Microsoft is planning an Xbox One update that saves drive space

Microsoft has drawn the ire of gamers worldwide over the last four years with the launch of the Xbox One, because the newer file system used on the console requires that you replace entire chunks of game files when you do an update. It got so bad that Forza 5‘s updates would regularly reach into the 10GB range, and headlines on the internet talked about the size of Xbox One download sizes with regularity. Well, according to a Digital Foundry exclusive that goes into a new feature Microsoft is planning for the Xbox One file system, that might be a thing of the past.

The feature, noted in confidential documentation seen by Digital Foundry, is called “Intelligent Delivery”. The current system is set up so that when an Xbox One owner in the US, and a gamer in Taiwan both insert their copy of Forza 6 into the console, it will download and install an identical copy of the needed system files on both consoles for consistency. The languages used might be different, and there might be separate parts of the game used for censorship and age rating purposes, but it’s otherwise an identical install. This is the same system used on Steam, Origin, Uplay, and other game content delivery systems.

Intelligent Delivery aims to change that by adding tags to “chunks” of files that are region or language-specific. The idea is that developers will assign these tags to specific content, which means that if you’re living in Mexico and playing with Spanish audio, only the Spanish audio will be downloaded, and not the two dozen other languages that the game might support. In a similar vein, gamers in Germany playing Wolfenstein II will have tags assigned to versions of the game that replace or remove all the swastikas, while gamers next door in Belgium can shoot Nazis in full regalia as much as they want, because their region has different tags assigned to it.

It’s not a new idea or a new system (Blizzard has done this for years with the MPQ file system), but it is one that will add more admin for game developers in return for reduced needs for drive space. Digital Foundry says that the documentation states that the benefits will vary on a game by game basis, so not every title will see the same benefits to file size and download times. “Massive” potential savings are touted, but that’s only for games that would have otherwise downloaded massive amounts of game data.

There’s also the suggestion that this allows Microsoft to finally support multi-disk installations, which it bizarrely hasn’t been able to do until now. Up to 15 dual-layer Blu-Ray discs are said to be supported. This will be of great benefit to regions with poor internet, but I think it won’t change much of anything for users in countries with great internet connectivity.

Digital Foundry also notes that this will allow gamers to decide which parts of a game they download, and which ones they can remove to free up drive space. An example given is with Battlefield, where game files for the single-player and multi-player are separated in the same way, with tags assigned to them, and users can delete either part of the game to save on space.

What about the Unified Update Platform?

Along with the Windows 10 Creator’s Update released in March this year, Microsoft snuck in a new feature for increasing download speeds, to reduce the space taken on drives for updates and region-specific features, and to make updating systems more robust. It’s called the Unified Update Platform (UUP), and it’s a replacement for the old method of updating a system by allowing the use of differential downloads, and not full file/package replacements.

UUP takes stock of the updates on your system and builds a list of applicable updates to your system based on what you already have installed. If you have several updates already installed that would have been downloaded otherwise, the UUP delivery service scratches those updates off the list, and only downloads what is needed to bring your system up to date. There’s a touted 35% overall reduction in download sizes, which is something Microsoft can reveal publicly thanks to telemetry about how much space they’re saving on average.

UUP hasn’t made its way to the Xbox One family yet, but it will get there eventually. Intelligent Delivery appears to implement parts of the service like the tags attached to file chunks, and when you download game updates on Xbox One it will only download the ones applicable to your region, and not updates for other regions.

The weird thing is that updates on the Xbox 360 were what first influenced Microsoft to design and implement the UUP delivery system for Windows 10, and it somehow never made its way to the Xbox One platform. You all remember how fast updates on Xbox 360 were downloaded and installed? That was a differential update system, and it saved gamers a lot of internet bandwidth and space on the drive.

Where to from here?

The natural evolution of Intelligent Delivery and Unified Update Platform is that downloads are not cached on the hard drive, but instead in a RAM drive, or in the system RAM itself. Part of the problem with most computer systems today is that you need to delete something first before an update takes up all the remaining free disk space, before it even gets applied! A way around this is a mixture of differential updates and caching the update data in RAM.

That way, if there’s only 5GB of free space left on the drive, and the update is 4.5GB, but it will end up freeing 6.5GB of space by deleting other unecessary files, the operating system will be able to see that there’s actually going to be more space available after the update, and it will do the update by copying the contents from RAM onto the drive while also deleting the older files, leaving other parts of the file and folder structure intact.

Why not? It’s already possible on Linux. The Linux kernel will cache any and all writes that a userspace application makes to the hard drive in RAM, but only writes those actions or makes those changes permanently when the command is given to do so. This way, the scenario described above does work.

Digital Foundry didn’t reveal any dates about when the Intelligent Delivery system will come online,  or if it’ll ship with an upcoming system update, but it’ll definitely have to show up before the arrival of the Xbox One X to help reduce the download sizes of games using 4K textures and high-end audio assets.