While you were busy running along walls and throwing missiles back at your opponents during the Titanfall beta, countless data centers across the world were making sure that each AI-controlled Titan bodyguard had your back. Much of the frenetic action in Respawn Entertainment's debut game rests on one thing: Microsoft's Azure cloud infrastructure.
Up until last November, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's baby was mostly used for business applications, like virtualization and acting as an enterprise-level email host. With the Xbox One, though, the company opened up its global server farms to game developers, giving them access to more computing power than could reasonably be stuffed into a $500 game console. Since the Xbox One's debut, Microsoft has been crowing about how Azure would let designers create gaming experiences players have never seen before. Now it's time for the product to speak for itself.
With Tuesday's release of the online-multiplayer-only Titanfall, Redmond's gamble takes center stage. Players are no doubt concerned about the game's stability at launch. With one look at the problems that plagued Diablo III, SimCity and Battlefield 4, consumer skepticism is easy to understand. The folks behind Titanfall believe they've got a not-so-secret weapon to circumvent the foibles those games endured, or are still enduring, in Microsoft's server infrastructure. It's been in place and running pretty successfully since 2011.
Respawn engineer Jon Shiring says that since the beta ended, some skeptical devs have already changed their minds about the feasibility of using Azure for the parts of a game traditionally handled by a user's console or PC. In Titanfall's case, that largely includes artificial-intelligence-powered teammates.
"Back when we started talking to Microsoft about it, everyone thought it was kind of crazy and a lot of other publishers were terrified of even doing it," Shiring says. "I've heard that since our beta ended, they've been pounding down the doors at Microsoft because they're realizing that it really is a real thing right now."
Because Titanfall's advanced AI is handled by the Azure servers, your Xbox's or PC's innards can be used to achieve more detailed graphics and the game's silky-smooth frame rate. The Titan bodyguards, dropships and legions of AI-controlled combatants are essentially free from a processing-power standpoint. Without Redmond's cloud, it's highly likely that Titanfall's six-versus-six player limit would be painfully apparent. Since these features live on remote servers, though, making sure they seamlessly appear in-game is paramount.
Azure's regional data centers address this by providing a clean, semi-local connection point between your console and the server where it connects. Naturally, the lower your ping is, the better; most PC gamers try to select servers that have a ping of 100ms or less. Shiring tells us that when Respawn's offices in Los Angeles connect to the Azure data center in San Francisco, the average ping is 19ms to 20ms. "We're talking barely more than one rendering frame to get a message to the server and back again, which is outstanding," he says.
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