Microsoft created confusion over its Xbox One online requirement this week, but fresh details are emerging that offer an insight into why the next-generation console needs an internet connection. Microsoft is increasing its number of Xbox Live servers to 300,000, up from only 500 at launch and 15,000 today. The servers will help power a lot of the new Xbox dashboard features, but they'll also be a core part of Microsoft's cloud gaming plans.
The software giant didn't discuss these plans in detail during the Xbox One unveiling earlier this week, but an Ars Technica interview with General Manager of Redmond Game Studios and Platforms Matt Booty sheds some light on the 300,000-server cloud architecture. Part of the server setup will be used to compute scenes in games. Booty explains that Microsoft is targeting areas that aren't sensitive to latency, a common complaint around cloud-powered games. "There are some things in a video game world, though, that don't necessarily need to be updated every frame or don't change that much in reaction to what's going on."
Latency-sensitive cloud gaming
Part of the cloud processing could be focused on elements such as lighting in games. Booty describes a forest scene where light shines through trees, or a battlefield with fog. Both elements don't need to be updated in real time and can be processed in the background, while the controller remains responsive to the action parts of the game. "Those are perfect candidates for the console to offload that to the cloud—the cloud can do the heavy lifting, because you’ve got the ability to throw multiple devices at the problem in the cloud."
The processing highlights why Microsoft is aiming to keep its Xbox One online as much as possible, a requirement that has still not been fully explained. Microsoft's Phil Harrison suggested the console will need to be online at least once a day, something Microsoft later denied as a potential scenario that is still being worked on. Explaining the online requirement, Booty notes that Microsoft is going to capitalize on fast connections and the cloud. "In the event of a drop out—and we all know that Internet can occasionally drop out, and I do say occasionally because these days it seems we depend on Internet as much as we depend on electricity—the game is going to have to intelligently handle that."
Still a lot to prove and show, but cloud is the future
It's not clear exactly how this cloud gaming works, and whether publishers will need to make a lot of changes to their games to support it. Microsoft has not yet demonstrated any games that take advantage of its cloud processing or the benefit to players, so it's entirely possible that we won't see this process in action at launch.
The Xbox One doesn't appear to match the PlayStation 4 hardware in terms of raw power, with Microsoft choosing to focus on the broad strokes of entertainment and TV over gaming alone. Time will tell if developers target Sony's specifications, back porting or scaling back games to the Xbox One, or if the similarities between the consoles help keep the gaming stakes even. As Anandtech notes, "it’s usually the lowest common denominator that determines the bulk of the experience across all platforms." Microsoft is clearly betting on the long-term viability of cloud gaming, something that could theoretically make up for its lower specifications in time. Similarly, Sony is also working on PS4 cloud features as part of its recent purchase of Gaikai. The upcoming console war won't immediately be won thanks to the cloud, but it's a core part of how the next-generation will attempt to live on for years to come.