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Microsoft aims to eliminate game patches with next-gen Xbox Live

The new Xbox Live Cloud Compute system could lead to games that never need to patch or update--if developers embrace it.

The best part about playing a game that's always online: never wasting time waiting for a patch to download again. The worst part is trying to play a brand-new game--like SimCity or Diablo 3--that relies on online services, which tend to buckle when hundreds of thousands of players log in at once.

"Game launches are tough, man" said Microsoft's John Bruno while giving a talk during GDC Next. "Baaaad stuff happens."

Microsoft doubles down on multiplayer

But that might be a thing of the past. Bruno--and, by extension, Microsoft--was in Los Angeles this week talking up Xbox Live Cloud Compute, the formal name of Microsoft's now-infamous global network of remote servers that can be tapped by the upcoming Xbox One.

Bruno works as Lead Program Manager on Xbox Live, and he's quick to point out that you can disconnect your Xbox One console from the network if you want to--Microsoft was quick to allow for that after the public outcry that followed their E3 announcement that the Xbox One was designed to be online all the time--but some next-gen games will be handicapped if you don't allow them to connect to Microsoft's Xbox Live servers.

Forza 5 and Titanfall are the two most obvious examples--Forza downloads AI profiles for your opponents that are based on other players' driving habits, while Titanfall taps the extra computational horsepower available on the Xbox Live servers to fill multiplayer games with AI-controlled enemies. But that's just the beginning--Xbox Live allows developers to create dedicated servers, make changes or push updates to the portions of their game that is hosted online without bothering the player.

"Investing in dedicated servers is expensive, and can draw resources away from development," said Bruno. "We're focused on helping you [developers] make better online experiences because we want to be the best place to play multiplayer."

That's a double-edged sword for players: you could conceivably never have to worry about wasting time updating or patching your Xbox games again--at least, the portions that are played online, like multiplayer arenas and massively multiplayer worlds--but you also lose some control over your games.

If you like a particular multiplayer map and the developers change it, for example, you can't just play the old version you love with like-minded players, or stay offline and play with AI opponents--you'll have to log into the Xbox Live servers and play the new version. Worse, since you no longer have to remain connected to Xbox Live there's no guarantee that every player will do so, and developers are unlikely to build games that take full advantage of a network of high-powered servers that some of their players can't--or won't--access.

But having the Xbox Live Cloud Compute network in place allows developers to experiment with online gaming without investing in their own servers, so we're likely to see more interesting cross-platform games coming to Microsoft hardware in the near future. We've written previously about how Microsoft squandered its potential for creating games that can be played across PC, home console, tablet and phone, but the company seems to be (slowly) moving to embrace that potential. According to Bruno, games running on Xbox Live Cloud Compute servers can conceivably be connected to from a variety of devices, including non-Microsoft platforms like Android, iOS and Ouya. Whether or not Microsoft will afford games that level of cross-platform access remains to be seen.


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