Big data is helping EA level up

Electronic Arts CTO Rajat Taneja on big data's growing role in the video game world.

Electronic Arts (EA) isn’t the first company that comes to mind when you think of big data. Yet the gaming company is collecting increasing amounts of data about its online players, and as this data accumulates and gains steam, it falls under the big data category.

If a game maker like EA is considered a big data company, it could have implications for other companies we might not think of as typical big data generators. With that in mind, I got in touch with Rajat Taneja, chief technology officer at EA and a keynote speaker at the upcoming Strata Conference in California. Since Taneja came on board with EA in 2011, he’s helped steer the company’s technological initiatives, including understanding the impact this growing data store will have on the firm — both from a processing standpoint and how to use it to provide games and services customers want most. He says no matter what your company does, if you have constantly connected online services, you are very likely going to be dealing with lots of data.

Our interview follows.

How does big data apply to a game company like EA?

Rajat Taneja: When thinking about big data, video games may not immediately come to mind but in reality, video games today are always-on, digital interactive entertainment that transmits huge amounts of data across the network as you play. Our network processes terabytes of data every day just from gameplay events. As our games become even more interconnected and cross-device enabled, the experiences become even richer and telemetry will only increase.

Where does your data come from and how do you collect it?

Rajat TanejaRajat Taneja: Gaming is a multi-user online experience now, where friends and the gaming community come together across the globe to play online together. Everything from the game’s content, to a player’s progress, social functionalities, payment processes to account information all contribute to the amounts of data that we have to process on our EA network.
We have a very sophisticated internal data platform that ingests, processes and efficiently stores the data across a wide variety of systems spanning structured and unstructured data bases. The platform leverages open-source technologies (like the Hadoop stack) as well as vendor technology. This data is then made available through a variety of analytic tools for automated actions, deeper analytics and reporting. This is where data turns into information and insight.

What kinds of tools do you use to process and view the data?

Rajat Taneja: Our data platform was predominantly architected around a very structured pipeline and conventional data warehouse systems. This was primarily geared for complex OLAP and OLTP workloads. However, the nature of data we collect is now changing dramatically, and its use and importance in personalizing game play experiences is becoming critical. We, therefore, have to rethink fundamentally how the pipeline is architected and the scale it has to support. Our new architecture is now focused on far more agile, near real-time processes that are now being predominantly built using off-the-shelf open source tools for storage, compute, modeling and analytics.

How do you make data accessible to your employees, partners and even your customers? And how can presenting this data enhance your relationships with these parties?

Rajat Taneja: Origin, our direct-to-consumer gaming platform, brings the customer’s gaming experience into one single application, so no matter what game or device you play on, you can connect all of your experiences. Your friend list lives there, your achievements, and your payment information. This makes it easy for our consumers to control their own data and track their progress, managed securely on our network.
Inside the company, the data and derived insight are made available to game developers and studios so they can gain deep insight into playing patterns and feature usage. This helps them tailor the game experiences and capabilities to enhance the enjoyment by our consumers. Our live operations team gets a near real-time view of various game functionality, which provides them with critical information that is used to manage the day-to-day operations of the game. Our customer experience and marketing teams get relevant snap shots of data critical to their efforts and initiatives.
Overall, data is a key connective tissue that allows all functions to operate with more confidence and deeper insight into their specific areas.

If EA is a big data company, what does that mean for other companies? What lessons can other companies take from yours?

Rajat Taneja: So much of our everyday lives today are connected to online data and interactions, and games are becoming no different.  Our industry is going through a massive transition — a shift from packaged goods to digital delivery and constantly-connected online services — that has vaulted us into the sphere of big data. 

We have all the big data challenges, but also many, many opportunities to transform games from something you buy to a place that you go. The big key for us is looking at our customer base and wanting to meet and exceed their high expectations for an entertainment experience. They won’t tolerate network downtime, their data must be secure, and they don’t want to have multiple logins and passwords. We’re building the infrastructure for seamless experiences that take them from device to device, platform to platform, where their experience and connection is consistent across time and devices. By putting the consumers at the center of their gaming world, we have set into motion a technical challenge where using big data is a critical component of the solution. Think about your customers, put their needs first, and evaluate if big data is part of your solution as well.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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