Microsoft: Games need the cloud to prepare for a cross-platform future
Not about one platform coming out on top
'The cloud' may just seem like the latest industry buzzword for some, but for many developers around the globe, building cloud capabilities into their titles is already a reality.
For studios unaware of the opportunities it represents, however, Rob Fraser's talk at the latest LAUNCH conference in Birmingham served as an education.
Indeed, Fraser - who serves as Microsoft's CTO of cloud services in the UK - was keen to point out that any developers not considering utilising the cloud in game are "missing a trick".
As well as enhancing play, he said, the cloud can also create differentiation, drive engagement and monetisation and establish entirely new business models.
Big meets little
"It can be useful for the little guy just as much as the big guy," said Fraser, claiming that it enables indie studios to access massive infrastructure and tools, while paying for only what they need for their specific project.
"The cloud is like [popular UK TV presenters] Ant & Dec," added Fraser. "You never get a device without cloud enhancement. You never see them apart!"
It's Fraser's belief that, while many of us may think of the cloud as a service for sharing save data across devices, there are actually more innovative uses which impact directly upon gameplay and device performance.
For instance, some developers have begun to experiment with storing AI data in the cloud, freeing the processing power of the device for presentation and graphics.
UK dev Mediatonic, he added, has even used data stored in the cloud to adjust gameplay difficulty on the fly in response to the ability and behaviour of its customers.
Fraser also took time to explore more traditional uses of online data, such as user data collection and analytics.
He focused much time on Microsoft's Windows Azure service – a cloud storage and processing facility that's working for several indie developers already, as well as providing support for massive in-house projects, such as Halo 4's multiplayer servers and the TrueSkill matchmaking system on Xbox Live.
Azure is being touted as a way for developers to store data across almost any platform, from Windows 8 and Windows Phone, to iOS and Android.
This creates opportunities for shared gameplay experiences across devices which don't even share the same OS - Xbox SmartGlass a prime example of this type of cloud service.
The suggestion is, the future will see more games with multiple gameplay styles spread across different devices. For example, players might take on a racing game with the main gameplay on their TV and various customisation and setup tools on your tablet or phone.
New ways to play
To support this, Fraser said Microsoft has built massive data centres in shipping containers containing up to 5,000 servers in each.
The service is designed to be flexible for different developer needs, allowing companies to pay only for how much space they require or set a data cap to avoid unexpected bills. Fraser cited J.K.Rowling's Pottermore website as a successful example of this service in action.
But while it's Microsoft view that "data is critical for free-to-play monetisation", critics will point out the company is yet to have a runaway success with free-to-play gaming, or even support it properly on the Xbox platform.
Speculation already suggests we can expect to see these business models catered for in the firm's next console, picking up on the direction Microsoft has already taken with its mobile platform.
Indeed, it is Fraser's belief that enabling game experiences to cross from console to mobile, tablet and browser is the future, and the ultimate goal to increase user engagement.
The cloud is the tool which will enable the data sharing required for these new ways to play games, added Fraser, suggesting the future won't be about the domination of mobile, console or PC, but rather a wider reaching approach to gameplay that spans across all of our devices.
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