Sometimes an idea comes along that makes you both happy and sad at the same time. Happy that someone is finally taking initiative and creating a solution to a problem and sad that you didn’t think of the idea first! This happened to me yesterday when I came across a new company called Ready Up Servers.
I have been in gaming for many years and had the opportunity to be an Xbox LIVE beta tester 7 years ago. I started out on the LIVE network 2 months before it was released to the public and was able to play some games that were never even released. At the time PCs dominated the online world and Xbox was bashed pretty hard for wanting to start a service that would cost users money to play online. I wonder if those critics feel good about themselves when they read articles like this one about the 20+ million Xbox LIVE users time spent online: 17 Billion Hours Spent on Xbox LIVE
When LIVE was created the standard for gaming online was that developers needed to create servers for the players to join to be able to play against other players. Keep in mind that gamers back then had a REALLY hard time getting decent broadband connections at their homes. The standard connection was between 128kbps and high end connections were 512kbps if you had the cash. The server business for gaming was pretty juicy at the time but was an extra burden for game developers to create an maintain these systems.
After consoles started into the market broadband was picking up steam and capacity was increasing at an amazing rate. DSL and Cable access showed up and started giving consumers cheap options for true broadband. Xbox LIVE took advantage of this and had their systems use one of the player’s home systems as the actual server for the matches. 8 player matches would then have 1 player as the host station and the other 7 stations would connect to them to send and receive data for the game.
As you can imagine this was pretty revolutionary at the time and saved companies tons of money in server development and maintenance. The players themselves were the server admins and most of the time they don’t even know it. The console itself creates the server and manages the connections behind the scenes.
With this development a big problem started developing among the competitive gaming community. The player who had the host console was able to see and do things in real time. Their own console was accepting the controller inputs and displaying the results on screen instantly while the other 7 players around the world had to send their inputs over the Internet and receive results to display on their screens back. Little did I know I would come to hate “host advantage” so much over the next 7 years listening to players whine during our tournaments.
From a competitive standpoint obviously this isn’t fair to the other 7 guys playing the game. It isn’t a big deal to the developers because by my estimate only about 2% of the market plays these games competitively versus the other 98% who are couch warriors and just play for recreation. However for the competitive market this has been a problem that we have tried to overcome unsuccessfully for years through special rules and sharing “host” during tournaments.
A few games have been developed that will allow you to turn your Xbox into a dedicated server. I remember playing Unreal Championship in the early Xbox LIVE days when I also ran an ISP. I had 4 original Xbox systems, 4 extra copies of the game plugged into my head router right on our T3 connection. If I tried to get into the server but it was full I would simply log into our router, close the port to one of the Xbox consoles which would kick everyone out of the game, then open the port back up and quickly connect.
Ready Up Servers is taking this concept to the next level. It doesn’t make sense to have network admins on staff shutting of ports and re-opening them. Not to mention there would need to be someone at the hosting facility to change the game settings. They have created a solution which is simple on paper but more complex under the hood.
Ready Up Servers is currently in a free trial mode while they continue to develop the technology and finish setting up their company and policies. You can reserve a dedicated server by creating an account on their homepage and filling out the request form. When your time comes you are able to login to a web interface that gives you control over the Xbox system acting as the server.
There are a ton of “work arounds” that happen with this solution. Xbox 360s are closed for development and not supported for integrating software with the unit itself (legally). I believe that what the smart folks at Ready Up Servers have done is simply automate the input system by simulating an Xbox 360 controller from the controlling servers (see picture to the left).
From reading the feedback of players that have used the service it seems you select an action on the web interface and then you just watch the server simulate those commands to the Xbox. For example when you invite players to the match the server simulates pushing the Xbox Guide button, selecting the friends menu, adding the new user as a friend and then inviting them to the match.
So what exactly is the end result? The players from all over the world have a dedicated connection to a NEUTRAL host Xbox 360 giving everyone a fair connection. No single player has instant input/output from their own Xbox host any longer. Also because the Ready Up Server systems are located in a massive data center in Dallas, TX they have fast response times to everywhere in the US and even worldwide.
Of course it isn’t time to crack out the champagne and hope that Ready Up Servers sells you some stock before their IPO. The system really only works with games that have the ability to act as a host in the game itself. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 is the only game currently supported on their system. They list Halo 3 as something they can also support but I seriously doubt how this would work since the game itself does not have an option to host a game without spawning the host Xbox into the match itself.
The cool thing moving forward is getting this revolutionary concept accepted by developers. Then perhaps they will consider making more dedicated server options inside of the games. Past titles like Rainbow Six Vegas 2 were developed with an actual dedicated server option in the game. If more games will do this then the Ready Up Server system will really see some great value.
Hats off to the guys at Ready Up Servers on working to solve a problem and I sure hope that you will be rewarded someday for your forward thinking and actions.