Microsoft is planning a quiet revolution in the way that games are streamed and installed onto Xbox One and Xbox One X. The new system - known internally as Intelligent Delivery - aims to save hard drive space and reduce download times by allowing users to only download the assets they'll actually need, as opposed to the complete game package. The platform holder has already dropped some hints about this functionality, confirming that Xbox One users won't need to download X's 4K assets, but the execution goes beyond that, being flexible enough even to support multi-disc releases - not currently supported on Xbox One.
Based on documentation seen by Digital Foundry, Intelligent Delivery was initially revealed to game-makers at Microsoft's XFest developer event earlier this year, and its execution relies upon developers adapting the way they master their titles. Essentially, the concept involves splitting game content into 'chunks' of data and then adding tags to them. Multiple tags can be attached to a chunk, and they can be device-specific or language-specific, for example. In the case of the latter, this means that game audio or cutscenes in non-relevant languages don't need to be downloaded - Intelligent Delivery could, in theory, install just the assets applicable to your region, with other languages an optional 'on demand' download, accessible via the Xbox One dash.
In terms of the actual impact language-specific installs will have, the space saved on the hard drive - not to mention the download time - will vary on a game by game basis. However, according to Microsoft, language-specific chunks have particular relevance to sports titles, where the audio assets often take up the majority of a game's full install size. The platform holder describes the potential savings here as 'massive'.
In terms of device-specific content, Intelligent Delivery allows developers to partition off artwork for either Xbox One or the X, with the console only delivering the assets that are needed for the hardware in question. The amount of space saved here is not insignificant - as an example, Far Cry Primal's HD texture pack on PC is an optional 6GB download. For users upgrading from Xbox One to X, Intelligent Delivery takes care of the user at the system level. For example, if you have an Xbox One title on an external drive which is then plugged into an X console, the user is prompted to download the X-specific data. If space runs out on the drive, the user can delete the data that's only used by the older Xbox One, deleting that chunk via the dashboard.
In addition to location and device tags, developers can also specify content-specific chunks. Good potential candidates here are first-person shooters like Battlefield and Call of Duty. With the Intelligent Delivery system, single-player and multiplayer parts of the game can be partitioned off, allowing the user to delete either component if they're not using them. Similarly, additional components of the game not crucial to the user can be tagged by the developer as optional installs, or capable of being deleted at a later date - level editors, for example.
With content now divided into context-sensitive chunks, the door is now open to titles that can be delivered to users on more than one Blu-ray disc. Logically, essential data is located on the first disc and installed first, with the Xbox system software prompting the user to insert further discs in order to install other data.
Optional 'chunks' can be included on additional discs, with the user potentially able to specify what content or languages they'd like to install. What's more, developers can upload a complete project to Microsoft for submission and mastering, but assign different chunks to different discs, effectively using the same master project to create multiple SKUs. For example, Japanese language support could be an optional chunk for Western users - an extra on-demand download, or placed on the secondary disc - while that data would obviously be a mandatory part of the Japan SKU.
In terms of how multi-disc support works for the user, data is installed in sequence on a per-disc basis with the system prompting you to swap Blu-rays when required. However, for gameplay, disc one must be in the drive, acting as a license check. Based on the documentation we've seen, while the underlying software for supporting multiple Blu-rays allow for up to 15 discs, Microsoft is supporting a maximum of two right now for mastering. Anything beyond that may require a bespoke arrangement with the platform holder.
Based on what we know so far, Intelligent Delivery looks like a well thought-out, robust solution to several issues. Principally, the arrival of Xbox One X with its big 4K texture packs shouldn't make life harder for owners of the older model - many which only have 500GB hard drives. But what's impressive here is that the system of chunks and tags devised to address this challenge has been expanded out to offer space savings for many other scenarios unrelated to the arrival of the new console. Microsoft's developer briefings even point out that Intelligent Delivery can be retrofitted to existing titles, though the process is only really recommended for upcoming games.
It's a useful new tool, and while we can expect to see full implementations of Intelligent Delivery on Microsoft first party titles, there's no guarantee that third party developers will use the system to its fullest extent - and of course, there may be good reasons why certain aspects of the system may not be deployed. For example, a first-person shooter may have too much commonality in its campaign and multiplayer art assets to make segregating them a worthwhile prospect. And as far as we know, there is no PlayStation equivalent to this system, possibly meaning additional effort for the developer in setting up their projects, which would only benefit one platform.
However, at the very least we would expect to see the device tag used extensively to ensure that Xbox One owners don't need to download the X's 4K assets. But the foundation has been laid and the bottom line is that Intelligent Delivery is a powerful new tool available to developers with the potential to reduce download times and make more of your limited hard drive space - and that can only be a good thing.