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Titanfall: time to perform for Xbox One and Azure

Titanfall: time to perform for Xbox One and Azure

Fri 14 Mar 2014 7:52am GMT / 3:52am EDT / 12:52am PDT
Online

Respawn is Microsoft's great hope - and launch can't be mired in tech issues

It's no exaggeration to say that this is the biggest week for Microsoft's gaming hopes since the launch of Xbox One late last year. Lagging behind sales of Sony's PS4 far more significantly than the company would have hoped, the console has one opportunity to redress the imbalance before the gap really starts to grow. That opportunity is EA's Titanfall. Delivered up to critical acclaim from a studio whose pedigree includes turning Call of Duty into the extraordinary multiplayer-driven blockbuster we know today, it looks in most respects like a perfectly timed and positioned exclusive launch for the Xbox One.

It's big, bombastic and loud, targeting the early-adopter market with a laser-like focus. Military and science fiction themes intermesh perfectly, a direct route to the heart of any gamer who grew up on illicit underage viewings of Jim Cameron's Aliens. It looks great regardless of any concerns over Xbox One's graphical prowess, plays superbly and, while its lack of a compelling single-player mode might deflate its ambitions to become a mass-market hit on the scale of Call of Duty, that's not what Microsoft needs right now. What Microsoft needs right now is a great reason for people who are increasingly turning their eyes towards Sony's offering to put Xbox One back on the top of their shopping lists instead. That's a smaller market than Call of Duty requires for its success (and of course, publishers EA would love a Call of Duty level of success, but forfeited that possibility when they accepted Microsoft's exclusivity dollars), but strategically, a vital one right now.

In this regard, Titanfall's multiplayer focus will work to Microsoft's advantage, as long as the game builds some decent market traction (which it will). It's easy to look at single player titles early in a console's lifespan and think, "that looks great but I can just play it later on, when it's cheaper". I'm personally resigned to the average age of my currently-playing pile being around 12 months or more (have you guys heard of this Last of Us game? It's really good!), so the notion of hanging on for a while before buying a new console and sampling its single-player delights doesn't bother me in the slightest.

"Sentiment among core gamers is definitely running against Microsoft right now, and one great multiplayer game may not be enough for very many consumers..."

Multiplayer hits, though, confer special advantages to the platform holder. You need to play a multiplayer game now, when your friends are into it - next month they might have moved on, and you'll be stuck with the unedifying prospect of endless match-ups with squeaky-voiced kids who seem more interested in questioning your sexual preferences than in shooting the other team. If Titanfall becomes the big deal that Microsoft and EA hope for, and early reviews suggest, then you'll need to play it right away rather than putting it off for a few months down the line. It should, by rights, drive a big surge in Xbox One sales as a consequence.

Of course, there are lots of potential counter-arguments included in that "by rights" statement. Sentiment among core gamers is definitely running against Microsoft right now, and one great multiplayer game may not be enough for very many consumers to overcome the combination of that sentiment, Xbox One's perceived technical disadvantage versus its rival, and the $100 price hike over the PS4. Next week's sales figures will show us a very interesting data point; just how much of a sales spike a seriously well-reviewed and hotly anticipated title can give to the Xbox One with its current market positioning, and thus, just how much resistance to purchase there is in the core market right now.

That's just next week, though. How about subsequent weeks? Can Titanfall drive a sustained uptick in Xbox One's fortunes? In theory, it could give the console a serious sales bump for a number of weeks, or even months, if it gathers momentum as the multiplayer game of choice over the medium term. Even for a game of Titanfall's apparent quality (I'm admittedly relying on reviews for this assessment, given that the Xbox One hasn't even made an appearance in my territory yet, let alone its flagship title), that's a pretty major challenge, but Respawn's credentials in this field are of course impeccable.

Unfortunately, there's a player in this equation whose credentials are far from impeccable, and that's EA. I'm prepared to defend EA to the hilt against some of the more unfair characterisations it often faces (worst company in America, my backside!), but the firm's incompetence at online launches and the provision of online services in general isn't really up for debate. The launch of the new Sim City was an unnecessary, embarrassing and utterly stupid debacle. Criticism of the launch of Battlefield 4 was more muted but voluminous nonetheless. Origin, at its very best, is a pale and ill-formed reflection of Steam in an unkind fairground mirror. Even EA's mobile games are hampered by clunky, slow, poorly-considered online service integration. The company is arguably not directly to blame for all of these failures, but the pattern is clear.

If Titanfall is hampered at launch by EA's online services, it will be absolutely disastrous - for the game, for EA and, let's not forget, for Xbox One. Broken matchmaking or unreliable servers will rapidly counteract much of the positive word of mouth for the title, docking its long tail and likely discouraging plenty of potential purchasers on the fence about a new console. Microsoft knows this, and it's noteworthy that Titanfall appears to rely heavily on the Microsoft Azure cloud architecture rather than EA's own servers. The cloud, of course, isn't magical - it's just a flexible, clever way of dynamically bringing server resources online as they're required, drawing on a huge pool of computing power that's allocated to other tasks and users when it's not being used for Titanfall. Implemented properly, it ought to smooth over many of the teething problems online games experience - it can easily create tens of thousands of server instances in the early days after launch, then scale back as the initial enthusiasm dies down to a steady level of demand.

"A stumble at this point, though, would bury Xbox One for its first six months on the market. I struggle to recall a software launch with quite so much riding upon it"

Of course, such services aren't unique to Microsoft, despite the company's endless harping about the wonders of the cloud during its promotion of Xbox One. If cloud services become a standard part of game architecture, and I think that's entirely likely and desirable for multiplayer titles in particular, then PS4 and PC games will undoubtedly use them in exactly the same way that Xbox One games do. Still, the power of the cloud has been a key Microsoft marketing line, and Titanfall will be the first test of that claim. That only multiplies the importance of the game. It's not just Microsoft's only chance to score a major win over Sony before competition heats back up in autumn; it's also a very, very public test of its claims about cloud-powered gaming. If this launch messes up technically, it will become a stick with which Xbox One is regularly beaten, no matter how good the game itself may be.

Microsoft knows it can't afford for that to happen, and there must have been nightmares in Redmond for months about the prospect of leaving such a vital online launch in the hands of EA, a company whose primary talents with regard to online launches include "botching them" and "really, really botching them". I don't doubt that Microsoft has devoted an enormous amount of its own engineering resource to working with Respawn on getting the Azure cloud integration working perfectly. Early signs suggest that this effort has paid off; let's hope that persists. The cloud is not a panacea; running bad server or match-making code on virtualised cloud servers just means you're messing up in a lot more places than before. Elegant and efficient server code running on a high-performance cloud service can still be marred by linking back to a poorly implemented network service like, say, EA's Origin. My low opinion of Origin is not an anomaly, by the way - it's notable that several consumer publications, including our sister-site Eurogamer, have demurred on giving the game a final score prior to the launch, so distrusting of EA's online track record are they. (It's also worth noting that I don't know for certain if Respawn's game actually uses Origin - if not, that's a pretty dramatic statement in itself.)

The importance of getting everything about this launch right, the technical aspects most of all, cannot be overstated. Xbox One desperately needs to counteract the increasingly dominant narrative of PS4's success and desirability. The only way it can do that is with superb exclusive software, and the only important exclusive on the horizon is Titanfall. A great launch and a solid first few weeks for Respawn's game will give Microsoft fresh energy and much-needed breathing room to consider their counterattack against Sony. A stumble at this point, though, would bury Xbox One for its first six months on the market. I struggle to recall a software launch with quite so much riding upon it. Titanfall may, in the final analysis, be aptly named.

11 Comments

Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments

305 389 1.3
Popular Comment
Titanfall is an MS exclusive rather than an Xbox one exclusive though - simultaneous launch on PC, and coming to 360 some time soon. How much that will affect it's benefits for the xbox one we'll just have to wait and see.

Posted:7 months ago

#1

Dan Tubb Investment manager, Edge Investment Management

26 132 5.1
Popular Comment
My low opinion of Origin is not an anomaly
Certainty not. I refuse to install Origin so effectively as a PC gamer I am cut off from any game that requires it. A quick glance at basically any forum discussion on Origin games and you will see several respondents saying the same (often in much more colorful language).

Obviously EAs appeal in the mass market is considerable and that is why they are a $9 billion company, but I wonder how large, and crucially how fast growing is that body of gamers whom have been alienated by past actions?

Posted:7 months ago

#2

Kevin Clark-Patterson Lecturer in Games Development, Lancaster and Morecambe College

294 27 0.1
If Titanfall was an Xbox One exclusive it would have been a system seller. As it is also on 360, why would existing owners want or feel the need to upgrade. I agree with what Cliffy B said the other day, until devs stop hedging their bets and focus solely on the new systems then they won’t get the uptake on the new software.

As it is on PC - there will be direct comparisons with fanboys saying how lame the Xbox version is in comparison, how low the frame rates are, resolution being sucky etc...I'm not hating on PC or bigging up Xbox but someone in M$ marketing screwed up.

Posted:7 months ago

#3

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,138 1,179 1.0
Revoking the access of players to their entire library of purchases without appeal, breaking privacy laws with their EULA in Germany, being generally very vague about collecting data from your computer and sending it to EA. Yes, Origin really worked hard for its reputation and doesn't seem customer focused at all.. Steam started out pretty much the same, but at some point Valve succeeded in communicating its users the ways in which Steam empowers them; while still restricting them more than ever before. Origin definitely needs an image campaign to restore trust.

If the servers of a game break on release, then that is not Origin's problem in my opinion. Origin is just a launcher, point of sale, authentication service, and online distribution service.

Posted:7 months ago

#4

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,593 1,448 0.9
(It's also worth noting that I don't know for certain if Respawn's game actually uses Origin - if not, that's a pretty dramatic statement in itself.)
Ah, yes, the lack of information regarding DRM. It's great being a PC gamer. *sigh*

Every digital retailer that stocks it is selling codes that have to be activated on Origin. So, even if it doesn't make full use of Origin, consumers are still going to have to deal with it as they download the 48gb of files (mostly uncompressed audio, apparently). Even installs from retail disc will no doubt install Origin.

Posted:7 months ago

#5

Craig Page Programmer

384 220 0.6
I hate Origin too, and will never buy another game that uses it. BF3 and SWTOR were enough for me.

But to be fair, Steam runs like crap. It always wants to do something and make you wait whenever you startup a game or shut down your computer. Their main advantages are their billing and marketing departments aren't filled with thieves and liars.

Posted:7 months ago

#6

Nick Parker Consultant

290 161 0.6
Easy to criticise launch execution and back-end of Titanfall as gamers seem to be queuing up to get their hands on a copy which will mean $loads regardless of cognitive dissonance.
1. EA had to go cross platform to enjoy a larger addressable market than just Xbox One. In so doing, Titanfall will improve sales of Xbox One (difficult to quantify with so many cut price deals at the same time) but will not have the impact of total exclusivity.
2. Xbox One needs a triple A exclusive title but at this stage in the lifecycle, it should be first party (Deep pockets to absorb opportunity cost of just one console in launch phase, rather like Halo could).
It all seems a bit too soon for me...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nick Parker on 14th March 2014 5:47pm

Posted:7 months ago

#7

Francis Cermak Website Administrator, HeavenGames LLC

17 3 0.2
"Sentiment among core gamers is definitely running against Microsoft right now, and one great multiplayer game may not be enough for very many consumers..."
It doesn't seem strong enough to hurt sales though. Despite a $100 price difference, the new NPD numbers report that Xbox One sold only 10% less than the total number of PS4 consoles in February. The $100 price difference didn't result in run-away post-Christmas sales for Sony. Seems to prove the strength of the Xbox fan base and their enjoyment of Xbox Live.

Posted:7 months ago

#8

Nick Parker Consultant

290 161 0.6
@Francis - it seems that PS4 has been supply constrained since launch and furthermore rumours that recently Sony diverted stock to Japan for launch in February. It's all a bit challenging to measure real consumer demand at the moment until weak supplies become less of an issue.

Posted:7 months ago

#9

Paul Jace Merchandiser

942 1,428 1.5
@Kevin Clark-Patterson
As it is on PC - there will be direct comparisons with fanboys saying how lame the Xbox version is in comparison, how low the frame rates are, resolution being sucky etc...I'm not hating on PC or bigging up Xbox but someone in M$ marketing screwed up
I agree. I don't game on my PC and have nothing against my PC gaming brethren. But the PC version of TItanfall should have been the version that got pushed back after the XBO version, not the 360 version. Or they could have pushed both the PC and 360 version back but I think they are going to lose out on a decent amount of XBO sales due to the simultaneous PC launch.

The good news is that the game is still selling well based on the four Gamestop's I had to work at this week. And with the launch of the 360 version later this month I don't see how they won't move atleast 1 million units(if they haven't already) for the entire month across platforms. So it appears that the review scores are good, the sales are good and the title is apparently living up to all the early and seemingly well-deserved hype. The big question remaining is how much this will boost Xbox One sales for the months of March and April.

Posted:7 months ago

#10

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
...but I wonder how large, and crucially how fast growing is that body of gamers whom have been alienated by past actions?
Probably not large enough to make EA actually change. Origin's nastiness doesn't affect the console users, who are the majority of the audience, and they do manage to piss off only a minority of their potential audience, even if it is a large one.

At a guess, EA could probably increase sales by 20% if they worked to please most of the potential audience, rather than just the part that's easy to please. Unfortunately, this would probably be very expensive, not in dollars (many of the changes would cost basically nothing) but in changes to their internal culture. I've worked myself in organisations that are dysfunctional this way, and looking beyond one's own views about what should be good enough really is too much for a lot of people.

I speak as someone EA's driven away, several times in fact, because of this. (I'm even tempted to buy Titanfall, but stupid little barriers they put in the way to prevent me from purchasing many of their games just keep working.) And honestly, having left after many hundreds of hours of Battlefield 3, I've realized that you just need to get over it and not think that, just because EA clearly doesn't care about you, they can't get by ok.

For a few more years at least, anyway.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 15th March 2014 12:16pm

Posted:7 months ago

#11

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