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Summary:

Early attempts at cloud-based video gaming were a flop. Roy Bahat, of OUYA, says it’s still a worthy pursuit, but should be based on a new generation of games built specifically to take advantage of the cloud’s supercomputing strengths.

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photo: Shutterstock

A few years ago, the gaming world was thrilled by the premise that the cloud (the Cloud!) could be harnessed to power games, too — any game you wanted, anytime, on any device, served from data centers to you. Services like OnLive and Gaikai promised freedom from your hardware, the end of the lockout of exclusive games only available on one platform or another.

Reality disappointed: What we actually got was a limited library of not-new games (Homefront, anyone?), many of which you already owned, but even laggier than on your own hardware. Turns out traditional retail, game publisher, and hardware platform companies made it difficult for cloud gaming services to get the best games on the day of release, and even then the gameplay quality was slightly inferior.

But the concept of gaming in the cloud is still an idea worth pursing for a far greater promise: the ability to deliver an entirely new kind of game experience.

Historically, in games as in any other media, new distribution technologies enable new creative experiences. Pong wouldn’t have been possible without a new device plugged in to your TV. Internet-connected computers meant you could play Duke Nukem and Quake with other people online. The evolution of server technology brought massively-multiplayer games. The iPhone brought Angry Birds, a game designed for a touch interface, and so forth.

So why should a cloud gaming service be used to deliver the same old games as before that were built for a $250 machine?

What we should be wondering, then, is what new kinds of games and gaming experiences cloud delivery could inspire? Compared to the gaming hardware you own, a cloud gaming service could access much more computing power—with a limitless capacity to add processing. Consider after all that the most powerful supercomputer in the world, the Titan, is about 70,000 times more powerful than an Xbox 360. Granted the Titan costs a cool $100 million, which cuts out most households, but scaling back to basic and accessible data center prices would still offer many orders of magnitude more computing power than any current or near-future home console . (And this isn’t to say great gaming experiences are limited to powerful hardware—to the contrary mobile phones play compelling games, too. They’re just of a different sort.)

As for content itself, games purpose-built for the cloud do not yet exist — ones that aren’t encumbered by the limits of processing power, that would use the full advantage of many more, and more powerful, CPUs and GPUs. These “supercomputer games” would open up creative possibilities far beyond what games of today are capable.

Imagine supercomputer games with vividly lifelike worlds and characters (and not the almost-real, uncanny valley of current-generation graphics), or a single battlefield with 50,000 other players playing at the same time — or opponent AI on the level of IBM’s Jeopardy!-winning Watson. Supercomputer games could be dramatically different from anything you can play tonight at home. I’m no game designer, but what if we could use real-time traffic data to fill the streets of the next Grand Theft Auto, or step into a computer-generated world that looks as compelling as the Lord of the Rings movies?

Now, there are many reasons, beyond the technological, that these games don’t yet exist: It would be prohibitively expensive to pay artists to create all those detailed graphics, and simple AI is good enough to defeat most any player at most any game. But the record of creative innovators is that eventually they find a way to stretch the available technology to its limit. And some gamemakers are already beginning to probe at the games you can create if you host some of the game in the cloud.

There is a nagging constraint to the cloud, of course — bandwidth, which simply isn’t growing at the pace of Moore’s law. Network latency makes fast-twitch games, in which defeat is determined in microseconds (like with the top console genre, first-person shooters) hard to play over today’s internet. So, at least until the next engineering breakthrough, these supercomputer games might be designed around genres requiring slower player reflexes than, say, Call of Duty or StarCraft.

Best of all, the only hardware you would need at home is a basic input device like a controller and a box to render the graphics, and it could be cross-platform so that you could play from a PC or Mac or any smartphone. As one for-instance, OUYA, the new open, Android-based console I back, could be great for a cloud-delivered game (hear me, developers?), and its notable that Sony bought up Gaikai and certainly has plans.  (Full disclosure:  OUYA also has an announced partnership with the relaunched OnLive.)

Supercomputer games could be extraordinary. Now some intrepid game developers just have to make one.

Roy Bahat is Chairman of the open, Android-based game console company OUYA, and is former president of IGN. He is also on the faculty at UC Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @roybahat

  1. The problem is cost, the cost of creating a game for a small market and the cost of running the game (power).I’m sure plenty are itching for some ray tracing games but the cost of running that is problematic.
    The big opportunity now are connected TVs ,that’s clearly cloud gaming’s in.When the market grows enough it might afford to have dedicated apps.Saying apps because it doesn’t have to be just gaming on the hardware, it could be VR,weather it is a 3D photorealistic world or just a store.
    Bandwidth is not that much of a problem and latency can be low enough for everybody except hardcore gamers in areas with decent infrastructure and game severs close enough (plus there might be some software tricks possible -account for the latency).A bigger problem,in the US (and not so much elsewhere) are data caps ,you just can’t do much streaming of any media games or not.
    For dedicated software it might be easier to start with stores and VR.For stores trying clothing items on an accurate avatar might be cost effective and for VR there might be a market in anything sex related where people might be willing to way enough for relatively short sessions.

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  2. As we discussed previously, OnLive would be an ideal delivery mechanism for such games…esp. via Ouya! One small step towards the Holodeck.

    -GML

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  3. Vincent Buyssens Sunday, December 2, 2012

    I only see this becoming a reality once the majority of the market has access to Google Fiber (or something akin to that)

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  4. Yeah we have Google Fiber in Kansas City and the Google Fiber Space even has an OnLive dongle plugged into an internet TV as one of the demo’s their showcasing. There’s no lag of course and the games look beautiful, but to the author’s point, nothing radical or groundbreaking that truly exploits the cloud.

    What we need is a bunch of crazy game devs to move to KC and build the future of gaming on Google Fiber. Anyone?

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  5. Matthew Bryant Sunday, December 16, 2012

    Let’s all pretend for a second that cloud gaming doesn’t have to go through servers provided by the developer. Let’s pretend that the console is limiting number of plays in online games instead of the servers on the developer’s end. No offense, but this article is based on ignorance. Cloud gaming isn’t about to take over the future anytime soon. Especially when you think about online games. The information has to travel through the internet, to the cloud service, and then they have to send it to the game server. You’re likely looking at twice the amount of lag at the least (assuming the cloud service has very good upload and download bandwidth, and doesn’t have any traffic issues in between it’s destination), and even on a great connection that’s going to push you to around 200-400 ms of lag. You start getting beyond that and many games become unplayable online. It’s not feasible anytime soon. Maybe in the future when internet latency becomes more standardized and less of a concern, but until that happens cloud gaming is a pipe dream.

    Furthermore, cloud gaming is an incredibly ignorant term. The true meaning of cloud is a lot of data stored in one location, making it simple and easy for individuals and corporations to have access to many things from one source. Unfortunately, nowadays cloud just means anything on the internet. Cloud storage, cloud gaming… No, that’s not what cloud means. Stop misusing the word. -.-

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