The 300,000-server-strong Xbox LIVE cloud for the new Xbox One will share processing duties with the console, Microsoft has detailed, responsible for "latency-insensitive computation" like filling in background detail or figuring out complex lighting effects. The split crunching had been broadly outlined before, but Microsoft shared some specifics with Ars Technica, including how the system would amount to roughly three virtual Xbox One consoles per the one in your living room, and what visual impact it would have for gamers without a persistent internet connection.
According to Microsoft's Matt Booty, General Manager of Redmond Game Studios and Platforms, the remote processing works because not every element of gameplay is "latency-sensitive" and so doesn't need to be handled by the local console. While elements like collisions and attacks might need to happen instantly, others - such as cloth motion for characters' clothes, fluid dynamics, and physics modeling - are no less compute-intensive but don't have the same urgency.
"Let’s say you’re looking at a forest scene and you need to calculate the light coming through the trees, or you’re going through a battlefield and have very dense volumetric fog that’s hugging the terrain. Those things often involve some complicated up-front calculations when you enter that world, but they don’t necessarily have to be updated every frame. 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" Matt Booty, Microsoft
That sort of work can be handed over to the cloud, Microsoft has decided, though there'll be a balancing of local and remote handiwork depending on when the results are needed. For instance, the Xbox One will likely do the initial processing when the scene changes, Booty explains, before the cloud takes over and begins feeding data over the internet connection.
For those without a persistent connection - or with an unstable one - it will likely mean a reduction in some of the visual gloss, or at the very least the Xbox One's 8-core processor working harder to catch up. Booty wouldn't be drawn on what Microsoft's exact policy is in that case - saying only that "the game is going to have to intelligently handle that" - but presumably there will be a minimum level of detail that gamers can expect.
Microsoft's approach to the cloud is markedly different to that of Sony and the PS4. There, the new PlayStation will use cloud processing to enable backward-compatibility with PS3 games, since - like the Xbox One - the next-gen console introduces a change of core architecture and so won't work directly with old discs.
Sony will use its Gaikai acquisition to do that, with the cloud in effect creating a virtual PS3 and then communicating the gameplay over the PS4 owner's internet connection. The Xbox One, meanwhile, will not place such a priority on backward compatibility, with Microsoft recently arguing that only around 5-percent of gamers play last-gen games on their new console.
Instead, there'll be lingering support - and new games - for the Xbox 360, with a fresh batch of titles promised for E3 2013 alongside more details of the line-up for the new Xbox One. Microsoft is yet to detail the Xbox One release date, or indeed to confirm what will happen to the Xbox 360 when the new console hits store shelves.