Cloud gaming looks a lot less like “pie in the sky” this month, as Sony bought on-demand gaming service Gaikai for an impressive $380 million. What’s even more impressive than that figure, however, is the technology behind Gaikai and the game-changing possibilities cloud gaming could bring to future consoles like PS4 and Xbox 720.
Currently, Gaikai’s cloud gaming service can stream full, console-quality games through browsers: FireFox, Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer -- they’re all compatible. This accessibility is convenient, but it isn’t what has us most excited about the venture. No, the revolutionary part comes into play when you realize that cloud gaming could eliminate both the weight and the wait. Goodbye bulky hard drives needed to fill up GBs worth of game data. Goodbye the time spent idling in front of a progress bar while the entire game downloads.
Gaikai (pronounced “guy-kai”) is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “Open Ocean.” Like the name suggests, there’s plenty of untested waters to explore when eliminating a user’s need for high-end hardware without sacrificing quality gameplay and graphics. Let’s take a look at both the bright and sunny and the stormy future of cloud gaming.
Pros: Gaming On Cloud 9
As Easy As YouTube
Gaikai says that it makes “playing a game as easy as watching a video on YouTube.” True enough, I was able to instantly play Bulletstorm -- on my MacBook Pro Late 2008 model. This hardware isn’t prime for gaming, especially not the action-intense gaming brought to you by the teams at Epic Games and People Can Fly. On top of that, Bulletstorm isn’t even on Steam for Mac. Yet with an Xbox 360 controller plugged into my outdated, non-gaming OS, I was able to start shooting my way through this really fun FPS game within thirty-seconds.
Now, compare that to what we have to deal with on PlayStation 3. Downloading whole games via the PS Store can take hours depending a number of factors: file size, your Internet speed and Sony’s own server traffic. Then the game has to install. Then there’s the nagging firmware update you sometimes need to download to play the game. That has to install. Oh, look, the game just received an patch. Download that, install it, and don’t forget to press the PS button.
No wonder we’re ready to shoot aliens in the head with brutal consequences by the time we’re done. The attention span of someone who enjoys a game like Bulletstorm is already minimal. Making gaming on a cloud as easy as watching a YouTube video or streaming a Netflix movie would eliminate one of the major headaches of today’s anxious gamer.
Slimmer Consoles, Slimmer Prices
All of the PS4 and Xbox 720 rumors have pointed to high-end tech specs that outperform those of current generation of consoles and the Wii U. Nintendo hasn’t announced a Wii U price, but by packing the system with what we expect to be reasonable hardware, the company may once again have the upper hand in the eyes of consumers on a budget.
Think back to the Wii’s launch. It cost $250. PS3 launched two days earlier at $500 and $600. To consumers that holiday season, the choice was clear, and that was bad news for Sony. Even with its steep pricing of PS3, the company lost money on every console sold (but eventually made it up selling games), while Nintendo made a profit on everything from the beginning.
Cloud gaming could reverse that increasingly expensive trend by bravely going against Moore’s law. Instead of thick and heavy hard drives, smaller slate drives would be more than adequate. Likewise, CPUs and graphics cards would only need to be fast and powerful enough to run the images being projected by the video game. That has to sound appealing to Sony and Microsoft, which wouldn’t mind selling you a small gaming capable box and making a profit immediately.
The real heavy lifting would be on the game company’s end. Powerful server farms would handle all of the processing and data storage, while the end user would only need to worry about maintaining a decent Internet connection and keeping their controller batteries charged.
Games On Demand: Anywhere
Gaming on non-gaming-grade machines doesn’t stop with a 2008 MacBook Pro. TVs, iPhones, iPads and Androids would also benefit from the high-end hardware-skipping cloud technology. Both Gaikai and its closest rival, the now defunct OnLive, have demonstrated games running on the iPad and multiple Android devices.
Having access to a library of PC games anywhere you have a speedy enough WiFi connection doesn’t always require a controller -- although spoiler alert: the controller is always better.
Although Gaikai doesn’t have a similar Android or iOS app in the respective marketplaces just yet, the company is prominently featuring artwork that implies such capabilities. It also promises to work with various controllers, saying, “We offer full support of PC controllers (joypads, joysticks, steering wheels, guitars etc.)” Only time will tell if games like Infinity Blade II seem rather ordinary when we can play The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on the subway.
Cons: Cloudy Gaming With A Chance Of Curveballs
Diablo 3 and Error 37
There are a few serious downsides to moving video games to the seemingly fluffy, carefree notion of the cloud, and no nightmare is more relevant than Diablo 3 and error 37. Although this Blizzard title isn’t a cloud-based game, it did require an Internet connection at all times, which, at launch, resulted in the aggravating prompt: “The servers are busy at this time. Please try again later (error 37).” Seeing this message again and again crushed Blizzard-loving gamers who pre-loaded the highly anticipated sequel, but couldn’t access the game offline due to draconian DRM controls.
Saving everything to a cloud, whether it’s something significant like a whole game or as important as a save file, leaves room for errors and frustration. The trust in so many game servers always being online hasn’t been tested yet and it may be years before the technology can handle the weight of the entire video game industry. Reaching for the cloud too soon could spell disaster.
Internet Connectivity: Not So Fast, There
Servers are just one part of the cloud gaming equation. Gamers are just as vulnerable when it comes to a required always-on Internet connection because they might not have an ISP that’s up to the task of handling streaming full video games. Just take a look at the problems of streaming Netflix in HD. It needs at least 3 Mpbs for “high-quality” video, and that’s a problem for a number of households. Demanding the same for video games would double down on the technical difficulties already faced by these consumers.
Even if every spot in your household is able to maintain a speedy 3 Mpbs connection at all times, cloud gaming would add to a family’s bandwidth allotment and bring them closer to the data caps being enforced by many ISPs. All of a sudden, playing video games just got more expensive, even if you already paid for the game and just want to play the single-player mode.
End Of Used Games
Eliminating the need for a DVD or Blu-ray tray and downloading games directly from a first-party store cuts out what Sony and Microsoft see as the middleman - your GameStops and Best Buys of the world. While publishers have been working in partnership with these retail companies for years, the explosion of used game sales hasn’t benefited the game companies one bit. Retailers that accept trade-ins pay gamers little for the used game and resell the “pre-owned game” for slightly less than a new copy, without a percentage going to the team behind the game.
Ending the sale of used games would bring the money directly to game companies and could bring more money to the hard-working developers that deserve the real credit. But it would also eliminate the second-hand market that gamers on a budget have relied on for years and the idea of lending a game to a friend would evaporate. This is not to mention that the jobs of many employees that rely on trade-in services would dry up, too. GameStop has invested in the “Slingplayer of video games” Spawn Labs and has a PC download service called Impulse. Nevertheless, the job of our local game store clerk may be in jeopardy in the next generation.
The Forecast Seems Set
Sony’s purchase of Gaikai is a sign that cloud gaming is the future of video game delivery - it didn’t buy the company for $380 million just to beef up the game save cloud storage technology for the PlayStation Plus community. No, both Sony and Microsoft are looking for game-changing methods of introducing fascinating new tech, while curbing prices for them and consumers. Making a service that requires only smaller, cheaper hardware that’s as easy as YouTube and as mobile as an iPhone would do just that.