The way companies like Microsoft invoke the “infinite power of the cloud” when speaking to consumers, you would think they would have better defined exactly what that means. They haven’t, which is why most people roll their eyes when they hear someone on a stage say that phrase.
But whether we understand what Microsoft is putting down or not, we’re getting the cloud with our Xbox Ones as soon as we connect them to the Internet. What are we going to get? That’s what we’re going to explain here.
With our CloudBeat conference quickly approaching next week — Sept. 9-Sept. 10 in San Francisco, register here — we figured this is a good time to go over what we know about Microsoft’s cloud and what it means for the Xbox One.
Microsoft’s Xbox Live cloud, known officially as the Microsoft Cloud Azure, is a giant network of servers. For Xbox Live, Microsoft is spooling up 300,000 servers around the world so that gamers can quickly find each other and have a stable connection no matter where they live. Those servers will also serve as the backbone for any developer that wishes to implement cloud functionality.
What the Xbox One cloud is good for
Games using Microsoft’s Cloud for Xbox One
- Call of Duty: Ghosts
- Forza Motorsport 5
- All games will use it to push out updates
It may surprise you to find out that the “infinite power of the cloud” is a bit of an exaggeration. Its power is not infinite in that it is not capable of all things. To understand that, it’s important to get an idea of what Microsoft and developers mean when they say they’re utilizing the cloud.
“When companies talk about their cloud, all they are saying is that they have a huge amount of servers ready to run whatever you need them to run,” Titanfall cloud engineer Jon Shiring wrote on developer Respawn’s blog in June. “That’s all.”
Shiring is Respawn’s cloud expert, and he does a great job of explaining what the cloud is and how his studio is using it in that post. He’s one of the guys in charge of making sure that the futuristic first-person shooter communicates with the Xbox Live cloud service. Respawn is planning to use the cloud to power Titanfall’s dedicated servers, which Shiring explains will improve the experience of the competitive multiplayer game.
Most online titles use player-hosted servers that run on an individual player’s console. That method suffers from latency and bandwidth issues. It is a cheap solution but one with a lot of drawbacks. Latency causes actions to appear delayed and bandwidth issues can make a connection unstable. The dedicated servers, which Microsoft can spool up and down on the fly depending on demand, will ensure that everyone has an equal and typically superior experience compared to the method currently used in titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops II for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
This is not something that is unique to Xbox and Microsoft. Amazon has a cloud hosting service that could serve the same purpose. The difference is the cost.
“Microsoft priced it so that it’s far more affordable than other hosting options,” Shiring wrote. “[Its] goal here is to get more awesome games, not to nickel-and-dime developers. So because of this, dedicated servers are much more of a realistic option for developers who don’t want to make compromises on their player experience, and it opens up a lot more things that we can do in an online game.”
Titanfall will use the Xbox Live cloud to power dedicated servers on Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC. Since Respawn made this announcement, Call of Duty publisher Activision revealed that developer Infinity Ward will also use the cloud for dedicated Call of Duty: Ghosts servers. Respawn also plans to run some artificial-intelligence squadmates and automated titans.
Forza Motorsport 5 is another game taking advantage of the cloud, but it’s using it for a different purpose. Turn 10 Studios creative director Dan Greenawalt explains how his company is using servers to calculate huge amounts of data to improve computer-controlled drivers:
“The cloud allows us to move learning A.I. [online] and to [treat] it more like ‘big data,'” said Greenawalt. “[We’re going to make] A.I. less like A.I. and more like real people. The game is learning how you behave. It’s evolving overtime. It’s evolving based on the entire community.”
Turn 10 accomplishes this by collecting data on every race and calculating that information in the cloud to come up with a more nuanced A.I. racer. That’s too much data for a single console to parse, but it’s exactly the type of large-scale, in-the-background task that the cloud is ideal for. The new A.I. routines can later filter down to your game and change the way opponents behave — it’s not something that is happening in real time.
Forza will also keep track of each individual’s performance over time to build an A.I. version of every player that will race against other people even when that gamer is offline.
“You could imagine how that would work in a first-person shooter or an action game,” said Greenawalt. “Where your squadmates are [A.I. versions of] your friends and your family behaving the way they would in a multiplayer game.”
Another potential use of the Xbox cloud, one that has no examples yet, is using remote servers to power a persistent shared environment. That means a game environment that continues to grow and change even while the player is away.
“You could get worlds that evolve based on my actions and your actions,” said Greenawalt. “Where destroying buildings or running a tank across a street actually has an effect on your world and my world while we’re playing asynchronously.”
Uses beyond gaming
The cloud won’t just help developers make better games, it will also improve the Xbox One’s overall user experience.
For example, your Xbox Live profile will live online. That means that you can access all of your games and content from any Xbox One just by signing in. When you’re at a friends, you can quickly sign into your account meaning your achievements and position on the leaderboard are always mobile.
The cloud will also power title and system updates in the background so that whenever you go to play, your stuff is ready to go. Likewise, it will always run matchmaking so that gamers can find a multiplayer instance faster.
This isn’t a completely comprehensive list. This is only the beginning and developers are only just starting to get an idea of what they’re going to do with the cloud.
“The Xbox Live cloud lets us to do things in Titanfall that no player-hosted multiplayer game can do,” Shiring wrote. “We want to try new ideas and let the player do things they’ve never been able to do before. Over time, I expect that we’ll be using these servers to do a lot more than just dedicated servers. This is something that’s going to let us drive all sorts of new ideas in online games for years to come.”
What the cloud is not good for … yet
Following Microsoft’s reveal of the Xbox One, it talked about the potential for using the cloud to handle heavy computational tasks. Many outsiders took that to mean the cloud might boost the graphical power of the machine so that the Xbox One could grow more powerful over time.
That’s not likely to happen for a while.
Turn 10’s Greenawalt explains the issue:
“It is going to be very difficult to use the cloud, with current bandwidth around the world, as something that I can just synchronously update every frame — just always updating because that needs to count on the fact that, one, you need to be connected, and two, you need a really, really good pipe coming out of the back of the box.”
The average consumer’s Internet speeds are too low for developers to rely on the fact that they can push more polygons using the cloud. Remote servers are theoretically capable of this, but gaming is a global business. It doesn’t make sense for a studio to build a version of its game that uses the cloud when many in its potential audience won’t see a benefit.
Slow network speeds would also cause servers to struggle to update anything that updates every frame, according to Greenawalt. That means the Xbox One will still have to handle things like physics and lighting locally as well.
It’s possible that, down the line, developers will feel more comfortable demanding a decent connection from its audience, but no one is taking that risk right now.
GamesBeat asked Microsoft if the cloud will improve visuals. It provided the following:
“Absolutely. You’ve seen some of the amazing graphics that Xbox One games will offer,” a Microsoft spokesperson told GamesBeat. “Game creators can use the cloud to offload computationally intensive operations which will allow more resources on the console to be used to enable higher-fidelity experiences.”
Microsoft is suggesting that developers can offload certain functionality to the cloud and then that the resources that frees up can go back into the game. No developer has stepped forward publicly to say that is the case with their game right now, so we’ll have to see if that’s something that happens eventually.
What about people with no broadband connection?
Microsoft originally planned to require an online connection to use the Xbox One. That’s no longer the case. That doesn’t mean anything for a game like Titanfall, which is an online-only multiplayer shooter.
Titanfall can take full advantage of the cloud because you have to connect to play at all. That’s probably not the case for Forza 5, which will have a single-player offline mode — one that still benefits from the cloud. Turn 10 is still going to have to program that mode to function properly for people who never connect their Xbox One to a broadband connection.
“When offline, gamers may not have access to all features in a game that are powered by the cloud,” a Microsoft spokesperson told GamesBeat. “But when they do log on to Xbox Live, from their console or a friends, they will be able to access these features and updates.”
Microsoft is giving gamers a choice. That means a bit more work for any developer that wants to take advantage of the cloud in their single-player “offline” modes.