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Wednesday, October 31

Halo 4 plumbs new depths of infrastructure to keep it all running


Here's an article on the behind the scenes needs to keep the juggernaught of Halo 4's back end infrastructure up and running.
Jerry Hook and Tamir Melamed, the hardest-working plumbers in the video game world not named Mario or Luigi. 
Hook and Melamed lead the engineering team laying the subterranean IT structures that will power every pixel of the multiplayer experience in “Halo 4.” Everything fans experience online – stats, screenshots, the simple joy of blasting a friend or stranger to smithereens – depends on the infrastructure they’ve built over the past year and half. That infrastructure is supported by Windows Azure, which provides the team with the affordable scalability they need to keep a game like “Halo 4” running smoothly for fans.
Tamir Melamed and Jerry Hook
Tamir Melamed and Jerry Hook

The average gamer probably doesn’t think about the virtual machines, cloud services and other technologies that power their fun – at least not as long as everything runs smoothly. When “Halo 4” launches Nov. 6, millions of fans around the world will simultaneously push the game’s back-end scaffolding to the limit. Any glitch, any hang-up, and the engineering team gets thrust into the spotlight. 
“That's the lot of the plumbers of the world,” says Melamed, principal development manager for Microsoft’s 343 Industries. “You only think about them when something goes wrong.”
If Hook and Melamed are concerned about the launch, they don’t show it. They’re both naturally modest and laid back – probably by necessity. When the first “Halo" game launched more than a decade ago, the video game industry’s rhythm was more or less straightforward: create a bunch of discs, ship them, and start work on the next release.

Things have changed. Since “Halo 2,” the franchise has supported online multiplayer games via Xbox LIVE. Today the Halo Waypoint site is open 24/7, serving as a central hub for fans craving online games and Halo-related content. The upcoming “Halo” release features Infinity Multiplayer, a vastly expanded suite of multiplayer modes, weapons, vehicles, armor abilities and more. And “Halo 4” takes the multiplayer experience even further with Spartan Ops, a series of episodic videos coupled with missions that will stream to users every week. 
Hook, Melamed and their colleagues on 343 Industries’ Section 3 team will be responsible for keeping things running for months, even years after the official launch. (The team takes its name from the Halo universe; fittingly, Section 3 refers to a military branch responsible for black ops.)
“‘Halo’ from here on out does not end,” says Hook, executive producer at Section 3. “It’s a sustained franchise. Players will always feel engaged.”

To keep things up 24/7, they decided to take the franchise’s existing infrastructure – built over a decade by the Bungie game studio – and move it to Windows Azure. The team says Azure gives them a robust, cost-effective way to scale up and scale down as demand ebbs and flows across the globe.

Meanwhile, they’ve built up a team of engineers that possesses serious coding chops and the ability to stay sane in the always-on world of live services.

“We know we can’t anticipate the 101 things that will go wrong,” Hook says. “The only thing we can control is ensuring our team responds appropriately to those situations.”
Hook and Melamed recently sat down with the Microsoft News Center to chat about “Halo 4,” the gaming industry’s shift to a services-oriented world, and how to stay cool when the building’s on fire. 
MNC: So how does your behind-the-scenes work show up in “Halo 4?
Melamed: There's a whole new slew of scenarios we enable on the back-end, either in the game or on Waypoint, that people enjoy: screenshots, their stats and the ability to compare to friends, different game modes. We make sure if someone is hassling someone else in the game you can ban them. All those abilities really help users enjoy the game more. 
Hook: From my perspective, part of what 343 Industries is trying to do is have a conversation with fans. When you talk about service-driven game development, when you talk about new modes like Spartan Ops, these start becoming more long-tail models for entertainment instead of release a disc, go dark and come back. That means your community engagement maintains through one title to the next title as much as possible.
So there’s what Tamir was talking about in the game, like screenshots and map packs, but you also see more entertainment like Spartan Ops. Think about a TV show: you don’t just launch and then go dark until the next year. With Spartan Ops, we’ll release an episode every week. Each episode is comprised of five missions with stories similar to your campaign. So for the first time when you purchase a disc, you don’t just have one campaign but you get two: the standard one and an ongoing, episodic one. 
MelamedFans will be able to come back every week and experience a new episode. They can jump in at any time, or watch and play old episodes – as you would similar to DVR. Players will be excited to come back to the title for the new experiences.

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