Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to gather more information on Microsoft’s Cloud that they keep bringing up in discussions over the Xbox One. “Cloud Cloud Cloud – Power of the Cloud Rawrrrrr”. The gaming community has poked fun and I’ve heard many people say that the cloud is nothing but a buzzword and a PR gimmick.
But is it?
If Sony and Microsoft both have cloud technology – why is Microsoft making such a big deal about theirs?
Since at least 2009, Microsoft has been pouring billions of dollars into building their cloud infrastructure. They’ve been throwing up data centers up left and right and taking aim at Amazon who currently is #1 as far as cloud providers. Just in the year 2011 – Microsoft spent $8.6 Billion in research and development on the cloud. And they aren’t planning on slowing down anytime soon. Earlier this month, Microsoft reported that they will be opening 25 new data centers in 2013 in multiple locations around the globe. They also just announced coverage for Japan, China, and Austraila. And a few hours ago, they announced a $700 million investment into their datacenter in Iowa to increase their ability with the cloud.
Why does this matter to gamer’s?
Because Xbox Live will be running from Microsoft’s Azure Cloud platform. And it will also be powering the games.
Here is an excerpt from a Wired Article
Perhaps most intriguing, however, is that Xbox One gives game developers the ability to access Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform. That leads to a few obvious and immediate applications; stable, dedicated servers for every multiplayer game rather than the notoriously fragile practice of hosting matches on one participant’s console.
Does this mean that every single game will features dedicated servers?? REALLY??
So I reached out to the author of the Wired article, Peter Rubin and asked him how this would work. Do developers have to rent out the servers? Do they just have access to them etc. Here is his reply.
“Microsoft is subsidizing cloud utility for developers—essentially, it will cost developers nothing to build on/access the Azure platform. So while I don’t believe it’s mandatory for a title to offer dedicated servers, there wouldn’t be any investment on the dev side to do so, which means… Yup, dedicated servers for everything. (Certainly for marquee MP experiences like BF3/4, COD, Titanfall, Destiny, etc). This is a huge part of why “persistent online world” was such a buzzphrase at E3 this year.”
There have also been a few interesting comments from the team behind Titanfall, EA’s Respawn. Here are some excerpts from an article that an Engineer wrote titled, “Let’s talk about the Xbox Live Cloud”
Okay, so player-hosted servers have a lot of downsides. So why do so many games use them? They have one really big upside – it doesn’t cost money to run the servers! Running hundreds of thousands of servers can be extremely expensive. EXTREMELY expensive. Like “oh my god we can’t afford that” expensive. So your player experience gets compromised to save (large amounts of) money.
But it costs a LOT of money.
This is something I have worked on for years now, since coming to Respawn. A developer like Respawn doesn’t have the kind of weight to get a huge price cut from places like Amazon or Rackspace. And we don’t have the manpower to manage literally hundreds-of-thousands of servers ourselves. We want to focus on making awesome games, not on becoming giant worldwide server hosting providers. The more time I can spend on making our actual game better, the more our players benefit.
I personally talked to both Microsoft and Sony and explained that we need to find a way to have potentially hundreds-of-thousands of dedicated servers at a price point that you can’t get right now. Microsoft realized that player-hosted servers are actually holding back online gaming and that this is something that they could help solve, and ran full-speed with this idea.
The Xbox group came back to us with a way for us to run all of these Titanfall dedicated servers and that lets us push games with more server CPU and higher bandwidth, which lets us have a bigger world, more physics, lots of AI, and potentially a lot more than that!
What is the Cloud?
Amazon has a cloud that powers websites. Sony has a cloud that streams game video so you can play a game that you don’t have on your machine. Now Xbox Live has a cloud that somehow powers games. Cloud doesn’t seem to actually mean anything anymore, or it has so many meanings that it’s useless as a marketing word.
Let me explain this simply: when companies talk about their cloud, all they are saying is that they have a huge amount of servers ready to run whatever you need them to run. That’s all.
So what is this Xbox Live Cloud stuff then?
Microsoft has a cloud service called Azure (it’s a real thing – you can go on their website right now and pay for servers and use them to run whatever you want). Microsoft realized that they could use that technology to solve our problem.
So they built this powerful system to let us create all sorts of tasks that they will run for us, and it can scale up and down automatically as players come and go. We can upload new programs for them to run and they handle the deployment for us. And they’ll host our game servers for other platforms, too! Titanfall uses the Xbox Live Cloud to run dedicated servers for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox 360.
But it’s not just for dedicated servers – Microsoft thought about our problem in a bigger way. Developers aren’t going to just want dedicated servers – they’ll have all kinds of features that need a server to do some kind of work to make games better. Look at Forza 5, which studies your driving style in order to create custom AI that behaves like you do. That’s totally different from what Titanfall uses it for, and it’s really cool! So it’s not accurate to say that the Xbox Live Cloud is simply a system for running dedicated servers – it can do a lot more than that.
How is this different from other dedicated servers?
With the Xbox Live Cloud, we don’t have to worry about estimating how many servers we’ll need on launch day. We don’t have to find ISPs all over the globe and rent servers from each one. We don’t have to maintain the servers or copy new builds to every server. That lets us focus on things that make our game more fun. And best yet, Microsoft has datacenters all over the world, so everyone playing our game should have a consistent, low latency connection to their local datacenter.
Most importantly to us, Microsoft priced it so that it’s far more affordable than other hosting options – their goal here is to get more awesome games, not to nickel-and-dime developers. So because of this, dedicated servers are much more of a realistic option for developers who don’t want to make compromises on their player experience, and it opens up a lot more things that we can do in an online game.
This is a really big deal, and it can make online games better. This is something that we are really excited about. The Xbox Live Cloud lets us to do things in Titanfall that no player-hosted multiplayer game can do. That has allowed us to push the boundaries in online multiplayer and that’s awesome. We want to try new ideas and let the player do things they’ve never been able to do before! Over time, I expect that we’ll be using these servers to do a lot more than just dedicated servers. This is something that’s going to let us drive all sorts of new ideas in online games for years to come.
And then there was this Interview with Giantbomb and the Titanfall team
When you look at it. Microsoft and Google are really the only two people who have a “Cloud”. A technical description of a cloud. They have data centers all over the world with tons of fast machines in them and they can slice them up however they want and turn them into virtual machines. And what they have done is exposed that in a very awesome way for Xbox One games. So if you’re in Connecticut and you want to play a game, we can say okay, here is the data center that you are going to go to because its the closest one and you have a 30 ping to it. And there’s no empty servers, so lets spin one up for you in 5 seconds and off you go.
We don’t have to provision hardware, we don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of servers and rack them in different places, it’s just there. It’s easy. It gets rid of all that fear of how this is all actually going to work. We have that available to use.
Let’s get crazy here and say it (Titanfall) gets popular in Japan. If we didn’t think it was going to be popular there and we didn’t buy a bunch of servers to put there, we would be screwed. (Cloud) Helps alleviate those types of problems. – You couldn’t make this game without the dedicated server support
So what do you do on the PC? Do you have to replicate elements of that structure for your version or do they have something you can use?
We won’t get all the niceties on PC that you get on Xbox One. There will have to be some engineering of things
If Microsoft’s Cloud is nothing more than a PR Gimmick. Then it has to be one of the largest gimmicks in recorded history. Adding up to a total that goes well beyond $10 Billion so far. It sounds as if this could actually be a system that could provide a lot of flexibility for the future of the Xbox One. And if dedicated servers are available to all developers. That is probably going to be a nice selling point for both game developers and players.
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