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Is the mBaaS Business Model Broken?


Having spent a great deal of time integrating backend services into my recent game, Fruit Spritzer, in this case only very rudimentary ones, authentication and social leaderboard, I learned a number of things, but this one thing stood out above all else. The landscape for mBaaS providers is incredibly fickle. Let me explain my thinking.

A bit of background first, my game is built in PhaserJS for web, and (now anyway, another story) Godot for mobile. This influences my choices for mBaaS service provider. Most, probablay all in fact, offer Unity integration out of the box, many offer Javascript, none that I’m aware of offer Godot integration. So I was left with either integrating myself, or working with a RESTful interface if offered. I need to be able to authenticate a user, both anonymously and via Facebook, preferabley with the ability to transition an anonymous account to Facebook at the right time. I need to be able to store and retrieve leaderboard(s), and most importantly, get the social leaderboard for the current player. That is, the list of players in their social circle, as the point of the game is to play against your friends, not everyone in the world.

I started out with what looked like a good choice for mBaaS for a web and mobile game, PlayFab. I had my doubts about the costs and pricing model, but it is a very flexible and powerful system, and does have a free tier on which I could experiment and determine if it really would meet my needs. Javascript integration was good, and as I was on PhaserJS only at the time, worked well. However, then it happened, on the 29th of January 2018, Microsoft announced they had acquired PlayFab. This worried me intensely, so much that I immediately started looking for alternatives. In this particular case, I’m nervous about what Microsoft would do with PlayFab, having seen what they’ve done to the likes of Skype, it didn’t leave me full of confidence. Also, this was the first point at which I had pangs of concern about these commercial offerings “just disappearing”, the big players, Microsoft, Google, Facebook etc., all have a history of acquiring companies and products, only to shut them down. I found GameSparks, which actually has proven to be even better in terms of capability than PlayFab, so I’m sort of happy again. They have a very generous Indie tier, which again allows me to trial the solution before monetising my games to see how it works out, all good. Right up until the 5th of March 2018 when GameSparks announced they were being acquired by Amazon. Not again! Now, I’m not familiar with Amazon’s track record for acquisitions, but I’m starting to get nervous again. I did some more investigation and found out about Parse, another very popular mBaaS it seems, not one that I’d experienced, but it seems very successful, until Facebook acquired them and shut them down in January 2017.

Now I’m seeing a pattern, and it worries me intensely. Backend services are becoming more and more important for any sort of gaming, including mobile. Social is a key factor to engagement and retention, and requires some backend services. Now exploring the cost and complexity of developing and hosting a backend service, especially for a small indie or solo developer, the alure of the mBaaS providers is very strong. But no matter how good the service is, it will still take significant effort on our part to build support into our games, and it increasingly feels like that investment is high risk. The value of mBaaS is not lost on the big corporates, hence the desire to acquire, and this volatility is very unsettling for the small independent studio.

It seems that there isn’t a perfect solution, hosting backend services is complex, time consuming and costly, even if working with one of the few open source BaaS projects, like the Parse Platform project, an open source version of Parse released by Facebook before the shutdown, Heroic Lab’s Nakama or xtralife. However, building up a connection to a backend service in your toolchain is not something you want to do more than once, so getting into bed with one of the closed commercial offerings is risky too. So, what’s the right answer? I’m not sure there is one, right now I think the best option is to find a commercial provider that builds on an open source solution, such as Heroic Labs who offer hosting of their open source platform, or Back4App, which offers hosting of the open source Parse platform. At least this way, if the commercial provider disappears or goes under, you’ve got options, as the platform is open and available. Do be careful though, most of these providers, including the two listed above, offer an “extended” version of the open platform as part of their commercial hosting plan, so if you want to be able to transition to the open version in the future, you need to be mindful of the differences when developing the integration.

So, to the point of this blog post, is the model broken? It seems to me it is, mBaaS claims to be a cost effective, scaleable, and accessible solution to a developer’s backend needs, but if we cannot rely on the stability of the businesses offering these solutions, they offer no solution at all. Nobody wants to swich providers, at great cost to themselves, each time one of these companies gets swallowed up by the big boys. For my money, a better solution would be to develop an open standard for mBaaS services, that all providers could adhere to. They would then need to find ways to differentiate themselves, be that price, availability, etc. but the onus would be on them to offer value, as we, the customers, could readily switch to any other provider that follows the same standard with minimal impact.

Yeah, I know, that’s never gonna fly, but I can dream, right? :)