If Microsoft has one thing going for them that no fanboy rant can question, it's Xbox LIVE. As long as Nintendo has friend codes and Sony has, uhhh, we'll get back to that, Microsoft stands tall on their untarnished pedestal. Well...untarnished if you ignore the month+ of outages around Christmas 2007. The fact of the matter is, Xbox LIVE has failed the consumer public before. And it could fail us again.
Jump ahead to next week, we have GTA IV—a game that's so big that—we'll let Microsoft's General Manager of LIVE Services Operations, Derek Ingalls explain that metric:
"...we are preparing for a spike that could be much larger than what we saw with the launches of Halo 3 and Activision's "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare."
So how is Microsoft prepping Xbox LIVE for the not so metaphorical mass rioting that is GTA IV multiplayer?
"Last holiday we weren't properly prepared," Ingalls admits. "So we are going the extra mile with Grand Theft Auto IV..." Yeah, that was total marketing speak. But it got your ears perked, didn't it?
"The biggest step we've taken is to add in more server hardware, which will expand the service's capacity," Ingalls explains to us through email. (PR had explained earlier that he was "obviously very busy" this week.) "We have actually doubled our capacity for concurrent users over the last 2 months."
The backbone of Xbox LIVE is an interesting point in itself. It's not one big pile of computers, but two big piles of computers. The LIVE-exclusive servers are in Seattle, while LIVE piggybacks off other Microsoft servers in Quincy, Washington. Ingalls jokes that security includes "tubes you must step into with bio-metric devices such that you must lay your hand on a reader for fingerprint identification before it will allow you out of the ejection tube."
And, of course, no shorts are allowed. (We're guessing it's the copious amounts of programmer leg hair, but consider that point unconfirmed.)
However, the server upgrades at Microsoft's datacenters are just part of their preparation. They have extra staff working longer hours this week. And those updates you've been receiving on LIVE?
"... are part of an ongoing effort to get ahead on capacity issues," Ingalls explained. "We learned a lot from last holiday and have a comprehensive plan we are executing upon throughout the year to prevent any recurrence of issues like we experienced. That said, we would be remiss to not expect and respect that the "Grand Theft Auto IV" release is anticipated to impact usage in a positive way."
Yeah, those updates are totally about Grand Theft Auto IV—this week at least. Because a free copy of Undertow won't quell a few million teenagers looking to break some faces, steal some shit and drive around with their music really, really loud.
As for what Sony is doing to prepare—their fate lies in the hands of Rockstar (who rumour has it is actually using Gamespy's servers). Because they don't offer a backend to host games like Xbox LIVE, they avoid the headache for a trade-off of a little risk, and almost no say in fixing potential problems that may arise.
Even Ingalls, knowing everything they've done to prepare, is a bit nervous.
"We know the launch of GTA IV will be a wildly successful day for Rockstar, for LIVE, and for our customers... and hopefully, just another day for operations."