Dedication's What You Need

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If you want to be the best, you need to be dedicated. There used to be a song about that, but we've forgotten the words and most of you are probably too young to remember it anyway. When it comes to video gaming, dedication is best too -- and that's what you get with Xbox One's custom server hardware.

One of the small things hidden away in Xbox One's massive list of tech specs covers what happens when you decide to play a game online against other less polite human beings. For this new generation of video game console, Microsoft has gone down the dedicated server route for every single online game that launches on Xbox One. This is a big thing.

Developers of all Xbox One games can access Microsoft's servers for nothing, freeing them from having to pay for and maintain their own multiplayer hardware.

On a technical level, this is powered by Microsoft's existing Azure web platform. Azure's been providing cloud-based servers and technology for years, offering a simple, scalable way to integrate cloud features with video games, and enhancing the experience for everyone who takes their Xbox One online.

Azure's globe-spanning reach means that when a new game launches and everyone's online at one minute past midnight having it with each other, the increased server load can be catered for by simply scaling up the resources. Online performance won't be limited by developers not having enough servers to cope with day one demand any more, a change that ought to put an end to the reliability nightmares that have dogged the launches of recent games like Grand Theft Auto Online.


Advantage Nobody

For most people, the move to playing on dedicated servers will be most obvious when it comes to reducing the modern-day spectre of lag. The dedicated hosting system will help level the playing field when playing online, as the experience will no longer be ruined to a significant extent should one player have a bad or slow connection. The server handles the load all on its own, which is completely different from the way the peer-to-peer system most commonly used to organise online play in Xbox 360 operates.

In the P2P model, one user usually acts as the host. And when one person is the host, they tend to have an advantage. Not just because they can set the rules, but because their system is the one running the simulation and telling all the others what's happening -- meaning the host has a smoother play experience with zero latency that's unhindered by dodgy ping times and server to-ing and fro-ing.

In this old P2P environment, the ping times of everyone are limited to those of the slowest connected player, so if there's some poor kid on a dodgy rural 1Mb line with awful NAT settings buggering everything up, he's dragging the experience down for everyone and will usually end up getting kicked from the game. With a centralised, dedicated server managing the core of the experience for everyone, that shouldn't happen.

Also, what happens when the host has had enough and wants to cry off to bed and/or telly? Everyone has to reconnect and find another party. That's no fun. It ruins the bonding experience. Plus having an external host will cut down on cheating and the shameful act of hosts quitting matches to protect their precious stats.

It should also mean servers can host larger numbers of players, opening up the prospect of properly massive massively multiplayer games on Microsoft's new console. Or, more likely, Halo matches with 128 players all crammed into the same basement of a spaceship. Bet you can't wait.


Keepy Uppy

There's also the concept of future game support to think about. Not everyone can afford or be bothered buying the latest version of each new game every year. It's rather costly for Electronic Arts, Activision and the rest to provide and maintain their own servers for their games too, so we often see sad and sorry scenarios where servers for some less popular or older online titles are closed -- killing the connected parts of the game for ever.

Because Microsoft is doing the hosting, and Microsoft is Microsoft, the hosts ought to scale and stay live. If only three people end up playing next year's Need for Speed in the year 2019, the server should still be there. It'll scale itself down to just a few MB in some obscure Microsoft data centre, but should remain available, giving online games a bit more security against closure.

And as well as gaming improvements, there's one other modern twist to having a bit of Microsoft's server farm to call your own. All of your downloaded games and achievements are saved to the cloud, so you can hot-console from one machine to another without any disruption.

Of course, none of this is particularly new. PC gamers are sighing that once again the console kids are getting excited about features they've had for decades. Having a dedicated server to run your Quake III PC deathmatches on was the ultimate luxury back in the 1990s; now it's finally time for the lounge massive to catch up with the advantages this can bring.