The gaming business can’t figure out which cloud approach it likes best

Cloud-based gaming has become a hot topic among many prominent gaming studios in recent years, and for good reason: It could very well represent a tectonic shift in the infrastructure behind online games.

As a whole, the gaming industry is looking for the ultimate way to deliver online experiences with as little friction as possible, and everyone is experimenting with the idea of cloud-based gaming. But for all the talk of how cloud gaming represents the future, there hasn’t been any agreement on what that future will actually look like.

A variety of strategies

Just about every major player in the industry has opted to take a different approach:

The Playstation Store and the Xbox Live Market now allow gamers to purchase full-fledged games for their consoles on the internet. For PC gamers, Steam has become the go-to platform for gaming, allowing consumers to purchase games online and downloading them onto their hard drives. Sony recently partnered with Gaikai for their new console, which will ensure that every game that launches on Sony’s new platform will be available on demand – even allowing consumers to play a game as it’s still downloading.

Microsoft stole headlines when a rumor got out that the Xbox720 would be “always online.” And Minecraft recently announced “Realms,” which will allow players to host a multiplayer server without having to go through the trouble of setting up and maintaining one via a third-party host.

The point? No one method has won out, because there just isn’t yet a “correct” way to approach this notion.

Streaming video is (potentially) awesome

As often happens when developing emerging technologies, game developers tend to fall into two major camps. In this case, there are those who lean toward the idea of cloud-based gaming, while others focus on cloud-based game streaming. Developers like OnLive experimented with the notion of rendering graphics in the cloud, but discovered that it was too costly. In order to entertain the idea, they had to buy hundreds of machines to actually render the games they were streaming.

Nvidia has also prototyped their online solution called “Grid,” a cloud-based streaming technology that promises a high-quality gaming experience on any device, with low latency to boot. Similar to OnLive, this approach focuses on the idea of streaming games to visual devices. Utilizing this service will involve purchasing several servers or “racks” loaded with GPUs to handle graphical bandwidth. Each “rack” can support up to 7,200 gamers at a time. Which raises the question: what happens to costs if a company that currently supports up to 140,000 concurrent users adopted a similar method?

Another crucial issue is of course experience. Streaming games affects their overall look – compression artifacting is a common problem, which causes the image to appear slightly muddled. Also, the human body is extremely sensitive to graphical latency, and those who are considered to be hardcore gamers are all the more sensitive, since break-neck reflexes are a requirement when competing in online games. So while the idea of streaming video content is very exciting, unfortunately the industry just isn’t at a point currently where it’s a viable solution: We’ve yet to see a service stream gaming video that doesn’t suffer visual hiccups and bits of lag.

For now, a hybrid system

A browser-based and native-client gaming hybrid seems to be the best fit for the current state of the gaming industry. In our case at ROBLOX, we’ve taken different pages from a few different books, and when we were developing our platform we looked to YouTube and Netflix and the idea of streaming on-demand content at all hours of the day. Our platform requires that you download a client (though we made its footprint extremely light), and we handle all the bandwidth with our very own farm of servers. Still the appearance of ROBLOX is dependent on the hardware in each and every user’s computer.

There will be some sort of convergence in the future, but for now this hybrid method is adopted to fit the current state of the gaming industry, where grand ideas like streaming graphics are simply limited by technological developments.

David Baszucki is CEO of ROBLOX, a user-generated MMO site for kids. Follow him on Twitter @DavidBaszucki.

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