We recently had the chance to sit down and talk with Lead Program Manager at Xbox Live, John Bruno, regarding Microsoft's new Xbox Live Compute. It sounds as if it could change all of the facts we've come to expect over the past eight years of this generation.
We discussed all sorts of matters regarding the feature, but we thought we would first start with the limits of the Cloud on Xbox One.
"We have some policies around how we provide compute power to Xbox One developers" Bruno commented, "Most of those we do not disclose, but suffice to say, the CP power we do provide, it is unlimited in terms of scale. . .[W]e provide a certain amount of compute power per game session for multiplayer games. Whether there one session or millions of sessions we provide all of the scale and power to meet that demand."
"[G]ame developers will largely build games to target certain size virtual machines that are available on the platform, and then from there we automatically scale and build out those virtual machines."
What kind of effect would this have on open world games? We asked if it would finally allow a "living world" to take place.
"We use the living world scenario quite a bit when we talk about cloud computing, we see it as another example of how server computing can really help games that are not necessarily fully computed all of the time," Bruno continued.
He then delved into specific examples, "So imagine in a case where you have a shared world state, where a number of players are actual contributing to one uber world of activity. Maybe it’s a series of dungeons, maybe it’s a gigantic open-world, any number of scenarios can come to mind there."
"What’s interesting is that players can come and go, and the world lives on. So player interaction within the world can be persisted after they leave, and shared with other players. So what you did yesterday may affect what I do tomorrow or vice versa."
The realm of MMOs has never really prospered on any of Microsoft's consoles, but with Compute, it sounds like that could finally be a viable area. If not, the benefits that this posses to developers is great. It brings Destiny to mind, except instead of the multiplayer events randomly occurring we see changes to the entire over-world based off of actions that you may not have been a part of.
Bruno expounded, "So this idea of living worlds is something that inevitably makes games more fun, more community based and open. It gives people a number of different possibilities for what they can experience. From a game developer’s point of view, in order to do that, they need to run that world state in the cloud on some server platforms."
We lingered on this topic a little longer and asked Bruno to illustrate what his idea of Compute is.
"One of the key benefits of cloud computing is this idea of running games as more of a service, where you go to games everyday and the updates are constant. Gamers may know, they may not, and that’s really the kind of relationship we want developers to have with their game and their players."
In what is quite a rapid reversal from it's policies with the Xbox 360, Microsoft wants to make things as painless as possible. "They [developers] can roll patches quickly; users see tweaks in the game or in the AI without having to make these giants patches or things of that nature. Developers will be able to do that without disrupting the world, which is pretty cool."
The one question that remained in our mind was how will Microsoft convince developers to utilize this feature? How hard was the company planning on pushing Compute? Bruno expressed his belief in the feature, "In terms of being an asset, I would say that with any new platform, there’s always risk for a game developer. I think they always consider what they want to invest in based on how much time [developers] have and what they can afford to take bets on."
"We have seen a tremendous amount of interest," he stated, "The idea is that you can get a bunch of free computing resources, [this] changes the way they think about building their games."
"We want to remove the barriers to get them investing in server technologies."
He turned to the examples that the company has been using since the console was announced. "[W]e’ve seen tremendous interest, lots of good things that [developers have] built in terms of Forza and Drivatar and multiplayer. Titanfall [has also utilized Compute] with the investments their making in multiplayer, plus some of the NPC and AI characters that they’re driving out of the cloud, we see a lot of great opportunities there."
"In terms of feedback, we have had pretty open feedback with developers as we've been building the platform based on feedback we get in real-time," Bruno clarified. It certainly isn't an understatement given Microsoft's response following the E3 backlash.
"The key thing for us is the easier we can make it for developers to develop on the platform, the more we can make things hands-off."
"As they deploy the game and manage it, they want to have tools that can manage and understand the environment. I think us helping them understand how to build games in an Azure-like environment with virtualized operating systems is a new paradigm for them. So there is a lot more for education and training and those types of things, helping them move to that world of programming has been exciting."
We did ask him to address how Forza Motorsport 5 might handle Compute compared to an open-world title.
"I think that what Forza has been able to do is very unique to Forza. I think it’s gotten a lot of good value out of the cloud. On an open-world game it’s a different set of values, in that case, the values being as many players as I can get into this world. So their goals may be totally different. With Forza, they wanted their multiplayer to be very solid, they wanted a good number of cars, and they wanted to make this ability to have this adaptive AI with the Drivatar.
Bruno did wish to express that this isn't explicitly a multiplayer feature. "I think for launch, it’s obviously going to be very multiplayer focused. I think that’s where the best examples have come from, but I think over time we’ll see that change, and we’ll see the platform take on more. It’ll offer a wider breadth of things it can do, beyond just multiplayer."
"Multiplayer is just very tangible, something people know how to make better, and this is a solution to making it better. I do think that games as a service are something that is not multiplayer specific. It certainly could be, but it doesn’t need to be, so I think there are definitely options for single player games as well."
We wondered if this would affect fidelity and development times at all, but Bruno didn't seem to think that would happen, at least not initially. "I think what it really allows developers to do is focus on the game development more than focusing on server structure and development."
"I think what the “a-hah!" moment for developers is when you talk with them and say, ‘what could you do if you had this extra power?’ They would say, ‘well let me think about that.’ And then they start to realize that their portions of a game do not need to be run locally on a machine, then they suddenly get this extra power on the machine and they almost always find things they can do with the extra power."
Offloading that focus from everything on the console to a balance between the two does certainly promote better games. Bruno continued, "So really, I don’t know that this will shorten the development cycle at all, in terms of how they can achieve maximum capability with the box. I think it will cause them to think more about trade-offs that they make in their game design earlier in the development cycle."
"Frankly, I think we’ll find things we didn't expect, right? We’ll find creativity that we didn't think was possible."
"We have a mantra that we do not want to constrain [creativity] at all. We’re trying to make it as open as we can from a policy perspective and real encourage the shift toward the server based development and help the game developer get there and do more things with it."
Ironically, no one would have expected these words to have been uttered out of a Microsoft's employee at this point last year. Things have clearly changed as the company continues to make things easier for developers. We asked Bruno if this will save money for those aiming to release on the Xbox One.
"I absolutely do," he swiftly asserted, "I think there are a number of different challenges with server development for a game studio. One it’s just not necessarily an in-house talent that they have. Two, operationally speaking, they don’t have that operational muscle to deploy servers at scale and manage that. Thirdly, it’s often times a financial barrier to consider dedicated servers or something like that for a really successful title."
"I think all those things mean that it encourages developers who adopt the platform to be able to not worry about those things, focus on gameplay, build great games, make great multiplayers on Xbox Live and not have those barriers in front of them. So I do think it reduces some time burden as well as some financial and even a creative one at that."
But what about indie game companies, will they too be able to access these services? We wanted to make sure that this is something that they too would have access to. The answer was a resounding yes, but Bruno does believe that it does benefit AAA games more-so than others.
"I definitely think there’s a class of developer who it will benefit more based on what resources they have available to them and how," he said, "You look at some of the larger development shops and they kind of get more resources than some of the smaller ones."
"I think what ends up happening is there is this sort of marriage between Microsoft, our server technology, how to build large servers at scale, along with game developers who are a highly creative group of people that don’t necessarily know how to do that. When you put those things together, there’s lots of potential for really great games to show up in the future."
Speaking of the future, we asked him if he thought this would help the company secure more first-party exclusives. Unfortunately, he didn't have much to offer,"I'm not a business development guy, but I would say the offer we are putting together from a platform perspective that is pretty appealing."
"We want multiplayer games that are going to be the best on Xbox Live and we have a platform that enables that, and I think certainly this service does provide that appeal for our game developers and ultimately what they produce on our platform will be judged by our user community and hopefully they feel the same about how great it is."
However, at launch, it is true that the service is generally pretty limited. "From a development standpoint, we’re grounded in a set of scenarios for launch that are very focused on making sure we can do better multiplayer with dedicated servers, game adaptability, the eye in the cloud. These are sort of the pillars of what we’re trying to make sure works really well in our Version One of the service."
"We see a bunch of things on the horizon that we could go do, there’s a lot of potential. It’s hard to see what’s going to come in the next 12-18 months, but I think this platform is one that we do have a lot of upside in."
As our interview concluded we asked him to project into the next ten years with the Xbox One, Xbox Live, and Compute.
"We believe strongly in the cloud, but when we started this effort from a console perspective, we knew we were going to take a bet on Live. We also realized that we have these great assets across the company, like Windows Azure, and we can leverage a lot of server power and a lot of regional assets that would be a great benefit to our console and our game development community. It seemed like a natural marriage, especially when you consider how we’re always trying to evolve our presence from a data center and server perspective.
"I think if you just look historically how Microsoft has viewed Xbox Live, you realize that it’s something in our DNA."
We'd like to thank Bruno for taking the time to talk to us about the upcoming Xbox Live Compute. The Xbox One launches in just over a month on November 22.