Head in the Cloud: Gaming’s hardware agnostic future

Monday, 20 June 2011 08:10 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Expectation says we’re three to four years from the next major console cycle. If cloud gaming has anything to do with it, it may well be the last.

Let’s imagine for a minute that things will go as history dictates, and in 2014 or thereabouts, Sony releases PlayStation 4 and Microsoft gives birth to the Xbox Whatever.

Everyone is blown away by the fact that all games can now appear in full resolution on enormous HD displays, at incredibly high frame rates, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it loading times, and so much connectivity that every time you fart it posts a status update and gives you an achievement for it, probably adding a photo of your gas-relieved face to Facebook. It’s amazing.

But – how do you choose between these two systems? The notion of the third-party exclusive is already a past one, and even Sony has said cross-platform games are better for the industry in general. As both offer increasingly similar services, the difference becomes one of brand loyalty and multiplayer peer pressure.

What if you didn’t have to choose – or if your choice didn’t matter? And what, in fact, have platform holders got that a tiny chip in your Internet-capable telly can’t provide?

The future is now

OnLive and Gaikai offer streaming gaming, the first as a consumer subscription offering, and the other as an advertising service. Both are expected to run direct from your TV – no micro-console required – by next year, and to support various mobile devices, too.

No average consumer can afford the kind of hardware these services can pack into data centres, running your games more beautifully than any reasonably-priced home system can.

Next year your console – and all future consoles – will begin to become obsolete.

It’s easy to laugh this off – after all, some of us are living in major metropolitan areas and unable to summon the bandwidth to stream a low-resolution film – but internet connections are only improving worldwide, and as we reach the limits of how many processors and how much memory can be packed into a sub-$1,000 system, the sun is setting on the age of under-the-TV hardware.

OnLive’s new hardware: a controller.

The Revolution

But not on the age of devices. Regardless of how well the telly in your living room runs Battlefield 5, someone’s always going to want to watch the footy, or force you to go outside. If you want to take your gaming with you – and increasingly, it seems we do, if the number of people doing the iPhone prayer over Angry Birds is any indication – then there’s still room for Hardware.

Nintendo’s Wii U shows the company understands at least half of this equation, unshackling you from the TV, but notably failing to cut the cords completely. 3DS is its complementary answer to portable gaming, but a simply woeful online content experience, underwhelming reception and lack of cloud and crossplay features suggest this isn’t going to cut it.

Microsoft and Sony, on the other hand, are better positioned, and are both already making the right noises.

Windows Phone 7 is getting more and more console-like, integrating more closely with Live and making a push to capture games, with the Xbox 360 turning into an “entertainment” centre to keep it relevant – that is, a physical home for Live, a platform which could easily be detached from the ‘box itself when the time comes, to float hardware-agnostically like OnLive and even, perhaps, Steam.

Sony’s Vita is perhaps a more daring step, eschewing smart phone features to carve out a new niche of genuine potential for hardcore gaming in the portable space. The handheld’s social and connected features, and most importantly, its capacity for cross-play and cloud saving, add weight to its chances for survival.

Both Sony and Microsoft have handheld hardware systems that are worth investigating, and will pave the way for the upcoming revolution.

Platforming

Everyone wants to become a “platform”. Steam is a platform. EA wants to be a platform. The PlayStation Network and Xbox Live are platforms. What the hell does that even mean?

It means a service which delivers games to you, and gives you a reason to choose that service over another – with exclusives, yes, but also with content delivery, community features, digital rights management, and developer support. “Platform holder” will soon no longer mean “hardware manufacturer” so much as “digital service provider”.

In the end, some platforms won’t make it, others will thrive, and the market will always feature at least a handful of major players alongside smaller independents. You’ll have log-ins and accounts for a small number of favoured platforms, and you’ll purchase and play your games through them.

On what?

Imagine a world where shopping for a device to play games on wasn’t a matter of deciding which side of the fanboy fence you stand on – although that will be allowed – but rather, finding the feature set and performance that suits you best.

Some people will want to game exclusively on smartphones; some people will want something larger, like the Vita or 3DS, with more game-friendly interfaces. Some will want a device the size of a laptop, which they feel comfortable working on with a keyboard. Some people will carry two or three or even more devices, ready for any situation.

What if all of these devices could support a particular platform? It’s already possible. You’d have the same persistent online identity on your phone as back home on your couch. You’d see the same beautiful graphics – scaled for portable devices – on both systems, and cloud saves mean you can close one, open the other, and pick up instantly where you left off.

Vita: portable, connected, social

Sony America boss Jack Tretton already sees Vita as fitting into this device-war space.

“When you walk out the door, you say, ‘I gotta have this, I gotta have that.’ It’s wallet, car keys, money, and phone, right? We want, if you’re thinking about entertainment at all, for the Vita to go in there,” he said.

“I don’t carry a laptop anymore. Something like a Blackberry’s perfect for the vast majority of what I need a laptop for. And then I think when it comes to entertainment, you’ll find that Vita will do everything, and maybe do things better, than any other device that you’re using.”

Shopping for a device – be it a big screen display or a phone – becomes like shopping for an Android phone. There are loads of different brands, each sporting numerous handsets; supporting the same platform, but with different feature sets.

This is a thing that is happening. Apple’s iPhones are schmick, it’s true, and you can’t deny they made smartphones an everyday thing, but Android is rapidly gaining ground and market share. Obviously, people like having access to the same software despite their choice of hardware type and manufacturer.

Assent

We’re not the only ones singing this tune. John Carmack, generally considered one of the cleverest chaps in the industry, is keen on the cloud.

“I think cloud gaming will eventually be a significant part of the landscape,” he said recently.

“Consumers have shown over and over again that convenience can often more than offset some quality issues, and there will be significant convenience wins possible there over optical media or digital downloads.

“I think this is inevitable.”

While Carmack acknowledges the pitfalls of going hardware-agnostic, he’s ready to see an end to the console-device divide.

“People’s telephones could be their home console, and it just beams over to the TV set when they’re there and they want that experience. Do we want these separate walled gardens: here’s what we’ve got on our PC, here’s what we’ve got on our console, here’s what we’ve got on our mobile phone?

“There’s at least an argument that you wind up carrying around enough processing power with you to satisfy all of those and you dock them into different things when you go there.”

Crytek, one of the cream of PC developers, expects cloud gaming to be a major thing by 2013. Cevat Yerli says developers already have the skills to deliver streaming content, and are just waiting for internet connections to catch up.

“We saw that by 2013–2015, with the development of bandwidth and household connections worldwide, that it might become more viable then,” he said.

Pat talks to Gaikai boss Dave Perry. Dreamy.

“It’s netcon speeds, not video rendering, that’s letting the side down. It doesn’t take a lot to make a video-based renderer, but what you need is the right infrastructure that is beyond the technology we have. It’s more like cable net providers and communication networks.”

THQ, a company determinedly scraping back relevancy with eyes firmly glues to future trends, is also on board, throwing its lot in with OnLive. CEO Brian Farrell, for example, isn’t at all keen on retaining the current hardware model.

“I am a huge believer in the concept of cloud computing – huge. The concept of lowering the entry barrier to consumers for gamers to get into our games by not having to shell out for the hardware is a tremendous potential opportunity,” he said.

“Why do we need a $1,000 [console]? That’s what these boxes [or] consoles actually cost the manufacturers to make. Why do we need that computing power?”

Industry analyst firm Wedbush Morgan is backing the cloud, too.

“It is not clear to us that OnLive will dominate any time soon, but we are confident that this breakthrough technology will ultimately be widely adopted.

“The technology is quite appealing, and we are confident that OnLive will end up as part of the video game culture some time next decade,” it has stated.

Take home

Whether we like it or not, cloud gaming is the future of the industry. We may see one more hardware cycle to bridge the divide between high-end PCs and today’s ageing hardware, but by the time we reach the end of that one, we’ll have so much power in our pockets that the big black boxes of yore will look laughable.

Why tie yourself to the telly? Why shell out massive cash for an experience restricted to one place? Why not just look forward to an extremely exciting decade ahead of us all?

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