As Microsoft Launch Their First Cloud Platform, Is Gaming Next?
Last week Microsoft officially launched their cloud computing platform known as Azure, which has been available as a free Community Technology Preview since October 2008. With processor manufacturers stuffing more and more cores into their processors, and cheap low power 3G connected netbooks, cloud computing is becoming more widespread. In the games market, the likes of Sony with the PSP Go and Valve's Steam are trying to convince us we no longer need physical media - but could cloud gaming mean the end of the home console as we know it?
What is the cloud?
The main concept behind cloud computing is to take data, applications and processing away from the local PC and move them to a remote system. This gives users access to their data, applications and even in some cases a higher performance regardless of what PC or even smartphone they're connecting from.
For example, conventionally to work on a Word document you would need Microsoft Word or similar installed, and the file would probably be stored on a local hard drive. Then when you wanted to send it, you'd need to upload or email it somewhere. However, with Microsoft's upcoming Office Web Apps or Google's Googledocs you can create and edit the documents through your web browser without needing any Office application installed and can let other people send the file by simply sending them a link.
If the worst happens and your computer crashes irrecoverably while working on your document, no work is lost and you can simply continue on another PC. The cloud is simply the server hardware which hosts the services you are using but it is essentially generic as you never connect to a specific server or location. You simply just take advantage of the whatever resources are available.
There are obvious benefits in implementing a similar system for gaming. In theory, you would be able to play Crysis smoothly at a reasonable detail setting on a netbook or low powered PC rather than the fairly insane level of PC hardware needed to play the game normally. It may sound absurd but that's exactly what OnLive are promising with their cloud computing system which handles all the processing on their servers. This allows you to play a range of games on any PC capable of handling the streaming video. As all the games are running on the server there would be no wait for games to be delivered or downloaded plus there would be no frustrating reliability issues as the hardware wouldn't need to use toasty high performance standards.
Too good to be true?
The main barrier for any cloud gaming style system is network latency or lag. For those not in the know, this is the time taken for the control data (from the keyboard/mouse or control pad) to reach the server, be processed and then the video data return to the local PC/hardware. Even on a fast broadband connection there is going to be a noticeable delay between moving the mouse/control stick and seeing the response on the screen which would make a first person shooter game like Crysis unplayable.
Onlive claim to have developed technology to make the games playable over an internet connection, although players must be within 1,000 miles of an Onlive datacenter. There has been considerable scepticism regarding this aspect of the service which currently has only been shown to journalists in a tightly controlled setup. It seems unlikely to be able to scale to large numbers of users over variable internet connections.
While it can be frustrating when the Playstation Network, Xbox Live or the home broadband connection is down at least it's still possible to play games offline. However with a cloud gaming system, if any part of it is down it wouldn't be possible to play any games.
Microsoft demonstrated how frustrating a cloud system failure could be when the cloud system behind the T-mobile Sidekick failed entirely which took the service offline for several days and initially appeared that all users' personal data including contacts, pictures and video had been lost. Cloud computing clearly isn't going to appeal to game retailers who have already expressed dissatisfaction at the lack of physical media for the PSP Go. Similarly the difficulty in modding games in a cloud computing platform will be undesirable for the mod community.
A cloud gaming system can clearly offer many potential benefits, but it remains to be seen whether improvements in broadband technology can overcome the latency issues.
It is debatable whether games which require quick movements such as first person shooters will ever be suitable for a cloud gaming system and the potential loss of service will limit the deployment of such a system. However, for games such as the highly addictive MMORPGs and RTS games where slightly sluggish controls would be more acceptable (especially for those keen to get their MMORPG fix from any PC available).
Or better yet, even a smartphone or tablet device could benefit from a cloud gaming service allowing them to keep their mobility while offering some of the gaming benefits of more powerful systems.