Titanfall: time to perform for Xbox One and Azure
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.