With the recent announcement of Stadia by Google, the interest in Cloud gaming has lit up the gaming scene again. What Google announced at Stadia is the next step in the evolution of cloud gaming that cropped up a few years back. Let’s take a look at how this all began and where we are headed. Would it truly revolutionize gaming as we know it?
The history of cloud gaming
The first true cloud gaming service was OnLive launched back in 2010 to much fanfare. However, the enthusiasm was short lived. The service suffered from inconsistent performance greatly depended on the user’s internet connection. At the time, network infrastructure was not up to the task of supporting a service like OnLive.
Fast forward to 2015 and Sony bought most of the assets belonging to OnLive. The biggest heavyweight to dip their toes in the Cloud gaming scene at the time was Sony. Sony was looking for a way to get around the problem of lacking backward compatibility in its PS4 console due to use of the architecture differences between the x86 based processors in PS4 and the vastly different cell processor in the PS3. Game streaming seemed a forward-looking, elegant solution.
As a result, Sony invested in cloud gaming, mainly by making a $380 million acquisition of another cloud gaming tech company called Gaikai. During the 2013 February reveal of the PS4 console, Sony announced its ambitions for cloud gaming. Then in 2015, it launched the PlayStation Now service. It allowed subscribers of the service to play any game in the PS Now library from either a PS4 or a Sony Bravia Smart TV.
Although PlayStation Now library is expanding, it is a barebones cloud gaming service. You pay a subscription and you get to play the games in the PS Now library any time. Sony’s core business in gaming is consoles and games. They have one foot in the hardware business and another in great first partly titles complementing its hardware. PS Now is never intended as a replacement for the Playstation Consoles in your living room.
Changing the Game
Nowadays some of the successful disruptions driven by Technology follow a principle called Servitization. Instead of the end user owning and paying for the hardware, they pay for the outcome that is supplied by the hardware.
An example of this is how vehicle ownership is challenged by Uber, CD/DVD/Blu Ray players are replaced by Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu and myriad of other media streaming services. These services take out the hassle of end users having to deal with and maintain the products. Instead, you simply get what you want from the product on demand. Cloud gaming if it realizes its potential will replace gaming hardware in our living rooms as we know it.
However, such an endeavor requires tremendous engineering and infrastructure investments, only a few companies can afford right out of the gate. The biggest tech companies in the world today have the resources and capacity to enter this arena. Google with its enormous money bag and engineering know-how in the cloud seems to be well positioned to take this challenge up.
Microsoft has the gaming pedigree of Xbox, the might of the Azure cloud and a War Chest of money to stay in the game for the long haul. Microsoft has its xCloud gaming service in the pipeline. But we don’t know much about it at the moment. Hopefully, this year’s E3 will reveal us something.
Amazon has been slowly entering the gaming market slowly in recent years with its own set of internal studios and its Lumberyard engine. But more importantly, it also has the AWS Cloud backing and intentions to enter the cloud gaming market.
Apple has the deepest pocket of all. However, it looks like Apple may not target the core gamers, at least at the beginning. They recently announced a game subscription service called Apple arcade, but it’s not a game streaming service.
If other game streaming services seem successful, its only natural for Apple to enter the market, but it will tough to start from scratch whereas all the other competitors have a healthy head start in the sector in terms of either infrastructure or gaming pedigree.
The Potential of cloud gaming
Apart from allowing any client, be it a Chrome browser on your crappy Chromebook too, your smart TV or your phone to play all the high-end games on the go or on the couch, cloud gaming unlocks an additional set of possibilities that are simply not possible in the current status quo.
The biggest advantage in the cloud is the processing requirements for the games are offloaded to the cloud. This takes the mind off the consumers to worry about upgrading your hardware periodically to stay updated. Additionally, this somewhat eases the developers from being a restraint to a particular set of hardware requirements thanks to a concept called elastic computing.
As demoed during the Google Stadia demo, it allows developers if needed to leverage the power of more than one hardware instance. Google showed off a demo where the same game demo running on a single GPU and multiple GPUs. This gives developers an unimaginable level of scale that is not possible today.
Also, this would evolve the gameplay experience of multiplayer games. Since all the clients and the server are in the same datacenter network in the cloud, the lag between the clients and the server would be minimal. In theory, this should allow for an unprecedented level of smooth online multiplayer experience.
Due to the power of the cloud, the multiplayer world and the environments can have a scale that is not simply possible today. We can have even 1000s of players in the game world and still have it with fully destructible physics all thanks to the scalable compute power of the cloud. If cloud gaming realizes its potential as promised in Google’s Stadia reveal, the online multiplayer experience would change forever.
During Google’s demo, they talked about the immediacy of the experience with minimal loading times and how accessible the games are. You can simply jump to a game from YouTube. Although not a major game changer these kinds of small improvements will improve a gamer’s quality of life.
The Price to Pay
As with everything in life, there is a price to pay for all this. Primarily on 2 things. First, this requires a good bandwidth connection, ideally a fiber connection. Google’s current estimates require at least a 25 Mbps connection for 1080p 60fps gameplay.
Although these requirements will decrease with optimizations over time. Yet bandwidth requirements would still be an entry barrier for most of us, especially in Sri Lanka. However, the biggest problems for us in Sri Lanka would be data usage. A multi-hour gaming session would eat through our monthly data quota in no time.
This is the biggest issue. Usually, ISPs in the US and other countries try to accommodate consumer trends in their connection offerings, such as allowing more data or uncapped data for music streaming or Netflix. We can expect the same for game streaming when it catches on.
However, we cannot expect the same in Sri Lanka. This would be the biggest kicker for us. We might end up in diverting all our money saved for the next hardware upgrade for our PC or a new PlayStation to upgrading our internet connection.
The other big question mark is the input lag. This is the time it takes for our input from the game controller or keyboard to register on the cloud to make the gameplay change in the game. Since this signal now has to go through the internet, there is a noticeable increase in input lag.
This may not be a big problem for some games where immediate inputs are not a huge requirement (such as Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted). But for reflex shooters like Call of Duty, this would be a major bummer. Google tried to address this in their stadia offering by making the Stadia controller to directly connect to the cloud server through Wi-Fi rather than through the stadia client. But input lag remains a technical challenge that needs to be overcome.
Additionally, at the time of writing, we know nothing about the pricing model. My guess is that it would be around $60 a month for 1080p streaming. Which would be expensive for us folks in Sri Lanka. But hopefully, we’ll see better regional pricing. But let’s not speculate further on pricing until we know more.
We also have to factor in the savings we are going to get from relieving ourselves from the hardware upgrades as well as the increase in costs we’ll have to bare for the internet bandwidth usage. However, all these drawbacks are surmountable to a certain extent. The bandwidth problem will, of course, solve over time as internet speeds improve and prices go down (hopefully for us folks in Sri Lanka as well).
Cloud gaming promises an unprecedented level of scale, immediacy and improved and in some cases revolutionized gaming experiences. Only time will tell if they live up to the promises. With the world’s biggest names in Tech making a push into Cloud gaming, the stakes are high and the future certainly looks to hold some secrets to revolutionize gaming.