It's easy to be skeptical that Xbox One developer's claims that their games will benefit from cloud computing. But, today, I talked to one and I like what he had to say.
This was an impromptu chat. I was at Spike TV's all-day All-Access E3 venue, sitting in the green room and waiting for my time to hop back on air for some gaming punditry. Dan Greenwalt, creative director on Turn 10 Studio's new racing game, the Xbox One's Forza 5, sat down on the couch next to me. Just hanging out.
We started talking about Xbox One and some of the new online requirements it has. Stuff like the check-in every 24 hours. I said that Microsoft really needed to explain what the benefits are for some of this stuff. They talk vaguely about using cloud computing, for example, but what do we really get out of it? Maybe they should show some next-gen games with the cloud computing turned on and off, I suggested.
Greenwalt had a surprising but refreshing reaction. He said it was on the game creators to explain this stuff to gamers. It was on them, he said, to show people the possibilities, something Turn 10 also tried to do when it integrated Kinect into the Forza series on the Xbox 360. He started talking to me about Drivatar, which he'd been talking about on stage at the Xbox press briefing earlier in the day.
Greenwalt wasn't trying to convince me that what Forza 5 is doing with the cloud is the most complex and wonderful thing ever. Instead, he feels that it is a good early step.
Drivatar uses the cloud to figure out how you drive and to then represent you n races in other people's games. It does the same for them, bringing virtual versions of other people into your copy of the game as your opponents.
I got that, but I also kind of didn't, I told Greenwalt. How does that actually work? What happens? This, you see—the essence of how these Xbox One games actually work—has been so frustratingly elusive. What does it feel like to play an Xbox game that's relying on the cloud?
He, thankfully, was specific.
The first time you put the game in, it'll reach out to the cloud and pull down data from other people's Drivatars. Immediately, you'll have opponents in the game who are driving in the style of real people. These Drivatars are imbued with the driving personality and tendencies of real people, Greenwalt told me. So if the person tended to take turns a certain way, pass in certain ways, drive off the road a lot... that'll be evident in the virtual version of them against which you compete.
When you play the game, if you're connected, your own driving data will be uploaded to the cloud. It'll happen pretty much after every race. But if you play offline—and, remember, you can do that for almost 24 hours—the game will collect your driving data, let you play against the Drivatars it already snatched but then do a new data exchange whenever you re-connect.
Players may be able to select difficulty levels, weeding out tougher or worse opponent Drivatars, if they wish.
The actual data going back and forth from the Xbox One to the cloud isn't that complex, he told me. What's complex is the work the computers connected in the cloud will do to crunch players' driving tendencies. Doing that all outside of the Xbox One frees the console from having to use any muscle figuring it out. Eventually, he said, the cloud computing system will begin to discard older data that used to inform a player's Drivatar. That's so that the Drivatar more accurately represents how the player's driving skills have improved or deteriorated.
Every player's Drivatar is essentially racing for them when they're not around. That Drivatar's performance will be reported back to the player the next time they play.
Greenwalt wasn't trying to convince me that what Forza 5 is doing with the cloud is the most complex and wonderful thing ever. Instead, he feels that it is a good early step. It's something that others can go further with as developers use Xbox One's new online requirements and services to do things with games that hadn't been tried before.
I can't say that Forza 5's use of the cloud suddenly makes all of the Xbox One's policies sound awesome. But I can say that developers getting specific like this helps. It helps illustrate that at least some of these requirements and services may be a trade-off. If there are some good things that come out of, say, a game designer knowing their players will be connecting online frequently, that helps make this Xbox One proposition a bit more interesting and maybe even a bit more appealing.