The Monday ‘Joe: Clouds, Streams, and Games

The Monday 'Joe

Mondays are usually slow for news as people start to stir for the coming week. Therefore, every Monday, we will address one topic to start the week and get discussion flowing. It stimulates the week like a cup of coffee, hence the title.

OnLive, whose troubles have been documented recently, was one of a few services that conducted cloud gaming. This kind of gaming allows people to play an entire video game over the Internet. If you add Gaikai to your list on Facebook and play those demos, you’re playing in the cloud. More technically, it simulates the actual programming of the game on a remote server and transcribes the image to the end user’s browser through a Java plugin. In the case of OnLive, they did that to a dedicated console. While great in theory, OnLive’s problems have made the future of cloud gaming less certain.

That brings us to this week’s question:

Is there a future for cloud-streaming services, given what has happened with OnLive? Why or why not?

Mohamed Al Saadoon: I do believe that there’s a future for cloud streaming services, but I don’t believe it will completely replace dedicated systems.

The idea behind cloud gaming is great, but there are several things that prevent it from being perfect, both from a technological and business point of view. Technologically, the broadband that’s required for 1080p HD gaming isn’t anywhere near widespread enough. We’re talking speeds of at least 20 mb a second or more to get a good, uninterrupted image, and those kind of speeds are only found in the most developed countries.

Eventually, we’ll reach those speeds. Technology always advances exponentially, and I think within as few as five years, connection speeds will no longer be an issue. However, that still leaves the problem of ping. No matter how fast your connection is, we’re still limited by the laws of physics. Data travels near to the speed of light in a fiber optic cable, but light is too slow for us now.

Here’s an example: I live in New Zealand, and let’s say I have an amazing 100 mb/s connection (I actually have a poor 1mb/s) and I need to connect to Gaikai’s servers in California. It takes 100 milliseconds at light speed for the data to travel between these two points since the fiber optic cables aren’t straight; they criss-cross several Pacific Island chains. If I add that to the ping of connecting to a normal sever, which is 50 milliseconds, I end up with a minimum ping approaching 150 milliseconds. That’s fine for slower paced games, but for fast-paced shooters like Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty, or fighting games like Street Fighter IV? That’s unacceptable.

And then we have the business side of the equation. Look at where the music and movie industries are today thanks to iTunes and Netflix cutting down costs for both consumers and content creators and for making life more convenient. Now look at the video game industry. You have Ubisoft fucking around with always-on DRM, Microsoft running ads on its paid service, Sony getting hacked and not giving a shit, Nintendo being Nintendo (how do we into online games?), EA with Origin, and everyone is using DLC to milk more money from consumers.

It’s a mess. If it weren’t for independent companies like Valve and Paradox with Steam and Gamersgate, respectively, amongst others, digital distrubtion would not be where it is today. The fact that Sony has now backed Gaikai worries me because that means cloud-streaming might became the next great cash cow. I hope I’m wrong because I really, really want to see what Battlefield 3 looks like with all settings turned to high without paying an arm and a leg for a monster desktop.

Nathan Wood: I highly doubt cloud streaming is going to go anywhere, but right now, it’s really pushing the limits of what our current technology can do. Until something like Google Fiber becomes a much more common infrastructure, a viable cloud streaming service is still only a pipe dream. However, there’s only one other thing that could possibly put a halt on cloud streaming ever becoming a big thing, and it’s a significant issue: the customers’ perception of it.

In digital distribution already, many people are skeptical towards it because, more often than not, gamers are paying for access to the game rather than actually owning it. This has slightly hindered digital distribution from truly taking over the way games are sold. The fact that we can lose access to a game that we paid for, for any reason that the publisher/developer chooses, is a scary prospect. If people are this skeptical to this form of digital distribution, cloud streaming has a lot to prove.

Just because OnLive has found itself in some trouble doesn’t mean that cloud gaming is a failed experiment and that we’ll never be able to conquer the problems that cloud gaming can bring up. It just tells us that we don’t have the means to achieve it—not yet. OnLive simply had too lofty aspirations for its time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if within five to ten years, cloud gaming is just as viable as any other platform. Simply put, cloud gaming isn’t dead. Neither is PC gaming, handheld, home consoles, or any other platform that people proclaim is dead.

Christopher Bowen: There’s definitely a future in cloud streaming. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand that no one knows where technology is going to be in three to five years, be it related to Internet, computers, or whatever else. Look at where Steam is now. Did anyone think that was going to be possible five years ago? Did anyone think we’d be downloading 12GB games? Did anyone think broadband Internet would be so ubiquitous, and that honestly, if not for corporate interests, America’s broadband situation would be as good as Japan’s?

OnLive didn’t fail because there wasn’t a market for streaming video games. It failed because it was a poorly run business that reached too far, too fast (as I called twenty months ago). But anyone who thinks streaming or cloud-based video gaming is dead hasn’t tried Gaikai’s demos, like I have. Seriously. Go to Gaikai, or install their app on Facebook, and play the demo of Saints Row: The Third. It played flawlessly. In fact, I’d argue it played better on my browser than it did on my computer via Steam. In short, the technology will get there. It’s just a matter of time, especially now that Gaikai has Sony’s weight behind it.

Steve Perlman’s goal with OnLive was grand, but he didn’t know how to accomplish it. Basically, he relied on saying, “I’m Steve Perlman and I own a shitload of patents,” and that’s not good in a market where a single mistake can be fatal, never mind a string of them. OnLive is dead, but someone else—be it Gaikai or a different company—will come behind them because the benefits of cloud-based gaming for both users and publishers are too great to ignore for long. All that has to happen is for the technology to mature and the public to catch on.

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Gaming Bus Staff

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The Gaming Bus staff consists of some of the brightest minds to enter the field of games journalism, bringing perspectives from all over the world and from all genres.