Microsoft’s plan to have the Xbox One heavily rely on the cloud may be a challenge considering North America’s telcom infrastructure.
Microsoft has a big plans for the cloud and the Xbox One. In a blog post, and subsequent interviews, Xbox Live’s Lead Program Manager, John Bruno, said that Microsoft’s network of Windows Azure cloud servers will power the dedicated multiplayer servers for the console’s games and augment its processing abilities as its hardware becomes dated.
Having dedicated servers would allow more players to join a multiplayer match, and provide more gameplay stability. While dedicated servers are common in PC gaming, they are a rarity in the console world. Most Xbox Live multiplayer sessions are hosted on a player’s console, which can prove problematic should that player have a bandwidth constrained connection or an outage occurs.
Bruno said Xbox Live Compute will be able to offer gamers “higher fidelity game experiences” by allowing developers to effectively load balance computations with the cloud. During a scene in a game that’s taxing on the console’s hardware, a developer could have the cloud compute the scene’s physics and AI while it handles everything else locally.
Speaking to Games Beat Bruno explained why Microsoft is pushing the Xbox into the cloud.
“About a year and a half ago we sat down with some developers and tried to figure out how we could leverage some of the assets we have at Microsoft from a computing standpoint,” he said to Games Beat. “What we found is that developers were very interested in doing more on server, particularly in the area of things like dedicated-server multiplayer and even pushing the boundaries of what is done from a peer-computing standpoint, but a lot of them didn’t have the resources or didn’t necessarily want to make the risky investment.”
“We have a great asset in Windows Azure. We have a global footprint of data centers. We thought it would be a great pairing to take what game developers know really well and combine that with a program that removes some of the challenges of working on servers,” he continued.
Of course the problem with relying on cloud based servers for compute aspects of gaming is latency. Every cloud based gaming outfit has come up against the great challenge of working around North America’s telecom infrastructure: it’s a patchwork of varying quality, with vast differences in bandwidth and latency depending on where you are. While its one thing for a firm like Gaikai to demonstrate its cloud gaming service on stage with a dedicated line to the data center, doing the same thing over multiple hops on consumer-grade DSL might prove challenging without a mass deployment of Azure CDN servers onto major telco networks.
The most latency sensitive aspect of the game, the visuals, won’t be handled by the cloud (which differentiates it from Gaikai’s service) according to Bruno.
“It’s not that we aren’t able to do [GPU calculations in the cloud],” said Bruno. “We made a choice to focus on CPU and not GPU.”
Having the cloud act as a mid-life upgrade for the Xbox One would be quite the competitive advantage for the console. “You’re naturally going to see more longevity out of the box,” is how Bruno puts it.
Of course there is nothing stopping Sony from doing the same thing. It will be offering cloud game streaming via Gaikai, so the infrastructure is already partially there to offer what Microsoft is planning. Regardless neither company would likely seriously look into augmenting the consoles with cloud based computing for a few years, as the hardware is already plenty powerful, but having this ability on the table means the lifespan for these next-generation consoles will be much longer than before.