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Chris Davies – VSoftCo – Developing products to support varied markets and changing technology

In January of this year, virtual sports provider VSoftCo announced the appointment of Chris Davies as its new CEO following a six-month consultancy period.

Having warmed to his task of overseeing software implementation, developing the range of VSoftCo services and meeting commercial targets, Davies spoke to SBC News about real-time rendering and meeting the technical challenges of producing virtual content which provides a varied, immersive and realistic experience to the customer.

SBC: What are the key technical challenges you’ve faced when producing virtual content?

CD: To produce a virtual game is challenging in every respect. As a content provider you are working to ensure player engagement and entertainment in a short time span, whilst providing variety and an immersive experience in terms of gaming opportunities and markets.

Different audience demographics mean that content providers need to provide a portfolio of offerings and variants for differing levels of market taste and sophistication. Delivering the same product on a changing technology base and being able to support our customers are our key drivers.

All these factors require us to build virtual product that has a firm technical foundation in terms of maths and gaming opportunities, whilst delivering a realistic experience to the players using the latest graphics techniques and technologies to provide realism. As with any modern software project it is important to separate the algorithm from the implementation. Technologies change over time, the teams change over time, but the same game must be delivered.

VSoftCo currently delivers two core Fantastic League products: one, a single game, and a multi-event where teams from a 20-team league all play each other simultaneously in 10 matches. The technical challenge for us is Fantastic League only requests the random numbers once bets have closed, and therefore needs to calculate the results, solve the matches in terms of determining the gameplay, render the matches and the highlights, and deliver this to the players device, all in time for kick-off. Fantastic League is available on-line, in retail, and via satellite.

Careful thought is given to the number of main ‘betable’ events within each match, and the derived bet markets that can be created. For VSoftCo, it is important that these events join to form a whole match, albeit a lot shorter.

The RTP can be tuned to suit each customers’ requirement and regulatory requirements. Our maths models are very sophisticated and allow us to tune the odds of each team winning or losing; or determining which player scores a goal, or a yellow card during the gameplay. We can also tune the odds to affect the likelihood of different score lines, and the number of goal likely to be scored.

It is not enough just to provide Fantastic League, we must also ensure it can run in customer environments, so we provide a scheduler, bet management system, and RNG to support the customer integration. The VSoftCo technology must be flexible to make it easy to customise the appearance of Fantastic League in terms of branding, on-pitch advertising, logos, panel colours, team names, home and away team kits, player names, stadiums and stadium names, bet markets, and result markets.

We choose industry standard data formats for all information exchanges. For example, all our output files to the bet management systems are XML formatted allowing for easing parsing by different customers. The tools we provide are all compatible with our API infrastructure, so customers can choose whether to integrate the functionality on offer, or not.

We have partitioned our product to provide APIs at each level of the technology stack. Our APIs are all being migrated to RESTful interfaces, with a JSON or XML pay load, as part of our continuous technical improvement. We can therefore integrate as tightly or loosely as required. The advantage to the customer is we can find the optimum integration for them, providing maximum performance with the minimum of technical effort required to integrate and support.

We continue to monitor and evaluate new delivery platforms including satellite, retail and online; all of which we support. New products, and new platforms always need to be assessed and product variants produced as required. Configuration management is an essential tool for this. We have diverse development teams working in different geographic locations, so shared tools and information repositories are essential to maintaining productivity and providing on-going support.

One of the main additions we have added recently is the ability to support many languages and currencies within the same product. Therefore, each instance of Fantastic League can work with the operator, and the player’s IP address to determine the language and currency to use for each player’s session. These don’t just apply to bet markets, results, instructions, etc. but also to commentaries and audio clips.

Hosting, networking, infrastructure, resilience, capacity and security are all major technical considerations. We must ensure Fantastic League is hosted in a manner and locations that meet all these requirements and are regulatorily compliant.

We have moved a lot of our infrastructure into the Cloud to provide the dynamic capacity, performance, security and resilience we need. This also allows us to replicate this functionality globally quickly and reliably as new customers and markets come on board.

SBC: What inroads has VSoftCo made with regards to real-time rendering?

CD: The real-time rendering aspect of Fantastic League is the major development hurdle. An understanding of 3D graphics and the rendering pipeline is essential in allowing us to create each match, with almost no chance of any two matches ever being the same.

Our priority has been to ensure we create real 3D models for each playing and non-playing character and placing them in a true 3D world in a stadium. This gives us the freedom to move the camera around each scene independently of the action taking place. The camera can therefore offer fixed views, follow players, or provide on-pitch views, etc.

Players must believe they are watching a real match, so football players cannot run through each other, and the ball cannot go through pitch-side furniture. At that point belief is suspended and the player realises they are playing an RNG-based casino game with a sports front-end. The magic is lost. This brings an attention to detail in this process some regard as unnecessary, but we consider essential.

We committed many years ago to ensuring our playing and non-playing players move as realistically as possible. This is only feasible with motion capture and we have a library of over 3,000 motion capture clips all derived from real football players, not actors.

The players each contribute greatly to this exercise by enacting fouls they have suffered and tackles they have participated in. We then use the 3D meshes for the players to create the movement sequences necessary for the seamless play. This is a continuous and on-going piece of work.

To solve the matches, we start with the result and then determine which sequences, and in which order, will deliver the game on the screen. We then apply sky boxes, stadium, player ethnicity, kits, textures, lighting, shadows and particles using the capabilities of a low-end, industry-standard graphics card. Finally, we place the camera within the 3D world and render the output stream.

We deliver the graphics stream to a world-leading CDN provider who then transcode it into different formats, resolutions and adaptive bit-rates for all the platform types we support.