Microsoft Finally Gains a Point Against Sony
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As Gamescon rages on in Germany, the Internet responds with its usual mixture of excitement and aggression. Flame wars kindled by brand loyalty and misinformation make the comment sections after any article unreadable. But what are people getting up in arms about this time?

Well, it seems that Microsoft has gained some actual ground and won some favor, and not just by reversing a previously reviled policy. This time, it’s made dedicated servers in Call of Duty exclusive to its console. Is that something gamers care about, and is it too late in the game to matter?

If you ask a hardcore fan of shooters, you’ll probably be told that dedicated servers matter immensely. In the current era of console gaming, we rely primarily on peer-to-peer hosting. This is why you see messages along the lines of “acquiring new host” so frequently. The person whose console was serving as a relay for all of the information communicated during the game is now gone.

But before he went, he benefited from the scourge known as “host advantage.” Essentially, his latency was non-existent, because he only needed to communicate with his own console. For everyone else, they had to send data through his console for their inputs to register in game, relying on it heavily, regardless of the host console’s connection speed. As a result, a host with super low latency is be able to mercilessly slaughter people who have anywhere from an average experience to a choppy, unplayable one. The video below gives a better visual representation of what I am talking about.

The other issue with peer-to-peer hosting is that it facilitates easy modding. With the host server sitting in your living room, you have access to a plethora of unfair advantages. With the host server residing on, say, the Azure server, you can be certain that you will get the ideal experience every single time. And faster matchmaking, at that.

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So, it would seem that the obvious choice for Sony would be to start offering dedicated servers to developers. Unfortunately, the possibility may not be present in the current state of Sony’s infrastructure. In an interview with EuroGamer, Executive Producer Mark Rubin said that the only reason dedicated servers would be possible on the Xbox One is because that its cloud was the sole purpose of Thunderhead —a subset of Microsoft’s powerful Azure.

Microsoft’s Azure server farm is among the largest in the world, rivaled only by Google in terms of size and availability. Of that impressive network, 300,000 servers will be used exclusively for Thunderhead. That fact may be substantial enough to put more developers at ease and draw their focus towards Microsoft.

While Sony has the ability to run a cloud service of its own, the company can’t boast the same levels of reliability or efficiency that Microsoft can with Azure.

The other issue Microsoft resolves with its Azure server is the sometimes-infeasible cost for developers to set up dedicated servers around the globe. If you need any proof of how much of an obstruction this can actually be, look at how long it took South America to get its own League of Legends server. That’s keeping in mind that a ridiculously large amount of South Americans play League. If that weren’t the case, Riot probably wouldn’t have even bothered.

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Of course, this information doesn’t mean much to your average gamer, who probably won’t even hear about these advantages. Not unless Microsoft markets the Xbox Live cloud aggressively to shooter fans, touting it as the edge needed for a definitive multiplayer experience. If that becomes the general consensus, developers will be forced to respond to consumer demand. People want dedicated servers, and Xbox offers the most developer-friendly ones.

Whether or not this announcement makes a difference in early consoles sales is hard to say. But in the long run, it won’t be the fanboys that decide the console’s fate. If Call of Duty is the first of a trend, and the Xbox One can be championed over the Wii U and the PS4 as the ultimate multiplayer experience, a lot of consumers will be enticed. And nothing entices developers more than consumers. And nothing entices the rest of us more than developers.

It’s a volatile time for the consoles, and dedicated servers are going to be a huge part of the next-gen. I’m just curious to see how it’ll all play out.

Benjamin Maltbie
Benjamin Maltbie
@BenjaminMaltbie

Contributing Writer
Date: 08/22/2013

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