There is a lot of research going on."
I spent quite a lot of last week listening to various highly intelligent people bang on about the potential benefits of remote processing, aka "the power of the cloud", at the Develop conference in Brighton, UK. Among these highly intelligent people was Mark Jackson, technical animation director at Crytek - a company that is reportedly undergoing something of a financial meltdown right now. Jackson wasn't able to comment on these claims on the record, but he was able to say a few things about how Xbox Live's scalable server support might be of service to animation departments in particular.
As has been extensively discussed, cloud processing isn't very useful when it comes to time-sensitive tasks, such as drawing in the textures on a character's face - even the slightest delay thanks to distance and the quality of your connection may cripple the experience. As games like Titanfall and Forza 5 demonstrate, however, it's a handy resource as regards processes that don't have to be worked through on the dot - and the payoff could be more resources to blow on things like performance. Watch the video below - a sneak teaser of the tech at work in Microsoft's Crackdown reboot - for an illustration.
"The stuff the animators do is the very tip of the systems running to make the character," said Jackson, when I asked about the practicality of running calculations related to animation in the cloud. "So any animation, whatever the player is currently doing, that's probably 30 animations blended together, and subsystems on top of that, and [inverse kinematics] systems trying to calculate foot planting and hand planting and weapon attachments. All of this stuff you maybe think is animation, but which is actually lots of clever code running in the background to try and bolt things together.
"So that's something we're heavily looking at, in terms of the tech - how much of what we do we can smooth out and make easier and faster, so we're not making more animation data out of it - we're doing it slightly more intelligently, which gains us [CPU] cycles back that we can use to calculate extra stuff on the top. So yeah there is a lot of research going on."
Jackson feels that there has yet to be a definitive instance of cloud-enhanced gaming on Xbox One. "Everybody is always looking for the next, greatest, bestest thing," he said. "And until someone comes up with something that everyone looks at and goes 'wow, we've got to follow that' everyone's kind of looking in different directions, trying to solve the same problems."Crytek UK is currently working on Homefront: The Revolution, an open world follow-up to 2011's would-be Call of Duty beater from Kaos Studios. Elsewhere in our chat, Jackson discussed the difficulties of trying for the same level of fidelity you'd expect of Ryse: Son of Rome, but on a far larger canvas. Watch out for the full text in a forthcoming issue of OXM.