It’s pretty well known that the communities that surround the MOBA genre, whether it be the original DOTA or the newer incarnations such as DOTA2, League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth, are spectacularly hostile. Indeed in the beginning when DOTA was just a custom application many people relied on 3rd party ban services, many of which relied on user generated lists to filter out bad people. Of course these being user generated led to a lovely hate cycle where people would simply ban whoever they felt like. Once you were past that barrier it didn’t get much better with any requests for help or misunderstanding of certain mechanics usually earning you a place on those lists. It was for this reason that many of us just stopped playing the original DOTA, the community around it was just horrifically toxic.
There was hope that the newer entries into the MOBA scene would help to alleviate this somewhat as a fresh platform would give the community a chance to reinvent itself. Unfortunately, at least in my experience on HoN (I only played 3~4 games of LoL), the same toxic community sprouted once again and I found myself wondering why I was bothering. DOTA2 started out the same way with my first few games being marred by similar experiences but there was enough to the game that kept me coming back and something strange started to happen: the people I was playing with were becoming infinitely better. Not just in terms of skill but in terms of being productive players, those with an active interest in helping everyone out and giving solid criticism on improving their play.
Initially most of that was due to me moving up the skill brackets however there was still a noticeable amount of toxicity even at the highest skill levels. What really made the change however was the introduction of communication bans, a soft ban mechanism that prevents a player from communicating directly with their team, limiting them to canned responses and map pings. Whilst the first week or two were marred with issues surrounding the system, although I do bet a few “issues” were people thinking they were in the right for abusing everyone, soon after the quality of my in game experience improved dramatically. It’s even got to the point where I’ve had people apologize for losing their cool when it’s pointed out to them something which has just never happened to me before in an online game.
It was then interesting to read about Microsoft’s new reputation system that they’ll be introducing with the Xbox One. Essentially there’s 3 levels of reputation: “good players” which compromise most of the gaming community, “needs attention” a kind of warning zone that tells you that you’re not the saint your mother says you are and finally “avoid me” which is pretty self explanatory. It’s driven by an underlying score that centers on community feedback so a group of jerks can’t instantly drop you to avoid me nor can you simply avoid a game for a couple months and have it reset on you. Additionally there’s a kind of credibility score attached to each player so those who report well are given more weight than those who report anyone and everyone who looks at them the wrong way.
Considering my experience with the similar system in DOTA2 I have pretty high hopes for the Xbox One’s reputation system to go a fair way to improving the online experience on Xbox Live. Sure it won’t be perfect, no system ever is, but you’d be surprised how quickly people will change their behavior when they get hit with something that marks them as being a negative impact on the community. There will always be those who enjoy nothing more than making everyone else’s online life miserable but at least they’ll quickly descend into an area where they can play with like minded individuals. That avoid me hell, akin to low priority in DOTA2, is a place that no one likes to be in for long and many are happy to pay the price of being a nice person in order to get out of it.
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.
In the middle of last year I commented on some rumours that were circling around the Internet about how Xbox Live was coming to Windows 8 and along with it the ability to play some Xbox titles. The idea would have seemed to come out of left field for a lot of people as there’s no real incentive to enable such functionality (especially considering just how damn hard it would be to emulate the Xbox processor) but considering it alongside the Three Screens and a cloud idea it was just another step along the platform unification path. Since then however I hadn’t seen much more movement on the idea and instead figured that eventually everything would be united under the WinRT platform and was waiting to see an announcement to that effect.
The lion’s share of the titles that will be released on the Windows 8 platform are from Microsoft Studios with a couple big name developers like Rovio and Gameloft joining in the party. All of the first wave of titles will be playable on any Windows 8 platform and a few of them (most notably the relatively simple titles like Solitaire and some word games) will stretch onto Windows Phone 8 with things like resuming games that you started on another platform. Looking at the list of titles I can’t help but notice the common thread among them and I’m not quite sure to make of it.
For many of the third party titles its quite obvious that their release on Windows 8 (ostensibly on WinRT) is just yet another platform for them to have their product on. Angry Birds, for instance, seems to make it a point of pride that they’re on pretty much every platform imaginable and the fact that they’re on Windows 8 really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Indeed quite a lot of them are already multi-platform titles that cut their teeth on one mobile platform or another and realistically their move onto the Xbox (and from there to Windows 8) will just be another string in their bow. I guess what I’m getting at is that many of these titles already had the hard work of getting ports working done for them and it’s less indicative of how flexible the underlying WinRT platform really is.
Indeed the most innovative uses of WinRT come from the first party Microsoft titles which, whilst being unfortunately bland, do show what a truly agnostic application is capable of. They all feature a pause/resume function that works across platforms, ability to work with both touch interfaces as well as traditional mouse and keyboards and lastly some of them feature cross platform competitive play. It’s unfortunate that the third party developers didn’t look to take advantage of these capabilities but I can understand why they didn’t for these first wave of games; the investment would be too high for the potential pay off.
What I think really needs to be done is to bring the WinRT platform to the Xbox360 via a system update. Whilst its all well and good to have some Xbox titles ported to Windows 8 its really only a stopgap solution to bringing a unified platform to all of the three screens. Right now the only platform that’s lacking some form WinRT is the TV screen and that could be remedied via the Xbox. Whether that comes in the current generation or in Durango though will have to remain to be seen but it would be a great misstep from Microsoft to ignore the fact that the final piece of the puzzle is WinRT in the living room.
Microsoft really is onto something with the unified experience between all their available platforms and they’re really not that far off achieving it. Whilst it will take a while for third party developers to come out with apps that take advantage of the platform the sooner that it’s available across all three screens the sooner those apps will come. This first wave of games from Xbox live gives us a tantalizing little glance of what an unified platform could bring to us and hopefully subsequent waves take inspiration from what Microsoft has been able to do and integrate that into future releases.
I love me some Sony products but I’m under no delusion that their user experience can be, how can I put this, fantastically crap sometimes. For the most part their products are technologically brilliant (both the PS3 and the DSC-HX5V that I have fit that category) but the user experience outside that usually leaves something to be desired. This isn’t for a lack of trying however as Sony has shown that they’re listening to their customers, albeit only after they’ve nagged about it for years before hand. After spinning up my PS3 again for the first time in a couple months to start chipping away at the backlog of console games that I have I feel like Sony needs another round of nagging in order to improve the current user experience.
The contrast between Sony’s and Microsoft’s way of doing consoles couldn’t be more stark. Microsoft focused heavily on the online component of the Xbox and whilst there might be a cost barrier associated with accessing it Xbox Live still remains as the most active online gaming networks to date. Sony on the other hand left the access free to all to begin with and has only recently begun experimenting with paid access (the jury is still out on how successful that’s been). One of the most notable differences though is the updating process, major source of tension for PS3 owners worldwide.
As I sat down to play my copy of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Fortune I first greeted with the “A system update is required” message in the top right hand corner of my TV. Since I wasn’t really planning to go online with this one just yet I figured I could ignore that and just get to playing the game. Not so unfortunately as it has been so long since I last updated that Uncharted 3 required an update to be applied before I could play it. Fair enough I thought and 15 mins later I was all updated and ready to go. Unfortunately the game itself also had an update, pushing back my game time by another 5 minutes or so. This might not seem like a lot of time (and I know, #firstworldproblems) but the time taken was almost enough for me not to bother at all, and this isn’t the first time it has happened either.
Nearly every time I go to play my PS3 there is yet another update that needs to be downloaded either for me to get online or to play the game that I’m interested in playing. My Xbox on the other hand rarely has updates, indeed I believe there’s been a grand total of 1 since the last time I used it. Both of these approaches have their advantages and disadvantages but Sony’s way of doing it seems to be directly at odds with the primary use case for their device, something which doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. In fact I think there’s a really easy way to reduce that time-to-play lag to zero and it’s nothing radical at all.
Do the updates while the PS3 is turned off or not in use.
Right now the downloading of updates is a manual process, requiring you to go in and agree to the terms and conditions before it will start the downloads. Now I can understand why some people wouldn’t want automatic updating (and that’s perfectly valid) so there will have to be an option to turn it off. Otherwise it should be relatively simple to periodically boot the system into a low power mode and download the latest patches for both system and games that have been played on it. If such a low power mode isn’t possible then scheduling a full system boot at a certain time to perform the same actions would be sufficient. Then you can either have the user choose to automatically install them or keep the process as is from there on, significantly reducing the time-to-play lag.
I have no doubt that this is a common complaint amongst many PS3 users, especially since it’s become the target of Internet satire. Implementing a change like this would go a long way to making the PS3 user base a lot happier, especially for those of us who don’t use it regularly. There’s also a myriad of other things Sony could do as well but considering how long it took them to implement XMB access in games I figure it’s best to work on the most common issue first before we get caught up in issue paralysis. I doubt this blog post will inspire Sony to make the change but I’m hopeful that if enough people start asking for it then one day we might see it done.