Microsoft will be center stage tonight as Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall begins to roll out at midnight across the globe.
Not only is the Redmond giant counting on tomorrow’s launch of Titanfall to spur sales of the Xbox One, but it will also be a huge test for Microsoft’s cloud technology.
That’s because the game, published by Electronic Arts, is taking the unusual approach of relying on Microsoft’s Azure cloud services, which up until now has mainly been hosting business applications.
Hardcore gamers have become accustomed to blotched game launches with bogged-down servers incapability of meeting multi-player demands on day one, so all eyes will be on how well Microsoft is able to execute this one. And, unlike other game titles, like Call of Duty or Battlefield, Titanfall is arguably more susceptible to overloading because it cannot be played alone and must be played online in a six versus six multi-player environment.
The game goes live at midnight local time in North and South America, and on March 13, in Europe and all other markets where Xbox One is available. Depending on day one sales, it may have the same impact as other big Internet launches, like the premier of Netflix’s House of Cards on Amazon’s web services, which needed a war room to monitor up time.
Microsoft’s cloud technology is being used by Forza 5 Motorsport and other games, but Titanfall has much more riding on it. Microsoft is hosting parties at retail stores around the country tonight and last week it announced an Xbox One Titanfall Bundle, which includes an Xbox One console, an Xbox One chat headset, one month of Xbox Live Gold and a copy of Titanfall all for $499. That’s the same price for a standalone Xbox One. On its own, Titanfall costs $60.
Jon Shiring, an engineer at Respawn who works on cloud technology, explained in a blog post why the game-maker made the decision to use Microsoft’s servers for the launch.
“With the Xbox Live Cloud, we don’t have to worry about estimating how many servers we’ll need on launch day,” he wrote. “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.”
Any latency in the system can have a deadly impact on a virtual battlefield.
“A robotic bodyguard is useless if it takes even a millisecond longer for your Titan to detect an enemy than it does for the enemy to kill you,” according to an Engadget article, detailing Respawn’s decision to use Microsoft Azure’s platform. “If the technology hiccups because of a slow connection, the illusion breaks. At its core, Respawn’s use of Azure promises a consistently fast connection where you don’t see the stitches holding the game together.”
Update: In a statement, Microsoft said Titanfall’s launch is not a test for the company’s cloud technology. “Microsoft remains an industry leader in cloud investment with more than a decade of experience and service delivery and we have complete confidence in Windows Azure.”
Despite Microsoft’s and Respawn’s confidence in the system, there’s a contingency plan.
During a beta conducted in February, the studio intentionally limited number of servers to discover where the infrastructure’s weak points were when running at a full load, Respawn explained to Engadget. At one point, a portion of Europe’s data centers were running at full player capacity and couldn’t accept more users. The affected players were moved over to the East Coast’s U.S. data centers.
“We don’t look forward to doing that at all, but if we have a bunch of people sitting unable to play the game, then we’re going to make sure that the experience is good enough -– maybe not ideal -– to get them playing,” Shiring told Engadget.
In other words, will it be Titanfall or Titanfail?