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Head in the Cloud: A Look at Cloud Gaming

Cloud gaming is a term that has been thrown around a lot lately, especially with Sony and Microsoft’s decision to incorporate the feature into their new consoles.  While these big companies seem to view it in a positive light, for many people it only provides a mixed bag of feelings.  For some, cloud gaming is the future, the next inevitable step in evolution for how we interact with media and games.  For others it’s a dark, evil, scary force and a harbinger of bad things.  In other words it’s something completely different compared to what the gaming community is used to.  However, cloud technology is something fairly new that many people don’t apply correctly or completely understand.

What is it?

Lets start with the basics;  a “cloud” is essentially a collection of servers and data that people can access at any given time. You can basically say it’s a digital  “bottomless” bag, like you see in Harry Potter.  You can pull anything you want out of it, where you want it, regardless of the files size or type.  That’s a basic concept of  how a “cloud” functions, but there’s plenty more to the entire concept.  This idea has a lot of applications, and while it was once limited to large companies as a way to back up data, in recent years it’s a service that has become publicly available on a large scale.

People already use cloud services daily. Whether they’re streaming music through Pandora, iTunes, and Spotify or just sitting down at home watching Netflix.  That’s the main concept behind a cloud, the idea that you can access information from anywhere, at anytime.  Now imagine that concept applied to games.  Imagine the idea where you can sit down on your console of choice and pull any game you wanted out of your magic bag of data and start playing.  That is the end goal of cloud gaming.  Companies like Onlive, Gaikai, G-Cluster, and others have already started bringing this to gamers.

Think of all the games she can fit in that bag.

Why do I want this?`

There are some great benefits to cloud gaming, more than just pulling a game out from thin air:

No hardware limitations – One of the biggest benefits is that you’re technically not limited by your hardware (I say technically but we’ll go into that later).  If they’re not already one themselves, every gamer is familiar it the term “PC master race.”  It’s the argument that gets thrown around that games on PC will forever be better because of the nature of the machine.  PC gaming allows you to modify and upgrade your rig, giving gamers the chance to push their system to the limit.  The downside is cost, having a top of the line PC can be a sizable monetary investment.  Faster processor to run the game smoother, better graphics card to get greater detail and streamline how the game looks, the price on these can build up over time.  Through a cloud service, all these functions that are normally limited to your hardware are taken care of server-side.  That means that features such as processing, loading and rendering are already done before they even reach your system.  It then just becomes a matter of you streaming the finished product and using your controller/keyboard/etc to play the game.  At that point, your gameplay experience depends on your hardware no more than if you were streaming a youtube video.

Not restricted by OS– Another great benefit is that cloud gaming can essentially get rid of OS limitations.  Anyone that owns a Mac knows the pain I’m talking about.  How many times has a game been released and you are unable to play because it’s only made for windows?  Same goes for mobile devices, games available only to iOS vs games available only to Andriod OS.  Problems like this become irrelevant because running the game no longer depends on your system.

No install times – Another great benefit to pulling from the cloud is being able to begin playing your game immediately.  Think of the premium edition of Battlefield 3.  Think of the number of maps and expansions that have been released.  Now think of waiting for the 30 something gigs to download to your system before you can start playing.  Suddenly what was supposed to be a fun night of gaming turns into a sad display of sitting on your couch with pizza stains and a mountain of empty Monster cans, staring at a progress bar.  Again, the use cloud gaming allows you begin playing immediately.

geforce-grid

Cloud gaming offers ease of access, regardless of hardware

Why it can suck?

 That’s not to say that this cloud only has silver linings, like with all things there are a few drawbacks:

LatencyWoW, LoL, and SWTOR gamers know this rage inducing word all too well. Earlier up on the pro list I mentioned how with cloud gaming you’re essentially just streaming a video.  All that you have to do is put in your commands.  The down side is what happens when your commands don’t reach the cloud fast enough.  That’s what latency is, the delay between the commands you give and the game actually carrying them out.  It’s what happens when that stupid warlock gets off his fear and the warrior is too dumb and slow to pop his berserker rage even though you’re sitting there about to break the keyboard because you’ve been smashing the hotkey and slamming your mouse against the table but the stupid game doesn’t process your command until it’s too late.  Yea, latency is bad.

Streaming Quality – Much like that youtube video that comes in all fuzzy for the first few seconds (or minutes depending on your speed), the quality of your game stream can suffer a little.  While all the processing is done independent of a player’s hardware, they still need to stream the final product to their systems and the quality of that can suffer.  It may not seem like a big deal to some, but often times internet service providers place a limit on the amount of data that can be streamed in one sitting.  This can lead to a reduction of video quality for gamers, where the amount of data that is getting sent back and forth can quickly add up and be subject to throttling.

Always online – This can be an issue of varying severity depending on where you are.  While most gamers tend to have a consistently reliable internet connection while at home, it’s not always the case wherever they may be.  This coupled with some company’s strict DRM policies which may require gamers to always be online, it can be very problematic.  Think of launches for games like SimCity and Diablo III.  The initial days were riddled with unhappy gamers unable to access the game they paid for.  Situations like these can often negatively affect people’s view on cloud gaming, as apparent with the initial backlash Microsoft received when they unveiled their Xbox One.

League-of-Legends

These gamers hate latency, and will use colorful language to prove it.

Who’s Supporting it?

When the concept of cloud gaming was first being launched to a mass market, companies like Onlive were at the forefront of the industry.  However due to lack of support and other limitations, it wasn’t until just recently that bigger companies finally look at cloud gaming its provided potential.  Both Sony and Microsoft have shown their support by incorporating cloud gaming into their systems in one form or another.

The PS4 proudly boasts “download while you play”  as a feature that will allow gamers to begin playing their digitally purchased games while it downloads in the background.   Gamers will also have access their digital library from anywhere allowing them to log into their account, begin a download and start playing almost immediately.  Sony has also recently come into a contract with Gaikai, a cloud-gaming service, in order to provide game streaming to fans.

Microsoft originally had a huge set up for cloud gaming when they first announced their Xbox One.  They offered game sharing and full access to your library as well as not needing your discs past the initial install.  With it however, they said the Xbox One would require an online check in every 24hrs as well as other requirements, to which fans immediately grabbed their pitchforks in response.  Because of the negative feedback, they reversed some of their original requirements for their console’s online check in, but with it, they also scaled back the cloud features that were to be available.

However, Microsoft still plans to incorporate the cloud in various ways.  Back in May, engadget posted on how Microsoft plans to use cloud technology to help improve gameplay.  They plan to “speed up GPU- or CPU-heavy chores that aren’t dependent on latency — like lighting or cloth dynamics — by pre-calculating them before applying them to a scene.”  We talked earlier about how cloud gaming processes everything for the player and just streams it over.  Now imagine if instead of focusing on the entire game that technology was divided between the hardware a gamer uses and the cloud servers.   It creates a system where the cloud essentially increases your console’s processing power, which opens up more possibilities for developers.

This kind of technology is already being taken advantage of by companies like Respawn Entertainment for their new game Titanfall. One of the things the cloud will allow Respawn to do is host one giant dedicated server.  According to them, “We don’t have to find ISPs all over the globe and rent servers from each one. We don’t have to maintain the servers or copy new builds to every server.”  This lets them put their focus on improving other aspects of the game.  In the end, for gamers it means that when the game launches they can hop online and into a match without worrying about a queue or a server being too busy.

That said, Microsoft and Sony are not the only big names finally adopting cloud technology for gaming.  NVIDIA is currently working on it’s own streaming console, Project Shield.   It is a handheld platform which would allow PC gamers to stream whatever game they have on their computer directly to the handled device or a nearby TV.  In effect, it would turn your PC into its own cloud.  This is just another example of how the technology can be adapted to gaming.

Cloud gaming at your finger tips

Do we want this?

For all intents and purposes, cloud gaming is still in its infancy and it’s only just recently that it has finally begun to garner more support.  While cloud services like Onlive have been around for a few years, they’ve never really been considered a main contender in the gaming industry.

Cloud gaming is something that I’m personally excited for, regardless of the arguments against it.  It is a system that has a lot of potential, especially when companies come up with new and innovative ways to integrate it into the current gaming infrastructure. Right now the limitations on it are technology based, things like bandwidth caps or whether or not a player has affordable access to high-speed internet. Luckily with the exponential rate at which new technology is being developed, those limitations could easily become things of the past.  Faster internet speeds, higher bandwidth caps, these are all things that as time goes on will become infinitely more affordable.

Sony, Microsoft, and NVIDIA all have unique takes on the technology and are each incorporating it in promising ways.  While it’s impossible to make the generalizing statement that this is the future, it’s good to know that big name companies are working hard to make sure that it has a place in it. My hope is that we won’t necessarily see cloud gaming taking over and replacing the console market, but rather that it will work in tandem to create a new hybrid of gameplay.

Note: All images obtained courtesy of google images.



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