Microsoft is unveiling its next big push in the world of game development tooling. Today the company is showing off two new cloud-based programs for game developers.
The first is an Azure-based virtual workstation program called "Azure Game Dev Virtual Machine" that lets developers access powerful game-making tools on any computing device. The second program is called "[email protected]," a new program to subsidize access to back-end Azure-based cloud tools for independent developers.
The program was announced back in 2021, but details for developers are now live.
Microsoft's virtual workstation program is the bigger of the two announcements. It's a service that can be scaled up or down for developers of different sizes, and allows developers to remotely access high-end game development rigs hosted on the Azure back end.
The workstations come pre-packaged with several familiar game development tools, including Visual Studio, Unreal Engine, Perforce, Blender, DirectX, and more. If your studio is based on other game development tools, you can add them to these workstations using your existing license keys.
Meanwhile, the [email protected] program is almost exactly what it says on the tin. Just like how the [email protected] program is structured to help independent developers publish on Xbox, [email protected] is a program to help smaller creators utilize Azure cloud technology for their game's online backends. This could be for small multiplayer games or developers who want to make "cloud-aware" titles like Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Why use one computer to talk to another?
Why would a developer want to use a virtual workstation? Microsoft Gaming Ecosystem CVP Kevin Gammill explained to Game Developer that this program was developed in response to challenges that Microsoft developers faced themselves in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In short: it can be time-consuming, costly, and inefficient to deploy fully-enabled workstations, especially for remote employees.
Whether bringing on a new hire or creating processes for employees to work from home, Gammill explained there were multiple inefficiencies in the process. Laptops or desktop towers have to be assembled, have all the software installed, have updates downloaded, and then transported to the employee.
Said employee then needs to have a workstation optimized for game development, including internet connections that rival in-office networks and a home environment that can support the work machine.
Gammill shared one anecdote from one of his friends who works at one of Microsoft's game studios, who managed to lug home her desktop from work, but saw her home electricity bill spike both from the machine's power draw and the increased air conditioning she had to run in her home office.
While the possibility of remote-in solutions has helped many companies in the pandemic, the Game Dev Virtual Workstations are a step beyond that technology. According to Microsoft, developers can now use any computer approved by their company to access a workstation that's capable of the most CPU-heavy game development tasks.
"This allows developers to quickly spin up a functional game dev workstation or build server in around five minutes," Microsoft's blog states. "This enables easier validation of pipeline performance, pull down code/art assets from a Perforce repo to develop and test games right from the cloud."
Gammill also stressed that these tools are also available for developers creating games for non-Microsoft platforms. "You can imagine a future world in which you may want to deploy to dev kits in the cloud. Those may be Xbox dev kits, they may be Sony dev kits, they may be Nintendo Switch dev kits."
"We take a very endpoint-agnostic and tools-agnostic perspective, because we really need to meet developers where they are."
Understanding the implications
Microsoft does seem to have its eye on the fact that cloud computing works best in locales that are serviced by high-quality internet providers. "We look at this as another step on our long journey of where we want to get [with cloud], Gammill said.
He noted that his hometown of Seattle has seen major improvements during the pandemic, as broadband providers suddenly saw usage move from offices to home areas. Microsoft is apparently watching as 5G wireless expansion around the globe is rolling out, and Gammill said that technology will be key to reaching developers in remote, rural areas.
Microsoft's announcement comes as some game studios begin to figure out ways to get portions of their workforce back in the office (though an imminent wave of COVID-19 may scuttle those plans). Gammill did break down how studios can use remote workstations in offices, and there are benefits to their use even if your team is all in the same physical location.
"If I'm forced to go into the office to contribute to 'studio fu,' I can just sit down with a dumb terminal and log in to an Azure gaming VM," he explained. "You don't have to install anything, you're basically ready to go. We think there's a lot of value in that."
Are virtual machines secure enough for employees to use any device to log in? Gammill hedged his bets, but did note that Azure supports two-factor authentication. "If you understand the scenarios your developers are working under and implement the right set of security guidelines, you shouldn't have to worry about [security risks]."
We did quiz Microsoft about one other topic, since the virtual machine program takes work being done on independent devices and moves them to centralized servers. If a developer violates Microsoft's polices in any way, how much of their work or access to tools do they stand to lose?
The real-world examples of this pester game developers on a regular basis. We've heard tales of folks losing access to Google's Workspace platform for obscure policy violations, cutting off access to Gmail, Google Drive, etc.
Higher-level questions about tech companies' platform power have also emerged as companies like Facebook and Twitter have clumsily enforced their moderation policies—banning some users for light policy violations, and allowing others (like a certain former U.S. President) to stay on the platform despite proliferating hate speech.
Microsoft didn't have an official answer ready for us by the time this article went live, but a spokesperson did seem to allude to the fact that Microsoft doesn't want to those sudden content-based cutoffs to happen on Azure.
Based on our conversations with the company, it seems that "more speech is good speech" is the watchword for this particular question.
Cloudy with a chance of game development
Microsoft has spent 2022 trying to get the world of game development more interested in its Azure-based cloud computing technology. Though today's announcements aren't a silver bullet for every developer everywhere, these are genuinely interesting advancements that seem to meet some developers where they are.
The Coalition (Microsoft's in-house studio working on the Gears of War series) has been one of the guinea pigs for Microsoft's new tech, and has provided key feedback to make sure these Azure-developed workstations are tuned for game development.
Coalition studio technical director Kate Rayner said that the main feedback the studio offered to Azure was to ensure it could use the virtual machines for quick iteration, and that they'd be able to accommodate non-Microsoft tools like Unreal Engine.
Lead tools, build, and automation engineer Phil Cousins explained that the workstations have helped improve quality-of-life for remote developers and external contractors alike. "If they're iterating on art content, having the access to a large compute farm for things like shared compilers...we haven't been able to give them this capability in the past."
Microsoft executives who spoke with Game Developer championed these new programs as being able to "democratize" game development by expanding access to normally expensive, high-powered machines. As far as we can see, there's plenty of promise in that plan, especially for developers who want to maintain remote organizations in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rayner said that in her opinion, this is where game development technology is headed. "We have all these smaller independent developers around the world that want to work with us that may not have a large studio space," she explained. To work with them in the past, The Coalition would have to mail out expensive game development hardware and work to get it set up and fully up-to-date.
"Now, they can just get spun up right away, and we know exactly what hardware they're on," she said.