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Xbox Live Compute: The Difference Engine

Xbox Live Compute: The Difference Engine

Tue 15 Oct 2013 1:00pm GMT / 9:00am EDT / 6:00am PDT
HardwareOnline

Why Microsoft's new Xbox One cloud initiative could change consoles forever

Not too long ago, Sony and Microsoft laid bare the engines of their eighth generation consoles. CPU clock speeds and DDR3 Ram numbers were bandied about, GHz were brought to bear, teraflops flaunted salaciously. When the dust eventually settled and the media guns lay relatively silent once more, a fairly predictable treaty was agreed upon: to all but the most technically minded of consumers, there's little to choose between the raw grunt of the two machines. The company supporting each machine has its priorities, its foibles and its USPs, and we're discounting Kinect and the first-party exclusives, but in the on-paper battle of boxes, you can expect much of a muchness.

Except now Microsoft's John Bruno is now telling me that those numbers aren't the full story, and it might not be unfeasible that they'll one day become almost completely irrelevant. Microsoft, owner of one of the largest and most powerful arrays of computational servers in the known universe, is putting it to use on Xbox Live.

Now, we've all heard promises about cloud processing and non-local computation. For a while, it seemed like it might be the future. Then it seemed like perhaps it might not. The public, burned by an experience which promised so much and delivered so little, returned to thinking of the cloud purely as a handy place to keep save games and MP3s. Now, says Bruno, that might all be about to change with advent of Xbox Live Compute, a service which "is specifically designed to enable game creators to utilize the scalable computing resources that Microsoft deploys within our regional datacenters, to enhance their game experiences beyond what is generally possible with the finite resources of a console."

What that means is not just convenience or multi-device access to content, but a significant extension of the power and scope which the Xbox One can offer developers and players. It means persistent worlds, improved AI, better rendering and dedicated servers for every multiplayer game on the platform. And it's all being offered to developers for free.

"Essentially what we did, about a year and a half ago, was sit down with a big group of game devs, some of whom have talked about their development on the platform," Bruno explains to me. He's the lead program manager of Xbox Live, a role which involves overseeing product direction as well as the engineering teams that build the Compute services.

"So really what the service is intended to do is to provide more of the infrastructure type services and deliver the on-demand compute features to developers"

"We really tried to understand how we could help them on the server side, we have this huge asset of lots of available computing power in the cloud. The intent was to build a platform which takes away a lot of the heavy lifting from server development. Things like scalability, things like peer distribution, things like being able to monitor and keep servers healthy: things that don't really do a lot for game development, but if we were to take that problem away from them and enable them to focus on building better games, think of the amazing things they'd be able to do with the additional compute power.

"So really what the service is intended to do is to provide more of the infrastructure type services and deliver the on-demand compute features to developers so that they can build that into their games from the outset. What we've seen, from a feature function benefit perspective, at least in v1.0, is that dedicated server multiplayer is a lot easier to build on Xbox One than it has been in previous years. So that was an obvious key benefit and there are a lot of key benefits to multiplayer gaming from that. We've also seen things like Forza, where they've done a lot with Drivatar and a lot of AI computations in the cloud. The cloud can just get smarter about the player and the game.

"One of the other things we've really been trying to push on is games as a service, we've seen this with other online games, but from a console view we saw it as a real opportunity to get games to be more adaptive, with more updates directly from the cloud. Building a game configuration in from the outset, so that game developers can tweak and tune the game without having to update the physical bits actually on the box.

"So again, building that sort of infrastructure to make those scenarios easier for developers was sort of our initial goal. We see a lot of opportunity in the future, there's a large number of things we're considering for the future, but right now we're obviously laser-focused on making it a really great launch."

That's an understandably fuzzy picture of the future, considering the program's nascent qualities, but will it sell to the customer? So far, the cloud seems to be cut from the same cloth as the clothes of the proverbial Emperor. It's everywhere, but doing relatively little of practical use. What actual difference is this going to make to players?

"From a computing perspective, server computing is evolving at a rapid rate," Bruno offers. "We expect that, over time, there'll be tons and tons more power that comes online from a server point of view. The physical box, with the chips in it that it has, well there's no easy way to upgrade that. So we do expect that over time we'll see more and more offloading of intensive CPU processing to the cloud.

"The physical box, with the chips in it that it has, well there's no easy way to upgrade that. So we do expect that over time we'll see more and more offloading of intensive CPU processing to the cloud"

"Now what that buys game developers is that, as you can imagine, they're going to make trade-offs in their game as to what they're going to use the local CPU for versus the remote CPU. We believe that there's going to be higher fidelity experiences over time, because of having that ability to offload those tasks that they often have to trade off with local resource. So we do expect higher fidelity games over time, we do expect that the cloud will just be better from a pure computing point of view."

Suspecting that this might not be specific enough for some, I try to nail Bruno down to a specific measure of the improvements we can expect. Is this going to be on the order of magnitude of a jump from 30fps to 60, for example, or the switch from SD to HD?

"That's not a question that's actually that easy for me to answer," he tells me, diplomatically. "Mostly because a lot of that depends on how the game is built. What I can tell you is what we've seen with some of our developers, in the case of someone like Respawn, is that adding that additional CPU resource for them in the cloud has made a huge difference in terms of what they can do locally on the box. So we're super excited about what we can do in the short term, but in the long term there's a lot of opportunities. Especially when you look at what our launch footprint looks like from a datacentre perspective and what that can grow to over a number of years."

Obviously, being an remote resource, utilising the Compute network is going to require a reliable, always-on internet connection. Last time Microsoft tried to introduce something along those lines, it ended in something of a backpeddle. What makes Bruno convinced that the announcement of Xbox Live Compute isn't going to result in a similar outcry?

"I think it comes down to a couple of things. One is that users who want to play multiplayer games are going to play them online. So for argument's sake we can assume that there's a connection there. The game itself can make the decision about what sort of experience it wants to deliver online vs. offline. I think that obviously there are some benefits to being online, and there are some benefits to being offline, but I generally think that it will be additive to users that are online."

It's a tricky proposition, and aiming the advantages at those who are already going to be permanently connected is a canny way to get around it. Bruno tells me that "at launch the experiences will be predominantly multiplayer," but there will be more to come on the single-player side in the future, if the developers decide to use it. For now, however, it's going to be the blockbuster multiplayer games like Titanfall and Forza 5 which are going to be the big beneficiaries.

"We've had Forza 5 working on it from day one," Bruno confirms. "We've had Titanfall working on it in the more recent months. I'd say Titanfall is definitely pushing on the additional computing resources, they're doing a good job of taking advantage of what's in the box and what's on the cloud. The Forza guys have done a really good job of providing a good multiplayer story as well as the AI technology for Drivatar in the cloud as well. So we've definitely had a great partnership from our development shops, both first and third party.

"I'd say Titanfall is definitely pushing on the additional computing resources, they're doing a good job of taking advantage of what's in the box and what's on the cloud"

"We are giving this resource away to them for free, so there is a huge incentive to utilise it on Xbox One as much as possible. I don't think that game developers of that magnitude, the Activisions and EAs, are going to put all their eggs into that basket. I think that any good service infrastructure is going to pick and choose the way that they architect the system in the way that's most beneficial to them. I think there'll be cases where developers will want services that the Compute isn't designed for, things like database services or CDNs, things that are going to provide different experiences that are unique to the way that they want to build the game.

"But I do think that will be advantages to the smaller game shops that had previously been spooked about getting into the server development because of the financial obstacle or the development obstacle there. That was one of the big intents, to take this barrier to entry of server development away and let these developers really explore what they could do with the cloud without having to worry about allocating financial resources or server developers to the problem.

"We've even heard stories where the developers have had that and wanted to shut down games and servers over time and that really does disrupt their communities. One of the big advantages of our service is that it's completely on demand, so that as games wax and wane in popularity so do the resources that get applied to it from Compute. Providing that elastic scale at a really beneficial cost price point is a big benefit to developers."

Giving those big-hitters new toys to play with might be a good thing for the end user who wants to while away endless hours in the worlds of Titanfall or Battlefield, but it doesn't do too much for Microsoft's reputation with the indies. Presumably there's not going to be much need to utilise Compute unless you're already stretching the Xbox One's internal organs, but is this extra dimension reserved only for major publishers, or can anyone get a piece of the action? At the bottom line, is the extent to which you can take advantage of Compute tied to success?

"Technically we have developer policies that we apply for any of our assets for Xbox Live, we don't make a lot of those public - but I should say the intent is to incentivise developers to do great things with the computing power but obviously not run away with it. So we have put some minimal guidance in place, we're trying to encourage this environment where developers can iterate and do more with the server and so we don't want to be limiting but at the same time we want to make sure there are some guardrails to keep cost somewhat under control."

So far, so free-market capitalism, but I feel we've not really reached the end of the list of potential gripes which consumers are going to raise. What about dropped connections, server side crashes, lost data and unavailable services? Bruno is surprisingly honest and pragmatic.

"We are giving this resource away to them for free, so there is a huge incentive to utilise it on Xbox One as much as possible"

"Well, there are always some risks associated with any internet connection, right? But we are trying to provide facilities to developers to help them mitigate those types of things. One of the great things about building on the server is that lost connections are something that the server can smartly detect and deal with from a state-saving perspective. We have also included this notion of storing a state for a game session, so a game that like similar to Minecraft, for example, with a number of players participating in a shared objective, that can be stored in the cloud in the event of disconnects.

"So we're trying to put as many tools in place as possible to give developers the power to address these matters, but obviously some of them are very difficult to overcome."

Potentially, then, this could be something the effect of which exponentially increases over time. If there's the power to turn the Xbox One into what is essentially a terminal, streaming content processed on a different continent, surely this is going to extend the lifecycle of the machine tremendously?

"I don't know that it's true or untrue," Bruno admits. "I guess at the end of the day we believe that the cloud is going to augment the Xbox One experience pretty well and it's obviously going to get better over time. Does that extend the life of the box? Potentially, I guess we're going to have to wait and see."

27 Comments

Craig Burkey Software Engineer

212 408 1.9
Popular Comment
"The Cloud Servers are unavailable at the moment..."

Seriously on Halo 4: Spartan Ops and the Terminal Videos were streamed rather than downloaded to disk and due to network congestion looked was extremely low res, blocky and distorted compared to the High Res vids in Halo Anniversary it was giant leaps backwards in my play experience. It seems absurd to me to allow players gameplay experience to become reliant on such variable conditions

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Craig Burkey on 16th October 2013 4:47pm

Posted:A year ago

#1

Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital

207 1,122 5.4
Popular Comment
Is it Microsoft week here at GI?

Anyway, I am still waiting to get impressed with this remote compute thing that Microsoft is doing with XB1. I really can't see any real-life scenario where this could help the game's visuals significantly. Internet infrastructure is not ready. People were complaining about lag with OnLive and the latency requirements there weren't even in the same league of what would be needed for bumping up FPS or adding some extra visual effects.
What exactly is Titanfall doing with remote computing?

Posted:A year ago

#2
Popular Comment
Seems like a one side Microsoft advertorial week here :)

Posted:A year ago

#3

Rodney Smith Developer

81 40 0.5
so much m$ payola washing around atm

Posted:A year ago

#4

Gregory Hommel writer

91 53 0.6
Popular Comment
This feature should not be discounted nor counted on. With multiple games taxing available assets, that magical computation power decreases exponentially. Not to mention the loss of everything that cloud computation was designed to do.

So try, try as you might Microsoft. Let's keep this comparison based off what you get in the box. There will be plenty of time to show features after they are proven. This would be no different than Sony touting the ability to stream PS3 titles using Gaikai. No one knows if it will work. It definitely won't be there on day one so let's just hush and sell our consoles and the games we know will be there.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gregory Hommel on 15th October 2013 5:02pm

Posted:A year ago

#5
Popular Comment
"Xbox One cloud initiative could change consoles forever... >skips to the end< ... except that the internet is shite."

Posted:A year ago

#6

Adam Campbell Associate Producer, Miniclip Ltd

1,199 1,011 0.8
We've been saying things to this tune since the industry shaking OnLive announcement all that time ago. Sure, the product flopped but the potential was there and quite obvious should the execution (and infrastructure) support it.

This really shouldn't be ignored but the console war isn't going to be won on this. Lest we forget, Sony have the technological assets and knowhow to compete with a cloud computing initiative like this, not least with thanks to a very clever purchase of Gaikai.

Whether the battle is in the box or outside the box, their main competition has most of the answers right now.

Posted:A year ago

#7

Jeffrey Kesselman Professor - Game Development, Daniel Webster College

30 52 1.7
This is the right approach. Using the backend for large scale compute and secure compute but not to try to use it for anything that needs near-realtime response.

It was what my Project Darkstar at Sun Labs was all about, making such things easy, reliable, scalable and fault tolerant. It is where the online industry has to evolve to.

Posted:A year ago

#8
Looking forward to see this in action.. Just wish that all the servers weren't in the USA..

Posted:A year ago

#9

matthew bennion Web Development

34 33 1.0
I can't logically see how cloud computing could be used to enhance a games graphics other than streaming the game from a much more powerful machine.

Cloud computing could however be used to free up local hardware to do others things (i.e. enhance the graphics). For instance you could move all enemy AI out into the cloud to clear some processor time.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist,

67 45 0.7
Have MS tried testing their cloud service outside their Redmond offices to check for any actual stability issues out here in the real world? Just an idea...

Posted:A year ago

#11

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,157 1,219 1.1
That whole "power of the cloud" plotline is beginning to sound an aweful lot like damage control before actual damage event occurs.Then again, a lot of people pray at powers allegedly residing in cloudy areas, not jusr PR persons. We could file Microsoft's actions under acts of religious freedom for their hardware cult.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Paul Jace Merchandiser

945 1,433 1.5
If Xbox Live Compute allows Kinect games to actually become responsive than I'm all for it.

Posted:A year ago

#13

Saehoon Lee Founder & CEO, Pixellore

60 41 0.7
If ms invest into internet infrastructure as much as they speak about their cloud service then people would be lot more interested. The best place for xb1 cloud services can thrive is place like korea with very high bandwidth and small latency. But ironically korea isnt the best place for consoles. Come on ms invest in here... ;)

Posted:A year ago

#14

Eoin Moran Studying Bachelor of Engineering, University of Melbourne

35 32 0.9
What I would love to see out of this is greater physics in games. Having proper fluid (Navier Stokes) equations really would be 'next gen'. Whether or not such things could be sent off and returned with minimal lag though is the major question.

Posted:A year ago

#15

James Prendergast Research Chemist

735 432 0.6
"We've even heard stories where the developers have had that and wanted to shut down games and servers over time and that really does disrupt their communities. One of the big advantages of our service is that it's completely on demand, so that as games wax and wane in popularity so do the resources that get applied to it from Compute. Providing that elastic scale at a really beneficial cost price point is a big benefit to developers."

I could have sworn I had a comment on this article (or was there another that disappeared?) but, anyway... It was along the lines of:
Developers still have to build their engine to work without the internet or cloud connection anyway - do to otherwise is just courting technical failures due to connection issues etc.

Also, regarding the quoted portion, developers/publishers still have to pay to use the cloud services. As soon as they no longer think that the cost of supporting that is okay then they'll stop paying for it and thus cloud support for those games will stop. It's exactly the same situation as now... no different.

Posted:A year ago

#16
Is it me or does the article say "it's all being offered to developers for free" and then a little later "Providing that elastic scale at a really beneficial cost price point" which implies 'not free'? Who is getting it for free? Everyone? Just the people doing this initial development?

I think it's a pretty good idea though. Sure I don't expect it to suddenly make graphics better or faster (not directly anyway), like some who are under the impression that rendering will all be done remotely (after all streaming HD content at 60fps is going to have a significant effect on latency). But the other benefits this could provide could be quite amazing. Those things that don't necessarily need an immediate response like AI calculations, world generation, simulations and more could work pretty well. If you just design your APIs for those systems well you should be able to switch between online and offline processing depending on availablity / performance and free up enough local resources to make it all that little bit faster. The other option of course is that you don't use it for improving speed, but for making a bigger, more impressive world whilst maintaining your current game speed.

The only concern I really have is how well Microsofts farms can handle all of the incoming processing requests. Until the consoles are out, with games that use the system and customers playing them, there's no real way to test the load that will be generated.

Posted:A year ago

#17

James Prendergast Research Chemist

735 432 0.6
@ Christopher Beckford:
It was stated in an interview with the Titanfall guys that MS' cloud will be offered at a discount to developers on the Xbox One. It might be "free" for a certain period for a very few exclusive games or "big" developers but I doubt it would be for all time. Obviously, I have no inside information - this is just my best guess.

I agree the cloud can do some tasks, I'm not sure I'm as on board as a lot of people are though. There is a lot of hype!

Those things that don't necessarily need an immediate response like AI calculations, world generation, simulations and more could work pretty well. If you just design your APIs for those systems well you should be able to switch between online and offline processing depending on availability / performance and free up enough local resources to make it all that little bit faster. The other option of course is that you don't use it for improving speed, but for making a bigger, more impressive world whilst maintaining your current game speed.

Interactive AI is very latency sensitive: the player is going to notice delays in response from opponents, for example. If you're talking about stuff like the "world AI" (forgot the name!) in Stalker then, sure, that's fine.

World generation, IMO, is generally better handled in real time on the box in question. You'd have a lot of pop-in otherwise. Though if you're talking about something procedural like Minecraft, then I think that would work well being constructed in the cloud instead of taking minutes locally.

The problem is that switching between online and offline real-time processing causes a big disparity in any system that a player/user can immediately perceive (e.g. physics, graphics, AI [opponents and comrades], world structure, lighting [though I suppose this comes under graphics]). I think things in the background are better at utilising this potential but at the same time their impact is much, much smaller to the player's/user's experience and, usually, they can be approximated for a fraction of the CPU cost or performed over a longer time frame, allowing the same or similar fidelity as a much more powerful system in a shorter time frame.

The other problem with thinking that offloading processes into the cloud will help improve local performance is that streaming that information back into a real-time experience onto the RAM or HDD takes CPU cycles. I have no idea on the performance-benefit ratio of data transfer versus computation cost/speed but it's not 100%, there's still a CPU overhead involved in the process - both sending and receiving.

IMO, the real benefit that cloud computing potentially has, is providing tangential experiences that improve the interaction between players instead of for the individual player themselves. The Drivatar might be a good example of improving "Ghost drivers" (though I still haven't seen any info on how exactly this will work)... but other than that it's way too early days for me to see what might be coming down the pipeline.

Posted:A year ago

#18
I'm Connor McCloud...there can only be ONE. X.B,One ...Can O Beeeee! (sorry silly comment here)

Posted:A year ago

#19

Nick Parker Consultant

298 174 0.6
The Microsoft Azure data centre infrastructure has been a pretty significant investment with servers on four continents and CDN nodes in 24 countries; a robust backbone for future exploitation in the games space.

Posted:A year ago

#20

Jordi Rovira i Bonet Lead Engineer, Anticto

22 22 1.0
What Microsoft really needs here is a studio that has faith in this technology and makes a product to prove it. And that will probably be a game that breaks many conventions.

Posted:A year ago

#21

Dan Pearson European Editor, GamesIndustry.biz

119 368 3.1
Potentially Fable Legends?

Posted:A year ago

#22
They need a new IP, fable is pretty exhausted as a IP

Posted:A year ago

#23
@Jordi Yep and yep.

Posted:A year ago

#24

Tom Wilhelm Ødegård Dpt. head Gaming, Spaceworld AS

30 1 0.0
Sorry Microsoft, still not buying your redacted console. As long as they imagined all those limitations on the consumer, I will never trust them to not stab us in the back again.

Posted:A year ago

#25

Roman Margold Rendering Software Engineer, Sucker Punch Productions

24 34 1.4
I, for one, think there is a big potential. There was a great talk about this kind of stuff on last SIGGRAPH where they showed how ambient light could be computed in the cloud with latencies up to 0.5s hardly noticeable. In multiplayer this cost can be even amortized for multiple users. Plus, if you do lose connection or if it simply gets crappier, that won't stop your game, it will only hurt your visual experience. That's just a single example of course, so I think the nay-sayers have a fixed picture in their head of how [badly] this could be used, which limits their appreciation. Give it to the dev community and we'll see what comes out of it.

Now, having said all that, this interview does smell like a cheap ad.

Posted:A year ago

#26

Nick Wofford Hobbyist

180 190 1.1
They've confirmed that Xbox Live Compute is completely free for developers, including dedicated servers.

http://www.vg247.com/2013/10/15/xbox-live-compute-gives-free-cloud-tech-to-all-devs-including-dedicated-servers/

Posted:A year ago

#27

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