After spending a week deep in the bowels of Microsoft’s premier tech conference and writing about them breathlessly for Lifehacker Australia you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m something of a Microsoft shill. It’s true that I think the direction they’re going in for their infrastructure products is pretty spectacular and the excitement for those developments is genuine. However if you’ve been here for a while you’ll know that I’m also among their harshest critics, especially when they do something that drastically out of line with my expectations as one of their consumers. However I believe in giving credit where its due and a recent PA Report article has brought Microsoft’s credentials in one area into question when they honestly shouldn’t be.
The article I’m referring to is this one:
I’m worried that there are going to be a few million consoles trying to dial into the home servers on Christmas morning, about the time when a mass of people begin to download new games through Microsoft’s servers. Remember, every game will be available digitally day and date of the retail version, so you’re going to see a spike in the number of people who buy their Xbox One games online.
I’m worried about what happens when that new Halo or Call of Duty is released and the system is stressed well above normal operating conditions. If their system falls, no matter how good our Internet connections, we won’t be able to play games.
Taken at face value this appears to be a fair comment. We can all remember times when the Xbox Live service came down in a screaming heap, usually around christmas time or even when a large release happened. Indeed even doing a quick Google search reveals there’s been a couple of outages in recent memory although digging deeper into them reveals that it was usually part of routine maintenance and only affected small groups of people at a time. With all the other criticism that’s being levelled at Microsoft of late (most of which I believe is completely valid) it’s not unreasonable to question their ability to keep a service of this scale running.
However as the title of this post alludes to I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.
The picture shown above is from the Windows Azure Internals session by Mark Russinovich which I attended last week at TechEd North America. It details the current infrastructure that underpins the Windows Azure platform which powers all of Microsoft’s sites including the Xbox Live service. If you have a look at the rest of the slides from the presentation you’ll see how far that architecture has come since they first introduced it 5 years ago when the over-subscription rates were much, much higher for the entire Azure stack. What this meant was that when something big happened the network simply couldn’t handle it and caved under the pressure. With this current generation of the Azure infrastructure however it’s far less oversubscribed and has several orders of magnitude more servers behind it. With that in mind it’s far less likely that Microsoft will struggle to service large spikes like they have done in the past as the capacity they have on tap is just phenomenal.
Of course this doesn’t alleviate the issues with the always/often on DRM or the myriad of other issues that people are criticizing the XboxOne for but it should show you that worrying about Microsoft’s ability to run a reliable service shouldn’t be one of them. Of course I’m just approaching this from an infrastructure point of view and it’s entirely possible for the Xbox Live system to have some systemic issue that will cause it to fail no matter how much hardware they throw at it. I’m not too concerned about that however as Microsoft isn’t your run of the mill startup who’s just learning how to scale.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how right or wrong I am.
I’m a really, really big fan of nearly every Blizzard game that’s come out over the past 2 decades. Their dedication to releasing games when they’re done, whilst irritating to the extreme sometimes, means that they consistently deliver highly polished titles. They’re also extremely dedicated to their fans being deeply involved in the communities that surround their games, taking their suggestions and criticisms and using them to improve their games. I’ve gladly parted with many of my hard earned dollars for the privilege of enjoying their games, and I’ve gladly planned to part with a whole lot more in the coming months.
The next title that’s gearing up to part me with a good chunk of change is Diablo III, the next instalment in the Diablo series that I’ve been playing ever since its original release. The game play videos have captivated me and the continuation of the story that’s been on hiatus for over 11 years was more than enough to sell me on it long ago. I’m also very interested in some of the latest developments like the real money auction house which will allow players to sell in game items for cold hard cash. Sure it might look like a game breaking money grab but I’ve got every confidence that Blizzard knows what they’re doing and the actual impact on the every day game play will be minimal.
What does give me the shits however, is the price that we all have to pay as part of it.
Diablo 1 and 2 were, as many Blizzard games were, long time favourites because of their awesome multi-player experience, in particular the LAN play. Of course back in those days where Internet connections were no where near as good as they are today LAN play was critical, but today it’s much less of an issue. However there are still occasions where you might be without an Internet connection and still want to play the games you purchased, say when you’re moving to a new house or travelling. StarCraft II skirted around this requirement by allowing you to login as a guest when offline, which is an ok solution but a far cry from what it used to be. As it turns out Diablo III won’t even be offering any kind of offline play at all, requiring players to be constantly connected to the Internet:
Executive vice president of game design Rob Pardo notes that the wealth of improvements and features Diablo 3 brings to Battle.net necessitate the always-online requirement. Specific additions that he refers to include:
While Pardo recognizes that people sometimes want or need to play offline (such as internet outages, or playing on a laptop during an airplane flight), he notes that the increased security, plus benefits like the above, outweigh those other concerns. “I want to play Diablo 3 on my laptop in a plane, but, well, there are other games to play for times like that.”
Now this isn’t the first time a game developer has implemented an always online DRM system. Ubisoft implemented such a system with Assassin’s Creed II and the results weren’t pretty, with the game instantly booting you out the second it couldn’t communicate with Ubisoft’s DRM servers. This meant that issues on either the customer’s or Ubisoft’s end could trigger a swift boot out, losing all your progress since the last auto-save point (which could be quite a bit of game time). Initially Ubisoft had planned to roll this out to all their games but has since taken a more lax approach with the only other title to receive such restrictive DRM being Driver: San Francisco.
Blizzard, for what it’s worth, has to put this kind of DRM into the game should they wish to implement features like the real money auction house. Honestly though I thought they had this problem all sorted with the Open/Closed Battle.net system¹ they had in Diablo 2 which worked quite well. The same system could have been integrated into Diablo 3 without too much hassle, making sure that the real money auction house wasn’t a hotbed for exploiters. Sadly this seems to be a trend for many larger game publishers and there are no signs of them changing their behaviour any time soon.
As someone who’s lived with patchy Internet for many years I can attest to how irritating it can be if a game drops you out the second you lose your connection. I understand why it happens in online game modes but for a game that will (hopefully) have a great single player as its predecessors did my Internet connection shouldn’t have to matter at all. I gladly made the trade off back in Diablo 2 to play on the Open Battle.net because my connection was tenuous at the best of times and I’d gladly do the same with Diablo III should I be given the option (and find myself without Internet). Blizzard seems committed to this always online idea however, so I’m not hopeful that it will change.
Now usually I’d just vote with my wallet in this case, either buying another version of the game that didn’t require an Internet connection (like a console version) or just abstaining from it altogether. Problem here is that I don’t want to miss this release from Blizzard yet I don’t want to encourage them to continue down this restrictive DRM path. In the end I’ll probably end up buying it anyway but I’m not going to be as happy with it as I would’ve been otherwise.
DRM only hurts your honest customers and whilst I’m sure that Blizzard won’t suffer because of the DRM in Diablo III it’s definitely not doing them any favours. It’s worse than Ubisoft’s case as Blizzard has managed to work around these problems before, as recently as their latest release. It won’t take the crackers long to get passed it either thereby negating a good chunk of the benefits that Blizzard is spruiking. Hopefully they’ll provide some sort of compromise like that did for StarCraft II, but with the release date coming up fast I wouldn’t be holding your breath for it.
¹For the uninitiated the “open” Battle.net let you use characters that had been created offline. It was very well known that these characters could be hacked, items duplicated and game mechanics exploited when not tethered to Blizzard’s servers. The closed Battle.net kept all characters on their servers, ensuring that hacked items and characters wouldn’t be persistent in the game.