Oct 22, 2013
Cloud-gaming was always going to be a big feature in the next generation of concoles, with Microsoft pushing the concept of online capabilities. It seems they are taking this to another level now, offering all developers dedicated servers for free.
On a NeoGaf forum, Albert Penello, the Director of Product Planning, stated the following:
“Also to be clear. One of the benefits of publishing games on Xbox One – ALL game developers get Dedicated Servers, Cloud Processing, and “storage” (for save games) free. If you want to do dedicated servers on other platforms, you have to prop them yourself. But on Xbox One, while developers can choose to use their own methods, we make it available to everyone.”
He has made Microsoft’s intentions quite clear. And as Microsoft Live has been the home of online console multiplayer for some time, it seems set to maintain this precedent. This announcement seems to up their game, as prior to this, the new consoles set for release in November were relatively equal in footing. So, could this be Microsoft’s killer feature? The potential seems great, but whether this will be enough to persuade consumers is another matter. Yet for developer’s, it seems very promising.
What does this mean for developers?
Well for a start, when offered them for free, it would seem silly not to take advantage of Microsoft’s offer. This means more online components, and a better experience entirely. The cost for developers should decrease significantly, opening up the option to developers of all shapes and sizes.
Reliability is increased dramatically, as the server is less likely to be slowed or crashed by another party, that can happen with shared servers. Also the likelihood of being swamped with traffic is reduced. With the launch of GTA Online, it proved that catastrophic things can happen on launch. However, with dedicated servers this is less likely to happen, the Azure service allows more servers if needed by the load, which should counteract any huge popularity boosts.
Configuration is also available, so you can meet the particular needs your game requires. Alongside side this, the ability to upgrade memory or processors as needs be is possible. This means the system can be updated and managed, ensuring the best possible experience for the gamer.
It also means that the low-latency (or lag) advantage that the hosting player may gain over the others, alongside a number of notable performance boosts. Developers are also not solely responsible for the software which handles any connections, which is less of a strain.
Speaking about Titanfall, Respawn explained the kind of changes and benefits developers can gain:
There are “dedicated servers so there’s no host advantage. The game spins up fast. When that’s handled on the cloud, now it’s the same experience, it’s not lagging for you. If I’m the host, and I’m calculating AI on my box or if we’re both calculating AI on our boxes and we have different things…”
Previously it has only been big games that benefited from dedicated servers, as they were the only ones who could afford such an advantage. However with this announcement, Microsoft could be opening up doors to smaller developers. Imagine indie games making use of dedicated servers; there could be some truly innovative online multiplayer formats in stall.
However, there are certain ‘developer policies’ in action so that they cannot ‘run away’ with the idea, and incur too much cost. This perhaps hints then, that indie developers could not benefit significantly, and it will be those games of higher popularity who strain their current online systems that see the biggest benefits.
Although Microsoft have ditched their attempt at an ‘always-online’ console, it seems their vision has not changed. They still envision the Xbox One as an online machine, with a lot of advantages if you indeed choose to connect your console to the internet. With no cost to developers for dedicated servers, there a lot of great ideas that may come about, and could revolutionise the multiplayer world. There is no concern about whether enough players will play the game online to warrant the mode, and so more risk-taking could be had.
Cloud computing gives developers many benefits for their game, as John Bruno explored:
It is “specifically designed to enable game creators to utilize the scalable computing resources that Microsoft deploys within our regional datacenters, to enhance their game experiences beyond what is generally possible with the finite resources of a console”
He also goes on to describe how the dedicated servers will impact developer experiences, and what it means for Forza:
“What we’ve seen, from a feature function benefit perspective, at least in v1.0, is that dedicated server multiplayer is a lot easier to build on Xbox One than it has been in previous years. So that was an obvious key benefit and there are a lot of key benefits to multiplayer gaming from that. We’ve also seen things like Forza, where they’ve done a lot with Drivatar and a lot of AI computations in the cloud. The cloud can just get smarter about the player and the game.”
“Now what that buys game developers is that, as you can imagine, they’re going to make trade-offs in their game as to what they’re going to use the local CPU for versus the remote CPU. We believe that there’s going to be higher fidelity experiences over time, because of having that ability to offload those tasks that they often have to trade off with local resource. So we do expect higher fidelity games over time, we do expect that the cloud will just be better from a pure computing point of view.”
The downside is that the PS4 online components of a multi-platform game would need different online architecture entirely, which is extra effort for developers. Perhaps this is good news for Microsoft though, encouraging developers to only release for their console. Whether the internet architecture is of a high enough quality for Microsoft’s plan to pay off, is another matter entirely.
It seems that Microsoft are giving developers a big incentive to develop for the Xbox One, even if the PS4 is seen as the leader of the pack at this given time. If developers choose the Xbox One for this reason, an overwhelming number of developers may side with Microsoft, and swing the next-gen onto their side with more game releases, and a better online experience. Although Xbox Live players will be essentially paying for such a service, Sony will have a hard time matching this. But with rising popularity of PlayStation Plus, and online payment for the PS4, it is not unlikely that they won’t announce similar features.
Sony may yet still pull it off; and we cannot really tell who has won until well after release. But the next console war looks set to be very tough, with close launch dates and similar specifications. With loyal fans on either side, and floating gamers inbetween alongside broadening public appeal, these two consoles need to pull all the stops to succeed.