Cloud gaming is still very much in its nascent stages, but has received a lot of attention recently thanks to the tie-in of Gaikai’s cloud gaming service with Sony’s Playstation 4. This has allowed Sony to boast backwards compatibility for the PS4 as well as interesting features such as Remote Play. While cloud gaming is limited in this case to value-added features, many believe it’s the first step down the path to a fully cloud-based gaming world.
For those of you who aren’t entirely sure how cloud gaming works, here’s this nifty diagram:
In a nutshell the game is processed entirely on the server, which sends your device just an HD video stream. This means that any device capable of video playback will also be capable of playing AAA games in all their eye popping glory, provided you have at least a 3 Mbps connection. Imagine being able to play Skyrim VI on the highest graphics settings (a feat usually reserved for souped-up, overclocked gaming PCs) on your Macbook Air or even your Nexus 7.
Cloud gaming gets rid of platform considerations, an exciting prospect for those of us who want to play Halo without having to buy an Xbox or play N64’s Goldeneye without emulation software (for that occasional trip down nostalgia lane). The Mac gamers among us won’t have to switch over to migraine-inducing Windows to game properly.
On the whole cloud gaming provides a more efficient hardware paradigm. Rather than each consumer buying a piece of hardware that becomes outdated within months, hardware is invested in and maintained centrally by the gaming server. Gaikai can invest in bigger, better hardware that hasn’t been constrained by the needs of the consumer market (consumer hardware needs to be small and generally lags behind the latest computing technology). Gaikai also has the means and incentive (competition with other cloud gaming services) to upgrade regularly, ensuring that gamers will always be playing on the latest hardware, rather than waiting 7 years for Sony’s PS5 or Microsoft’s Xbox Two. Even hardcore PC gamers will see the benefit as they won’t have to upgrade their graphics card every 6 months to stay cutting edge.
Currently game developers need to design their games with the constraints of a console or consumer PC in mind. But if the standard platform is an industry-grade gaming server, they can be much more ambitious in creating bigger, more realistic worlds.
Another efficiency afforded by cloud gaming comes from the fact that no gamer, no matter how hardcore, plays 24 hours a day. An NPD Group study concluded that Americans spend about 13 hours a week gaming. That’s 155 hours each week that gaming hardware isn’t being used! In a cloud gaming paradigm, gaming hardware is shared, which means less hardware is needed overall, bringing the costs down for everyone.
So let’s fast forward to a cloud gaming world. Our gaming hardware is simply a screen that can receive and play a video stream and a controller. This could either be our flatscreen at home or a portable rollable display. As a result the gaming console as we know it would become obsolete and the cost of enjoying the best games on the best settings would drop to the price of a 3rd party display and controller. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo will no longer fight console wars, but game library wars. The victor will be the one who can consistently develop or sign on the best exclusive gaming content, rather than the one who develops the best hardware (Steam FTW?).
This war is actually already well underway, what with Sony focusing heavily on indie games and Microsoft investing USD$1 billion on games for the Xbox One. If you watched the 2013 PlayStation E3 Press Conference you would have noticed that there was much more focus on game developers than the PS4 itself. On top of that, the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii are actually all sold at a loss! The console manufacturers want to make the barriers to entry to their platform as low as possible because they believe the biggest chunk of change is in game sales.
The eventual full adoption of cloud gaming will simply be the final step in these companies’ transition from hardware manufacturers to game labels, which unfortunately for them will be a much less secure economic position. An army of indie labels will emerge to challenge the big boys with many game developers choosing to release games on their own. This is actually already happening, a fact made apparent by the Ouya, but cloud gaming will erode whatever economic moat their consoles currently afford them. The fact that Sony has embraced cloud gaming rather than stubbornly ignoring it gives me more confidence that they will come out of the transition ahead of their competitors.
A way in which the big boys CAN retain their competitive edge is through heavy investment in cloud gaming technology and server hardware. Cloud gaming is not without huge challenges, as exhibited by the spectacular failure of cloud gaming pioneer OnLive. The company that can provide the cloud gaming experience with the best graphics and lowest latency issues will have a clear advantage. With that in mind it’s worth pondering whether Sony’s purchase of Gaikai was simply to provide backwards compatibility for the PS4 or a long-term strategic move in anticipation of the eventual obsolescence of the PlayStation console.
TRY OUT CLOUD GAMING right now at http://www.eurogamer.net/gaikai (if the servers aren’t over capacity, which they most likely are).
Read more about the Obstacles to cloud gaming.