conducting scientific research, is not a new concept, but its application has seen a huge boost with the popularization of the internet. MMOS was founded to harness the powers of combining citizen science and video games and to create the supporting technological solutions. “Five years ago we had this idea of integrating scientific microtasks into AAA videogames as a seamless experience—matching visuals, integrating with the narrative, and connecting it to the reward systems,” says Szantner. “Games are unique in that they have large communities of players that are motivated to complete quests in a game. Our proposition was to transform a small part of the tens of millions of years we spend in games to solve problems in real life as well. To make the magic happen, we need partners in the game industry. In the case of the gut microbiome project, the genius game designers of Gearbox, with the help of McGill University, transformed the scientific problem into an engaging minigame experience for its player community.”

Gearbox has demonstrated repeated commercial and critical success as a game developer. Borderlands 3, released in September 2019, has sold more than 10 million units and was in the top five best-selling games of 2019. When Sébastien Caisse—the co–studio head at Gearbox Studio Quebec who also has a PhD in strategic management—caught wind of a possible citizen science initiative with McGill University, it was an easy decision. “The idea inspired me,” says Caisse. “I love science, and I care a lot about scientific literacy and getting people involved.”

Mapping Human Microbes Using an AWS-Powered Video Game

Together, Gearbox and MMOS used AWS to handle data from a minigame within Borderlands 3 that would enable players to map out the data in TMI’s giant database more accurately than a solitary computer program could. “Seeing the anticipated player activity and amount of data to be handled combined with our small team size, we had no other option than running citizen science on cloud computing,” says Szantner.

The Gearbox stack was already fully on AWS, which enabled the company to seamlessly transition into this new task. Jonathan Moreau, lead server programmer at Gearbox, explains: “When we got the initial request for us to start the project, from a server perspective, it was a no-brainer to continue using our experience and the quality of service that AWS provides.” Szantner adds that as MMOS, a nano enterprise, also utilizes AWS, it has been able to work together with large game-developer companies and serve millions of players. “By having access to the global cloud computing platform that AWS provides, we can match the same service level that game studios provide for their players. AWS enables us to offer high levels of availability, reliability, and scale. That is how cloud computing technological capabilities translate to business value in our case,” says Szantner.

Ultimately, the companies’ familiarity with a variety of AWS services made the collaboration between Gearbox and MMOS much smoother. “Since we are using AWS, Gearbox knows the service level it can expect. AWS has changed how we interact with each other,” says Moreau. This shared investment in AWS has helped connect the disparate parts of the project. “It’s an implement of trust,” he says. “With building these bridges between all the stakeholders involved in a project like this, trust is a key issue. And AWS was absolutely part of it.”

Transferring Borderlands 3 Player Research on AWS

Gearbox already had a pipeline in place to push new features to its platform, which is all in on AWS, including Amazon DynamoDB, a key-value and document database that delivers single-digit millisecond performance at any scale. Gearbox also uses Amazon Elastic Container Registry (Amazon ECR) for autoscaling and managing alongside AWS Elastic Beanstalk, an easy-to-use service for deploying and scaling web applications and services. Locust, an open-source load-testing tool, works on AWS Elastic Beanstalk to enable distributed load generation and testing, helping Gearbox create tests that simulate real-world scenarios. MMOS also employs Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), which makes it easy to set up, operate, and scale a relational database in the cloud, with Amazon Aurora, a MySQL and PostgreSQL-compatible relational database built for the cloud. “You start to use AWS, and the appetite grows,” says Szantner. “So you start to discover all the services, and the pieces fall into place.”

While the researchers, scientists, and programmers work behind the scenes, the Borderlands 3 players make it all happen. Players access the Borderlands Science minigame through an arcade machine within Borderlands 3. The minigame is reminiscent of old-fashioned pixelated arcade games: the DNA of each gut microbe is coded as a string of bricks of four different shapes and colors. Players connect those colored shapes to help scientists estimate the similarity between each microbe. Each time someone connects (or reconnects) the colored block strings to solve the puzzle, another microbe is mapped. When they solve the puzzle, players earn in-game currency that they can use in the main Borderlands 3 game. While some players are enticed by the loot, everyone knows they’re also contributing to a higher cause. “For some of the gamers,” Caisse says, “the value of contributing to a scientific endeavor is an achievement in itself, and it drives them forward to play more. These are people I absolutely adore.”

The amount of information this game constantly transfers—averaging 600 requests per second when it launched—between the USC East infrastructure, the MMOS infrastructure in Ireland, and the AWS data center requires fast, efficient movement of data. The AWS system delivers. According to Moreau, “AWS helped us achieve such a low latency. We knew that the reliability of the service and the speed or latency of transfer between the data centers would actually be really good.” The total application programming interface (API) response time is between 15–50ms. AWS also provided elasticity that enabled Borderlands Science to launch without any major hiccups. “When you launch a new digital online service, the first days are madness,” says Szantner. “The elasticity that AWS provides—to scale up our infrastructure 10-fold without any issues—was invaluable to cope with the launch.”

The day after its launch, Borderlands Science had already collected five to six times more data than the previous citizen science initiative—with hundreds of thousands of players—had collected in 10 years. “I had never seen numbers moving like this,” says Jérôme Waldispühl, associate professor of computer science at McGill University. “And I think no one in the field ever saw the numbers moving and the engagement moving that fast so quickly for citizen science. It was like a dream.” Borderlands Science has already seen over one million active users, and to date, the research they have completed is equivalent to 500 work years’ worth.

Finding a Foundation for the Future of Gaming

By using AWS services, Gearbox and MMOS were able to create a human computing system in the form of a video minigame that successfully maps the trillions of microbes in the human body. TMI can use results from this game to advance biomedical research. AWS provided the elasticity needed to help the game launch without disruption and acted as a bridge between Gearbox and MMOS, facilitating a unique partnership between researchers and players that pairs gaming and citizen science to achieve real-world results. “I believe video games are the most complex form of art today and the most engaging form of entertainment,” says Szantner. “What we’ve learned in these last years is that it’s imperative for us as a society that we understand how we can use this amazing resource to solve different problems in real life.”

How Gearbox and MMOS collaborated to create Borderlands Science 

About Gearbox

Founded in 1999, Texas-based Gearbox Software is an independent developer of interactive entertainment that creates and licenses video games, comic books, action figures, apparel, art, literature, and content for film and television.

Benefits of AWS

  • Collected 5–6x more data in 1 day than its predecessor did in 10 years
  • Scaled up infrastructure to 10x greater at launch time
  •  Serves 1 million active players
  • Delivered the equivalent of 500 work years’ worth of research

AWS Services Used

Amazon DynamoDB

Amazon DynamoDB is a key-value and document database that delivers single-digit millisecond performance at any scale. It's a fully managed, multiregion, multimaster, durable database with built-in security, backup and restore, and in-memory caching for internet-scale applications.

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Amazon Elastic Container Registry (Amazon ECR)

Amazon Elastic Container Registry (ECR) is a fully-managed Docker container registry that makes it easy for developers to store, manage, and deploy Docker container images.

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AWS Elastic Beanstalk

AWS Elastic Beanstalk is an easy-to-use service for deploying and scaling web applications and services developed with Java, .NET, PHP, Node.js, Python, Ruby, Go, and Docker on familiar servers such as Apache, Nginx, Passenger, and IIS.

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Amazon Aurora

Amazon Aurora is a MySQL and PostgreSQL-compatible relational database built for the cloud, that combines the performance and availability of traditional enterprise databases with the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of open source databases.

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