If rumour speak true, you could be playing Xbox One's most-anticipated third party exclusive in less than 24 hours. A Titanfall "alpha trial" sign-up page went live on the official site this morning, cue explosion of forum speculation - according to second-hand intel from EA support, the trial itself will begin on 17th January. EA has yet to make any announcements, so pinches of salt are requisite, but the omens are good.
A fine time, then, to dig into our interview with developer Respawn Entertainment programmer Jon Shiring about the challenges of developing a game in parallel with the console it's supposed to run on. You'll read all of it and much, much more in the new issue of OXM US, which is on sale now.
Titanfall's absence from Xbox One's launch line-up has been lamented, but Shiring and his team were only too happy to dodge that particular bullet. "It's really exciting to do a launch title, and it takes years off your life too!" he told us. "I've done this once before with Call of Duty 2, and it's always seat-of-your-pants - everything's coming together around you and you're trying to make a great game while all this is happening.
"It ends up being a really difficult challenge for engineering especially, because we're trying to support all of the artists and designers here while we're trying to make it all come together on a system that a few years ago wasn't finished, obviously," he continued. "So we were kind of building the game while at the same time working with Microsoft, and getting new [info] drops from them. It's a really amazing challenge for an engineering team to make this happen."
Creating Titanfall hasn't been quite as arduous as developing Call of Duty 2 in certain respects - the new Xbox uses the same X86 processing architecture as the PCs that generally serve as lead development platforms, which has allowed Respawn to tweak both the Xbox One and PC versions in one go.
"Obviously it's really easy for a lot of the artists and designers here to be iterating on a PC, because that's what they're using to make content on and do the scripting," explained Shiring. "It's nice that when we do an optimisation that helps them it helps everyone on both platforms, and that's pretty huge for us, because on [older] consoles, optimisation for one doesn't always help the other." Presumably, the anonymous developer responsible for the Xbox 360 version of Titanfall is having a tougher time of things - Shiring declined to reveal anything when we asked.
The Xbox One's eight processing cores are being put to good use, he continued - processing tasks are run in parallel, rather than one after the other, which means that more can happen in the game at once. "We can throw a lot of work at it, and it's been challenging enough to make sure that our engine can do that kind of parallel workload, but there's a lot more capability [in terms of] the number of [command] threads you can run at once than on previous consoles."
This isn't just numbers for numbers' sake - with fewer than 100 employees on the books (for reference, the Watch Dogs team is reported to be 600 strong), Respawn can't afford to waste programming time and resources on anything that doesn't make Titanfall more entertaining. "That's what we've been focusing on, trying to support the designers and artists in making that happen. And obviously we want the game to be 60 frames per second, to be technically great, but we're not doing engineering tasks that don't make the game more fun.
Key to that agenda is the Xbox Live cloud, a fat platter of dedicated servers that's being used in all sorts of ways. "There's a few different aspects to it, one of which is very practical." Access to dedicated servers means that players won't be lumbered with the age-old drawbacks of peer-to-peer multiplayer, Shiring continued. "Certainly if you've played other games, and you're trying to make a party and not everyone can connect to the same people, so you have to negotiate which one is going to do the party and invite everyone in - all of these things to get around the fact that it's hard to connect from player to player.
"By having this stuff on the cloud, you can guarantee that everyone will be able to connect," he went on. "It's like loading a web page: you don't have to worry about whether you can load a web page, it just works. So you have this certainty and reliability there. When you're trying to get together with your friend and just play, there's no question as to whether you guys are going to be able to get into a match together - it's just going to work."
Thus the more pedestrian stuff - the "really cool" aspect of Titanfall's cloud support, of course, is how it offloads certain processing tasks to servers, principally physics and AI calculations. "We're using a dual-core server to run all of our matches, so there's really a significant amount of CPU available to us, and we use that for the AI and the player code and all these kind of things, and we have a lot of bandwidth on these servers," said Shiring.
"All these things are what actually let us have all the AI and all the players and huge Titans running around with all these physics. The extra bandwidth is what lets us fill the world with moving things, and the available CPU is what lets us do things like AI, you know? And it's not just a bullet flying through the air, that's moving and causing network data, it's an actual AI that's making decisions and trying to shoot at things and looking around."
Respawn has been sharing ideas with Microsoft about the cloud for quite some time; in this regard, Titanfall's development may have shaped the manufacturer's platform strategy as much as the evolution of Xbox One has shaped Titanfall. "That's something I went to Microsoft on pretty early into Respawn and said: 'We want to make a game, and we're going to need dedicated servers, how can you guys help us out?'" Shiring recalled.
"And we had an interesting dialogue there, and that's really when we came back with all this Xbox Live Compute idea - so we've been working on it with them for a long time, and all of the versions of our game will be using it. But on all platforms it's letting us make a game that obviously nobody's been able to make in the past, so it's really exciting, the capability that we now have."