Microsoft has launched two new initiatives that aim to give more developers access to cloud functionality when making video games.
Announced during this week's Game Developers Conference, the first is ID@Azure: a suite of free tools and resources that help developers integrate cloud-based gaming services into their titles, regardless of which platforms they're developing for.
The second is the Azure Game Development Virtual Machine, a cloud-based workstation that is geared specifically towards game production and enables developers to access key tools and services unconstrained by the specs of their machine or their geographical location.
ID@Azure originally began as an invite-only closed beta back in December, but today Microsoft is opening it up to all studios. Examples of functions enabled by Azure, including game server hosting, multiplayer networking and matchmaking, collecting data and analytics on player behaviour, live operations and in-game economies.
The tech giant gave GamesIndustry.biz a pre-GDC briefing on the program last week, with Azure's director of product marketing Bryan Saftler responding to some follow-up questions via email.
"Our objective is to empower game creators," he told us when asked why Microsoft is making these tools freely available. "To do that, we need to lower barriers and ensure equitable access to resources wherever possible. For independent developers, using cloud services can be daunting. By making ID@Azure free, we hope more developers see this as an invitation to experience the potential of what the cloud can do for their game."
He adds: "Whether you're a single player mobile game looking to leverage cloud saves and leaderboards, or you have ambitions to create a user generated economy in your multi-platform action-adventure, ID@Azure is here to help you identify and architect the solutions that best fit your game."
As you may be able to guess from the name of the program, ID@Azure is heavily inspired by the company's success with ID@Xbox, which helps indie studios develop and release titles for Microsoft's Xbox platforms. In fact, Saftler tells us the same developer success team is running both programs.
"The lessons we have learned through ID@Xbox around scaling partner support, providing best-practice documentation that evolves with trends in the industry, and developer scaling form the building blocks of how we've structured ID@Azure," he explains. "Of course, the program will evolve over time. But we're starting from a great foundation."
Studios that sign up to the program will also receive up to $5,000 of Azure credits, plus the standard plan of multiplayer matchmaking tool Azure PlayFab for two years. Microsoft has also set up a new education portal where studios new to integrating cloud functionality into games can find guidance on how to get started.
Azure is already used in multiple Microsoft titles -- including Flight Simulator, Forza Horizon 5, Halo Infinite, Minecraft and Sea of Thieves. It has also been used in third-party multiplatform games, such as Rainbow Six: Siege, Fall Guys, Doom Eternal and No Man's Sky.
"Teams should have the ability to build their studio with diverse talent, no matter where they're geographically located in the world"Bryan Saftler, Microsoft
During the closed beta, Microsoft invited select indie studios to get to grips with the technology, including UnderMine developer Thorium Entertainment. Studio co-founder Derek Johnson shares his experience with us.
"Running a server on your own these days is just really hard because of the global audience that you have to serve, because of the security risks, and so on," he says. "So I was very eager to partner with the cloud company who could actually give us the hosting space and the server capacity as well as off-the-shelf, game-specific solutions to the issues we were having. This just seemed like a no-brainer to me."
Examples of the issues Thorium faced included adding cross-platform leaderboards to UnderMine, as well as an issue with lost save files. The latter reached the stage where the team would have to ask players how far they had progressed and what they had unlocked, and then essentially handcraft them a new save file, emailing it to them with instructions on how to get it working. Azure-powered cloud saves negates this.
Another example Johnson gives is the game's score attack mode. A new challenge goes live at 5pm Pacific Time every day -- but only if Thorium can synchronise all clients to ensure they all agree on the right time. Ideally, the studio needed a server to tell the game what the time was globally.
"Until we had a cloud solution for this, there's no way for us to do that," Johnson says. "We were really grasping at straws to get all users to know what time of day it was. I know it sounds like a really simple thing, but for game developers, it's huge and now we have a great solution for that. So I'm really excited to finally know unquestionably what time it is."
Johnson adds that, while it's still entirely possible to make a game that features no cloud functionality in today's market, consumer expectations and the quality of the competition continue to rise.
"The bar is always going up and up and up," he says. "Even the expectations for small indie groups is that you have this really rich feature set that was probably unattainable just a few years ago, or only attainable by the big AAA games. Things like cloud backup, shared leaderboards, analytics. For small indies that really want to try to stay competitive, you need to make games that satisfy that huge ever-growing checklist of features.
"I think it's necessary and you have to partner with somebody to get this done. I don't think it's realistic to expect that small studios can run their own servers with any sort of consistency anymore, so if it's important today, it's only getting more important in the future."
He adds: "I feel like we are not going to be able to take a step back after this project. Every successive title from now on, our players are going to expect it... and we fully intend to keep going with it."
For Saftler, the biggest part of ID@Azure is enabling studios of all sizes from all over the world to gain access to this functionality and meet these expectations -- if only to see what they can come up with.
"By helping teams bring their ambitious visions to life, we push the entire industry forward," he says. "The next great games can come from anyone. And since independent developers have traditionally had less access to support and resources, we see a real need to invest in programs like ID@Xbox and ID@Azure.
"The next great Minecraft, Cuphead, Among Us is out there, and we hope ID@Azure can be a catalyst for those teams to reach even greater success."
Another aspect Microsoft is keen to explore is cloud-based games production, best demonstrated by the launch of the Azure Game Development Virtual Machine.
The Virtual Machine's set-up comes with pre-installed tools that are already used by developers around the world, including Visual Studio, Unreal Engine, Perforce, Parsec, Incredibuild and Teradici. There are also software development kits for DirectX, PlayFab and more.
Microsoft estimates that users will be able to boot up a functional game dev workstation or build server in around five minutes.
Saftler claims that by working these tools into a virtual machine that's specifically geared to being a game development environment, teams and individuals that use this can save between four to six hours of installing software, drivers and setting up local infrastructure.
"For small indies that really want to try to stay competitive, you need to make games that satisfy that huge ever-growing checklist of features."Derek Johnson, Thorium Entertainment
"Distributed development allows teams to work from geographically different locations, meaning studios can hire the best talent for the job -- even if that means in another city, country, or time zone," he says.
"The cloud also enables new forms of online collaboration, such lightning-fast version control, remote testing/QA, and automated bug tracking. Finally, developing in the cloud can reduce operational costs as the need for purchasing local infrastructure decreases."
While familiar toolsets are built into this cloud-based workstation, Microsoft clarifies that users will need to bring their own licences to access them.
"We've done this as a way to give them flexibility," Saftler explains. "This allows them to use the licences they already own, and thereby reduce disruption to their existing workflow."
As with anything cloud-based, there will be concerns about latency -- especially with a process as complex and intensive as game development. Microsoft is leaning on its global network of datacentre regions -- more than 60 around the world, which Saftler claims is more than any other cloud provider -- to help mitigate this by reducing the distance between teams and their nearest datacentre.
The inclusion of Teradici and Parsec here is also crucial; Microsoft has partnered the teams behind these tools to enable low-latency remote access to the virtual machine.
The initiative comes at a time when the work paradigm of the games industry -- and indeed many industries -- is in a state of transition. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we've seen more and more studios shift to remote working, or perhaps allowing more flexibility in where their employees operate with hybrid studios seeing staff alternating between the office and their homes.
While it would be easy to see the Azure Game Development Virtual Machine as a response to this, Saftler emphasises that remote and distributed development was happening long before COVID-19 began to spread.
"The pandemic just accelerated that trend," he says. "We see this as an opportunity to empower more teams to take advantage of the benefits game production in the cloud provides. As we mentioned earlier, offering actionable solutions to remote work and online collaboration gives teams more flexibility to create hybrid work environments that best suit the needs of their studio."
He adds that this will open up new markets for talent, with companies able to hire and collaborate with new staff in underserved regions.
"Teams should have the ability to build their studio with diverse talent, no matter where they're geographically located in the world," he says. "Microsoft is committed to building a more inclusive and accessible games industry, and we believe this is one critical step of many in helping achieve that larger goal."
Microsoft emphasises that the pre-configured set-up for the virtual machine is mostly a foundation. Studios with more experience in using Azure will be able to customise their own cloud-based game development workstations and build servers, with additional tools that suit their specific needs.
The company will also continue to expand the base Game Dev VM with new tools, options and deeper integrations with partner software. For now, however, Saftler says the team is focused on getting developers on board.
"Getting to public preview is a big milestone," he concludes. "Over the coming months, we will work closely with our community of game developers to identify tools and ways we can improve game production pipelines in the cloud. We're looking forward to hearing more feedback on ways we can better serve our community."