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Amazon DevCon – Eric Neustadter

Halo 2 is the next step in Bill Gate’s goal to put Microsoft software in your living room. So far, so good.

Eric Neustadter is here at Amazon to talk about the success of Halo 2 and how Halo 2 was made. By the way, Microsoft and Bungie racked up $125 million in sales on the game’s release date and have sold over 5 million copies of the game to date.

Here’s how Eric’s session went:

Eric has been working on the Xbox team for over 10 years. Look for him online in Xbox Live. He goes by the online tag “E”.

Eric started out his speech talking about Xbox Live. It’s the first broadband-only console gaming service. Xbox Live is like Disneyland. You go there, pay an admission price, and get to play unlimited games (until Disneyland closes, of course). You have a gamer tag, a friends list, you can talk to others over the Internet using headsets. The voice interaction is a huge step in communication between friends while playing a game. Xbox Live is currently  available in 24 countries. Xbox Live reached one million members faster than HBO, American Online, and TiVo.

Sorry cheaters. All of the packets that travel through Xbox Live and an Xbox are encrypted.

A brief history of Xbox Live:
Summer 2002–Public Beta
November 15, 2002–Xbox Live Launch
August, 2003–Xbox Live 2 “Aftershock”, which introduced game clips and web services
April, 2004–More features, like voice messaging, clans, group chats

At launch, there was a bug that wasn’t re-setting the count of users online, so it was counting incrementally, and not removing those who just logged off. That caused a bit of a scare at launch parties.

A great feature of Project Gotham racing was allowing others to view your racing attempt around the track. They could see what was done to get a certain racing track time.

Xbox Live implemented web services as a way to get data back from Xbox Live. For example,, shows how well Xbox Live players are playing.

Some people use Xbox Live’s voice chat features as an alternative to long-distance calling. The voice chat allows players to group together, and talk about what they may want to play.

How do games use Xbox Live? They provide a SDK with APIs for games. Games are getting more much more complex, so the SDKs attempt to make things easier.

Game design is a key driver of the frequency, type, and weight of calls. Statistics are generally updated at the end of a session, so session length is significant. A game of Halo 2 may take 5-10 minutes. A football game can take up to 1 hour. You need to track usage patterns in order to effectively manage the traffic. They work regularly with game developers to find and implement optimizations. Capacity planning for Xbox Live is tremendously complex because each game uses Xbox Live in a different way.

At Microsoft, the product team has traditionally been comprised of development, testing, and program management. Traditional operations teams are handed a finished product and are asked to run the product on a server. Services are a new concept, so Xbox Live decided that the operations team would be a part of the product team.

Now onto Halo 2…

They knew Halo 2 was going to be big. Halo was the best-selling Xbox game of all time, of course. Halo 2 was planned to heavily leverage Xbox Live features to provide a groundbreaking gaming experience (that’s marketing speak for “does really cool stuff that generates a huge load of traffic for the server”). With gigabytes of data, the Live team was able to build a detailed model of Halo 2’s usage of the service.

They gathered TPS predictions for all server APIs, then modeled the capacity planning around the predictions. They had to ask marketing, PR, and BizDev for sales estimates. Some systems at Xbox Live were increased by 10x to accommodate the Halo 2 launch. They also purchased 32 terabytes of disk space, which makes the systems faster (though they’re not actually using all of that space).

Halo 2 was launched at midnight on November 9. Xbox Live usage was spiking within 30 minutes of midnight, EST. In just under two months, users spent over 69 million hours playing Halo 2 on Xbox Live. And that doesn’t count the private LAN parties. Nevertheless, the service has performed without any critical issues. The launch was a success because of the team: there was a strong sense of ownership, everyone was available when needed.

The type computers used on Xbox Live? Dell 1-2 CPU systems.

There ends the presentation. Now the questions.

Q: What’s the service availability since March?
A: Hard to measure. What is availability? (A somewhat humorous rhetorical question.) The team is somewhere in three nines, according to pre-set internal standards.

Q: Are there plans for a Halo 2 game for the PC to play with Halo 2 from the Xbox?
A: The security model can’t be expanded to the PC, so it’s unlikely. Nobody has yet to figure out how to do it without punishing existing customers.

Q: How much of Xbox Live’s work has been to get EA games online?
A: Really, none.

Q: How does Xbox Live account for geographical differences between players?
A: There are a number of different data centers, but they try to limit services to a single point. A lot of traffic goes between Xboxes and not through Xbox Live.

Q: Is there a Halo 3?
A: There’s no public announcement.

Q: Why is the Xbox controller is a USB device, but the plug is not?
A: Usability tests showed that people would want to plug other USB devices into the Xbox, which would–of course–not work.


Jeff Barr

Jeff Barr

Jeff Barr is Chief Evangelist for AWS. He started this blog in 2004 and has been writing posts just about non-stop ever since.