“Project Mountain”: Microsoft’s secret $700M plan to defeat the PS4

2013 is console year, and despite still being a number of months away from the big launches, the mini-battles are already starting to take place. Round one went to Sony, who cleverly manipulated the negative reaction around Microsoft’s games restrictions to win some PR brownie points. Microsoft countered by removing the restrictions, which has left the battlefield nicely lined up for the next round.

Microsoft plans to unveil ‘project mountain’ for this next round, which is an audacious plan that they think will help the Xbox One defeat the PS4. So what is ‘project mountain’?

Its a massive data centre, which will be based out of West Des Moines, Iowa. Backed partly by an Iowa tax credit of $20m, and far more substantially by Microsoft – who have pledged $700m, rising to $1B – the investment is intended to help Microsoft compete in cloud computing. According to Christian Belady from MS, “The expansion supports the growing demand for Microsoft’s cloud services.” The project represents “our latest in efficient data centre thinking.”

We already knew that the Xbox One would need the support of 300 thousand cloud based servers, but the latest revelation that these will be part of project mountain is new news.

So how will Project Mountain help Microsoft defeat the PS4?

This massive investment in data centres is all about gameplay speed. To be more technical, its about removing any latency from games, in order to make them more reactive and more realistic.

Some elements of games don’t require extremely quick graphical reactions, but other games live and die by it.

Take a shooting game. When a player shoots a character, the graphics and gameplay need to respond in milliseconds in order to be realistic. In the same example, a piece of background imagery, such as a photo hanging on a wall, may not need to react to this gameplay, making it a latent-insensitive item of gameplay. Where the photo in this example does not need to change much, if at all, in reaction to gameplay, the character getting shot does. Project Mountain is about making the latent sensitive elements – the bits that are critical for top-notch gameplay – work much better on the xbox than the PS4.

Its similar in many racing games and sports games, which together represent the three most popular genres of games on games consoles.

You only need to briefly consider the value placed on gaming stables like Call of Duty and Fifa to understand the value – these are games that define consoles. If the next Call of Duty happened to be universally considered to be superior on the Xbox One, then that would go a long way to winning the console war for Microsoft.

The challenge though lies in the fact that cloud computing caries a lag time. The nature of the cloud is flexibility and scale. So when a computing service is needed in more volume, or with more processing power, the cloud enables this. This all happens in near real-time, but the problem for gaming is that near real-time does not cut it.

Microsoft wanted to force you to be connected to the web to play Xbox One games – this is why

A huge part of the uproar over the Microsoft Xbox One lay in the need to be connected to the web in order to play. This requirement was put in place so that Microsoft could leverage their huge Cloud solution. However, after Sony won round one of the console war, Microsoft had to remove this limitation.

Microsoft now need to showcase how they will avoid the potential pitfalls caused by this change in requirement. It was widely accepted that sony played a blinder at the E3 summit, where they masterfully picked apart the flaws in the Xbox One. Without answers to basic questions, such as ‘will Xbox One gamers get a terrible lag with a poor internet connection?, Microsoft could be left as a sitting duck for Sony next time round.

It seems that in Project Mountain, Microsoft have the opportunity to blast away the PS4’s gameplay. So therefore, did they make a mistake in removing the internet connection requirement for gameplay? Could they have gotten there without the painful retreat, and instead with a simple educational message?