Wind the clock back to 2013 and you’d find a new appreciation for digital clocks. However, once you’d got over the irritation of winding a clock back some 1500+ days, and you’ve taken care of important business, you might find you have a bit of time to check out then-current gaming news. What you’d find is Microsoft boisterously declaring that the “power of the cloud” would revolutionise gaming. Unlimited CPU power, seamless, persistent worlds, a genuine ‘game changer’.
Of course, you know what happened next. Titanfall had some dim-witted AI grunts that acted as fodder for even the most inept of gamers to score some points. Forza gathered a bit of data, and stuck names from your friends list over the top of your rival cars. Crackdown shouldered the responsibility for finally delivering on the promise, but was ungraciously delayed and we still don’t know if or when that will deliver. The world told Microsoft to stop talking until they had something to show, and eventually Microsoft stopped talking about the cloud entirely.
If not even Microsoft show any excitement about the “power of the cloud” any more, it is no wonder everyone else has moved on too. Here is where things get interesting though; they’re right on the verge of delivering it in spades. Sea of Thieves releases on 20 March 2018 and the whole game is only possible thanks to the fabled Cloud.
Sea of Thieves? Yarrrr matey, the social pirate extravaganza. Loads of us have had the opportunity to play it, but by-and-large everyone is so focused on the beauty and the booty that nobody has really paid much attention to the tech that pins it all together. Just about everyone remarks on the graphics and physics of the titular Sea, but very few people even question where the physics calculations are run. Hint: The waves are shared with other players, and your Xbox isn’t responsible for any of them.
Just about everyone remarks on the graphics and physics of the titular Sea, but very few people even question where the physics calculations are run.
The Cloud is responsible for more than just making waves too. Rare have spoken about how they’ve deliberately designed the game so that players encounter fellow industrious, galivanting pirate-types approximately every 20 minutes. Most people that have played the game will be able to appreciate just how fundamental these player encounters are to the whole experience, but nobody has spoken about how Rare can realistically control and achieve this in an ocean of wild, unpredictable player behaviour. So if the waters aren’t clear enough; players and ships are seamlessly connected in a way made possible by the cloud.
Here’s another tidbit of information you might have missed altogether; Your pirate in Sea of Thieves ages. I was personally surprised and pleased to discover this feature in the latest stress test. Last time around I begrudgingly selected a pirate from Rare’s “Infinite Pirate Generator” carousel of randomly generated bilge rats, whilst wishing I could make my own. I settled on a large fat chap with a quite mischievous expression, and sold myself a backstory that his heart was in the right place to become a pirate legend, but he had a real weakness for cheese. Yes, I’m the kind of player that needs to assign a vague backstory to any character I create. Sue me.
When I logged on this week, my pirate was still entirely recognisable…. but he’d changed significantly. Significantly, to the tune of about 40 years. He still has the same hook and peg, the same scars, the same rolls of back fat, the same mischievous expression. The hair is gone though, he’s picked up some wrinkles, and he generally looks spent. The fact that the game has an ageing mechanic is something of a justification for the controversial Infinite Pirate Generator, but that isn’t what this article is about. This article is about the cloud, and one harsh truth about the life story of my fat pirate speaks to that. He is no Pirate Legend; the tapestry of his life is dominated by a vast emptiness. He’s not lazy (not in the backstory I’ve given him anyway), he achieved nothing for a very valid reason: The game wasn’t actually available between beta sessions. He’s aged those 40 years without me even logging on; growing old thanks to the power of the cloud. I don’t know what else happens while I’m away, so I’ll assume he mostly ate cheese. One thing Microsoft promised from the off was that the cloud would deliver persistent world gaming. Ageing is a big hint that Sea of Thieves delivers exactly that, and makes me wonder how I can leave my mark.
The last point is a bit less glamourous. A note from Rare about the nature of the scale tests, wherein they warn that as part of those tests, they will be deliberately taking some servers offline. Not to implement fixes, or just as a standard beta disclaimer; They’re shutting off servers to prove that the service is resilient enough to pick up the slack and deliver the quality of experience players expect. I hear arguments that “dedicated servers aren’t new!”, but this level of uptime and quality of experience takes more than dedicated servers. It takes the power of that cloud we’ve all derided.
Of course all of the technology, proof, and delicately roasted crow will amount to nothing if Sea of Thieves isn’t a great game, and can’t hold the attention of players. Every pirate knows that dead men tell no tales, and dead games tell even less. Even if Sea of Thieves becomes Pirate Legend, Microsoft need to deliver more to truly justify their previous claims, and Crackdown 3 is next up to bat…