Cloud Is Just Loud With a C

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote of the next iteration of the Great Console War. A few things have happened since then. Everyone hated Microsoft with the fury of a thousand suns for all the DRM and required Internet check-ins and Sony said “we’ll maintain the status quo!” to standing ovations. Then Microsoft said “okay we’ll back off, but you guys won’t be able to share with friends and family anymore.” I’m not sure if I just missed that feature the first time, or if I too had been caught up in the nostalgia of hating Micro$oft again, but a quick look into what that feature could have been made me wish it was still coming. They were going to let you lend the games you’d bought to up to 10 other people? We would never again have to experience that awkward moment where you returns a game you borrowed 5 years ago and you’re too ashamed to make eye contact. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience. I’m roleplaying.

So now the hate-fires have died and people are regretting having sold their 360′s and all their games for pennies on the dollar to GameStop in the name of Truth and Justice. Now the big buzz is about the XBox One’s cloud features, courtesy more Microsoft spokespeople with giant mouths and tenuous holds on reality. My current favorite claim: the XBone is “ten times more powerful than the Xbox 360, so we’re effectively 40 times greater than the Xbox 360 in terms of processing capabilities [using the cloud].”

Let me step back a moment here. As a person marinated in computery stuff since the age of 4 who came of age at the same time as the Internet, I find the whole idea of “The Cloud” infuriating. I’ve spent the last three decades showing people cool things they can do with computers to funny looks and nerd jokes, and then someone slaps a clever name on the idea of a server and suddenly everyone thinks it’s the best thing ever. Relatives who would have burst into flames at the thought of an FTP server are perfectly happy to use Dropbox and Spotify. It is magical, just not in the way most people think — the magic is in the marketing to get people interested, which gives us the critical mass to have nice polished services with big budgets. That’s really nice, but people’s imaginations tend to run a bit wild as to what a given cloud service actually is or can do. Especially when you’ve got some goober throwing out numbers.

OMG TEH CLOUD

So what does the cloud stuff on the XBone do?

(This is the part where me being a coder and not a network admin is probably going to make me say something I regret.)

Well, the thing is, unless you’ve been living under a rock since the late ’80s, you may have noticed Microsoft has something of a side business. They’ve made DOS and Windows for our desktop machines, but they have been a powerful force in the server marketplace as well (particularly for corporate clients). In 2010, they released a product called Windows Azure, which (among many other things) provides server virtualization services and what they call cloud services (sigh).

It’s Like The Tiny Ash Scene From Army Of Darkness, But With Computers

For those who aren’t familiar, server virtualization works a little like this: you have a really big, really fast computer, and it knows how to split part of itself off to pretend it’s a particular kind of computer running a particular kind of operating system. This could be a desktop operating system like Windows 7 or Mac OS X, or something meant as a server like an Apache web server or a MS SQL Server for databases. Obviously, the details change wildly depending on what you do, but ultimately you can set these up and use them just like you would a “real” machine.

Some of you may be wondering what this has to do with the XBone. One answer to this is likely multiplayer gaming. Ever sit in the queue on a busy MMO server? Traditionally, whoever is the game studio tries to estimate the size of the frothing mass of gamers that is about to descend, and a finite number of servers is put in place. In a virtualized environment, though, things are much more scalable. Servers can be added or removed with much greater ease in response to demand. This has a few key benefits including the monetary benefit from not running a giant bunch of super-expensive servers in non-peak hours and not having a horde of torch-and-pitchfork-bearing angry gamers beating down your door when load gets high.

Here’s the thing: Microsoft is building ridiculously enormous datacenters, it’s going to leverage its already fairly mature Azure platform for gaming use, and it’s going to handle the hosting itself . That’s a big deal. That’s a huge boon to game studios and gamers in terms of a reasonably standard development environment and reliability. (In theory, anyway.) It’ll also be nice to have dedicated servers where people can’t cheat and fewer larval humans question my parentage. My mother is a SAINT.

Super Double Turbo Power From The Stars

Let’s talk about this whole “40x more powerful using the cloud” thing.

At first glance, it might sound like the computational or graphics power of the console will be boosted directly somehow. I suspect this will be approximately as effective as downloading more RAM to one’s computer. Handing off some computations for another computer to process is certainly feasible. People have been doing it for years. Doing it fast enough for it not to look terrible (especially in a gaming environment) probably isn’t going to happen even if someone’s got an incredibly fast network connection — certainly not with the consumer-grade cable modems we have right now. In the future, likely in the next decade, this might be more feasible. (This is also why I think Sony’s “PS3 Compatibility” via streaming and services like OnLive are probably going to be awful for the next few years.)

That being said, Azure is quite good at the whole “cloud services” (sigh) thing and developers can write all sorts of software to do things so your console won’t have to.  What it’s actually going to be used for is a fine question. I suspect the answer is going to lie less in simple direct enhancement of a game, but rather in analyzing aggregated data from many players. AI that responds to trends in player strategies worldwide, perhaps? Real-time weather conditions in a shared world? I could keep throwing darts at this, but I think most of this stuff is going to be pretty gimmicky except for the dozen or so ways it gets used that explode everyone’s minds. That’s usually the way these things go.

Even so, I’m always happy to see developers with more and better tools at their disposal. I don’t know about 40x faster, but I suspect this is going to be a hell of a ride.

Friendly Competition

If I was going to guess, this is the reason the Xbox One costs $100 more than the PS4. Even with XBox Live subscriptions, scalable server infrastructure isn’t cheap and my guess is this is all going to be done at a financial loss for the first couple years. Don’t get me wrong: Sony’s been rumored to be centralizing their multiplayer experience using Amazon AWS, another scalable hosting service (we thought briefly about using it on this here website until we saw the price tag). I have no doubts that’s why their multiplayer is behind a paywall on the PS4. I just don’t see a universe in which Microsoft doesn’t deliver a dramatically better multiplayer experience based on this already being something they do pretty well….. well, that and the 78d6 fireball of money they seem to be willing to throw at this whole venture.

As for the “cloud” enhancements…. well, one of my first thoughts upon reading about all of this is that I couldn’t figure out why any platform couldn’t be trying this out. Azure is not the only supermagical sparkle cloud factory out there, not by a long shot. I’d bet money Sony (and many others) already have some skin in this game.

Give In To Your Hatred

I’ll admit. After E3 I was pretty down on consoles. I’m excited now because the race seems to be shifting in a different direction than simply who can push the most polygons. I just hope it doesn’t wind up shifting off a cliff into a pit of flaming spikes. That would be bad. Ask Megaman.

 

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