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Cloud computing: Microsoft's potential ace up its sleeve

You're no doubt well aware that cloud computing is one of the Xbox One's big selling points. MS reps often tout the advantages of offloading physics and AI calculations to some server farm located, er, somewhere. The hope is that, in time, the physical computation disparity between the Xbox One and PS4 will mean very little, once more developers tap into the potential of cloud gaming. Up until now, those claims have been extremely difficult to visualize. Unless you're a developer--or someone with a deep understanding of how compute works--you have little choice but to believe what the aforementioned MS reps have publicly stated: that cloud gaming is a very good thing. Now, thanks to a presentation at Microsoft's Build 2014 Conference (video below), you can see exactly the sort of benefits that MS's cloud service, dubbed Azure, provides.

Now, a few things to note about the video above: First, the demo shown is a prototype, not an actual game. Second, the demo is running on a PC, not an Xbox One. But it still serves the purpose of showcasing the power of Azure. Consider the possibilities: what if that exact tech was an integral part of Battlefield 5, and every time you fired a rocket at a building, the impact was calculated to simulate a realistic reaction to the resulting explosion? Pretty nuts, yeah? Too bad it'll never happen unless BF5 ends up being a Microsoft exclusive.

At the moment, we only have two examples of games that really tap into the service: Titanfall and Forza Motorsport 5. In addition to the stability provided by dedicated servers, Titanfall benefits from Azure in the form of AI-controlled minions and titans, whose actions are handled by a server farm instead of your Xbox One. Forza 5 has its drivatar system, which imbues AI racers with driving behaviors that simulated uploaded data from other players. As a result, both games require an Internet connection for these systems to work, which has created some brief but noticeable hiccups in the past.

But what will the future bring? What sorts of evolutions will we see a few years down the road? That's what I'm most excited to hear more about. Microsoft's communications director, Larry Hryb, said on Twitter that "Titanfall was just the beginning." Come this year's E3 in June, perhaps we'll hear about the ways in which Halo 5 will utilize cloud computing, or what's in store for the next Gears of War. It's no secret that the PS4 consistently beats out the Xbox One in terms of resolution--but maybe Azure is Microsoft's secret weapon that, in a few years' time, might prove to be an innovative ace up the sleeve.

7 comments

  • Eightboll812 - April 7, 2014 2:42 p.m.

    The important thing to point out here is that offloading physics or AI doesn't directly impact framerate or rendering speed. The task of rendering all the objects to create a flat image on my TV is the same regardless of which entity is controlling the movement of the objects. Indirectly, less tasks that use the CPU means more CPU can be used for other tasks. And this goes to highlight the key flaw in the Xbone architecture. As we are reminded by the Internet fanboys, MS tries to make up for the GPU/memory deficiencies through "post processing". That's how they make games like Ryse look pretty despite rendering at a lower resolution. So of course if the CPU is tied up doing other things, then post processing would suffer. Therefore, offloading some CPU tasks to the cloud will have a positive impact to graphics process. It's only an answer to the problem MS created in the first place. To me this all sounds more like a solution in search of a problem--a problem they then created so they could appear to have the solution to that specific problem. It's by no means the only architecture that can achieve similar performance results.
  • FoxdenRacing - April 7, 2014 8:20 a.m.

    Until it can be scrutinized, es macht nichts. Maintaining 60fps means the transmission, calculation, retransmission of all relevant data, and re-integration all has to happen in 16.67ms or less...not exactly reasonable unless you're in a large metro area not far from an appropriate data center. Server-side calculations in games are nothing new...they've been around as long as LAN gaming has been...but the practice of bullshotting is just as old.
  • jrob23 - April 5, 2014 6:25 a.m.

    This video is unbelievable. They are trying to say a high end PC can not handle what was thrown at it in this example? Do they think we are dumb? See the framerate go to single digits from one building blowing up? I mean, seriously? And then they are bragging about keeping 32 fps going using the cloud. Yippee! If they don't lower the price to $350 they are doomed.
  • Larry_Mudd - April 6, 2014 2:41 p.m.

    No, MS does not think the developers who paid $2,000 a head to attend the conference are "dumb;" they know what they're looking at. Rather than a scripted animation, this is a dynamic destruction simulation, modelling the physics for ~40,000 individual fragments, each one with its own collision detection, velocity and rotation (in several dimensions,) each fragment subject to further fragmentation when it strikes another object. Yes, the calculations required to pull this off will bring a high-end PC to its knees. Yes, the Azure platform can serve this sort of thing up instantaneously. That is the point of the demo. It's been dropped that this prototype isn't a "throwaway" demo, it's intended for a commercially-released first-party game. (Lots of speculation that it's *Crackdown 3*, because the art style and colour palette matches the previous games very closely. I see a lot ot of people dismissing this as smoke and mirrors intended to confuse the consumer - I don't think these people really understand what the /Build conference is - it's a week dedicated to showing developers what they *can* do with the latest tools available to them. Expect this sort of implementation to start showing up in Xbox One games this year, and to become commonplace in about two years, when games the exoteric devs are just beginning find their way to market.
  • winner2 - April 7, 2014 6:24 a.m.

    Very interesting, thanks for the input. A lot of people tend to think a high end pc can do anything because it's a high end pc, but forget it's still a numbers game where there are finite boundaries at which things change. Also, I hadn't heard about the crackdown 3 speculation and hadn't thought if it, so that possibility has me very excited.
  • Shigeruken - April 5, 2014 12:32 a.m.

    Microsoft does not have the server infrastructure to accommodate everyone, and even if this technology could work as well as Microsoft's scripted and heavily controlled advertisements claim, that ddr3 ram is still a huge hurdle to overcome. No matter what you try to offload, anything the console attempts to render will always be bottlenecked by it's ram. There's no way such a small amount of esram could make up for that gap in performance. Besides, there's nothing special about the X1 that enables it to offload calculations like this. Any competitor could build up their own server infrastructure and offer a similar service. Microsoft needs to stop pretending their console is the best at everything and start focusing on what it can actually do differently.
  • greaterdivinity - April 4, 2014 3:11 p.m.

    I'll believe the ability of their Azure servers to do assist with real time rendering and physics calculations when I see it in a launched product. Thus far, all they're doing is AI simulation, something that's been done server side for decades now. I mean, that's cool and all and it does free up some hardware power, but it's hardly coming remotely close to their promises. I'm not technical wizard or genius or anything, but the scuttlebut I've seen about on the internet from people who claim/appear to have far more technical knowledge say that it's unfeasible for Microsoft to deliver on what they're promising with the cloud tech. But time will till. And until it is integrated into a released game, I'll treat it with the same skepticism I tread all grand promises with.

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