The State of the Industry Address Cloud Gaming and its Consequences
Cloud gaming deals with the same concepts as cloud computing, which is essentially the same as the interplay between “smart” and “dumb” computers on a LAN (local area network), except that instead of a LAN, the Internet is used to link the “dumb” terminal with it’s “smart” counterpart.
For anyone who doesn’t know about or understand the concept of smart/dumb terminals or cloud computing, here’s a quick rundown. Imagine a network of computers in an office, say ten. Nine of those computers are not very powerful, just enough to start up and run windows. The tenth computer is the “brain” of the whole network. It is very powerful. When one of the first nine PCs requires computing power for any reason, it tells the “brain” PC which then does the processing and sends the information back through the network to the PC that requested it. The first nine PCs only take input (keyboard and mouse) and show information (monitor). The “brain” PC is the one that “figures out” the data and sends it back to be shown on the PCs screen.
Cloud gaming works almost identically to the above example. In-fact, if you only use the above example for games, and replace the LAN with the Internet, it’s an exact example of cloud based gaming. There will of-course be more than one games-based cloud computing provider when this concept fully takes off in a few years, but for now, the only companies ready to provide us with cloud gaming goodness are Onlive, Gaikai and Playcast.
It’s obvious that cloud gaming has lots of benefits, such as a lower price-tag for hardware and the ability to play a game on launch day without a need for an install or any kind of wait. Updates will also be automatic and there will be no need to insert a disk every time you want to play, which is excellent for some gamers who don’t care for such annoyances. Once steam was available to the public, some gamers rushed out and re-purchased their favourite games on the platform because they hated patches or what have you. Steam lets the gamer focus on the game, which is one of it’s biggest selling points I think, and that will translate well to services like Onlive.
Cloud gaming may have some good points, but it’s bad points far outweigh it’s good points, at-least for now. The most important thing about Onlive (which is the only cloud gaming service I’ve heard more than a little about) right now is the way that it handles differing Internet connection speeds. A user with access to an insane, out-of-this-world Internet connection will see all that their game has to offer in terms of graphics. Users with slower Internet connections will still get the same game-play experience as their super high flying counterpart but the graphics will be turned down several notches to keep the number of frames per second high.
This is all well and good if you live in places like Korea, but for us here in Australia, it isn’t ideal. Around here, not many people have blisteringly fast Internet. Hell, some people even have dial-up, or none at all! (shudder). Sure, there are plenty of users with high speed connections but plenty more low-speed broadband connections such as ADSL, which may be fine for simply playing the game with a decent number of frames per second. At these speeds, it’s impossible to see and experience the games the way they are meant to be played, and when looking at games like upcoming Battlefield 3, it’s a damn shame that every Onlive user won’t be able to experience the amazing visuals the developer worked so hard on. Wait, there’s more.
We haven’t even gotten to the topic of monthly data caps. In Australia up until recently, we have had to endure painful monthly data caps on every plan under the sun. You’d have to pay $100+ monthly if you wanted a reliable, high speed plan with a high download limit. High meaning 60Gb. Not enough for the money. What about other people in this country though? What about people in other countries with data caps? Since data is going back and forth constantly, the amount of data going back and forth in a single hour must be massive, and if someone doesn’t have an Internet plan which allows for plenty of data, it’s gonna get chewed up real fast.
Side note! If the whole world took on cloud gaming tomorrow and left traditional consoles and PCs in the dust, titles would obviously be developed for these services and only these services. Because of the way that services like Onlive handle different Internet connection speeds, game development studios will in turn spend less money on developing the graphics of their games. Why spend $10 million on making your character models look detailed and water look crisp and fresh when only 30% of your user base will see it? Even if traditional consoles and PCs were around and being used in this scenario, graphics would suffer for the same reason. Not as badly, mind you (I couldn’t imagine the uproar if they made Crysis 3 and the textures looked like something from the early PlayStation 2 days) but they would suffer and the change would be noticeable because game devs won’t be pumping money into graphics.
Apple recently released a refresh of their Mac Mini line. It’s the darnedest thing too, it has no disk drive! It has been demonstrated time and time again, when Apple leads, the industry follows. Apple’s move may not be the death-nail for optical media, but it’s a step in that direction. Another important step is cloud-based gaming. Optical disks are annoying to some and a live-saver to others, but for for used games market to continue to exist, so must optical media. Sure, to some of us, it makes no difference weather the used game market lives or dies, but to some, it is the only (legal) way they’d afford any video games at all. Some people only buy used games, they don’t care about some unique weapon they can’t have because EA restricted it to people who bought the game new. They want their core gaming experience without the frills of “bonus” this or “collector’s” that. Who knows? Maybe little Jimmy will go out and get Grand Theft Auto 4 used, play through the story mode and go onto PSN and downloads the two additional pieces of DLC. That’s money in Rockstar’s pocket that wouldn’t have been there without the used games market because Jimmy wouldn’t have been able to afford his copy of GTA in the first place.
When a new game in an insanely popular franchise such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto gets announced for pre-order, millions of people world-wide pre-order their copy so that they don’t miss out on launch day. This is all well and good for now, because there are hundreds of thousands of outlets world-wide that take pre-orders and distribute the games on launch day and the pre-order population is spread out among those outlets. Lots of people also pre-order online so their game is shipped to them on launch day so that takes some pressure off of brick-and-mortar stores in terms of pre-order numbers.
That’s all well and good, but what happens when 10 million people (for argument’s sake) pre-purchase the new GTA using Onlive so that they can play it on launch day? I’d say at-least 50% of those people will wait until 12am on launch day so they can play the minute their game is available. All those people connecting and playing all at once? Couple that with the regular population playing other games and one of two things will happen. Either the frames and/or overall game quality for every customer drops as the system tries to cope with the massive wave of users, or the system will crash all together.
In a way, a cloud-based gaming system is like the national power grid: Both systems deliver a service through a near-instant medium, both systems are payed for by their customers on a fixed schedule and both generate their resource at a central location/s and send it out to where it’s needed. If the power grid were to go down today, those without any way to generate electricity on their own will be left in the dark. Likewise, if Onlive were to go down, those with no way to access computing power locally would be left in the figurative dark. When the power goes out, people need solar panels on their roofs, or power generators to keep their houses lit-up. Just as if the power grid were to go out, if the Onlive servers were to go offline, those without a gaming console will be left without games.
The way I see it, there is always a middle ground. In this case, the middle ground is DLC (downloadable content). Every game that gets made should be DLC and saved games backed up to the cloud from the home console. The used-games market will fade away to be sure, but in it’s place needs to be some sort of try-before-you-buy system. Download a game and the first 24 hours of that game will be free. The entire game free to play as much as you want in that 24 hours. The countdown timer starts when you first start the game and it doesn’t stop, even when the game is turned off. If a user downloads a game at 6pm, the entire game is playable until 6pm the following day, at which time the user either has a choice to buy the entire game or delete the trial. This also has the added bonus of forcing game developers to make higher quality titles, because if a user tries a buggy game that bores him to tears, then the developer looses a sale. Every title will have to be high quality to entice people to buy. If this system were in place today, the world would be a much nicer place.
Cloud-based gaming is fine, and one day it will be the only game in town, but not for years and years. It will slowly start to take over, no matter how much we try to stop it. The big 3 (Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft) won’t go down without a fight. They’ll have their own consoles and people will buy them because it’ll be the only way to play any of their first-party titles. In the same way that you won’t ever see a Mario game on a Microsoft Console, you’ll have to wait a long time (if ever) to see a Halo game on a cloud-gaming service. One that isn’t owned by Microsoft, anyway.
LrdRistovski - About the Author:
LrdRistovski has a full time gig at SanelyThinking writing about whatever comes to mind. Head there and have a gander, you may even see something you like.