The next generation of consoles is almost upon us. Before we save up for that glorious new $500 gaming experience, it’s a good idea to understand just what we are paying for. A big part of the next generation is Cloud Gaming and Streaming Games. These innovations are very exciting, but not everyone understands what they actually mean.
All previous generations of consoles have been restricted by the power of the client (the actual hardware device.) This is because our console is dedicated to doing all the required work to get the game to function. It needs to be powerful enough to process the physics, control the AI, perform collision detection, render complex HD scenes, etc. So it is only reasonable to assume that every device has to be powerful enough to actually run the game we want to play… right?
Not anymore. Average network speeds are moving up around the globe, and cloud technologies are stabilizing, standardizing and taking hold in every industry — including gaming. We are entering a new era in what is possible by leveraging these strengths. My first brush with this concept was way back in the 1990s. At that time, it was common to see “dumb terminals” in schools, computer labs, and libraries across the US. These were very simple machines that hooked up to a central computer via a serial port and provided a rudimentary text console. The devices themselves lacked much capability. They could turn on and proxy data through the serial port, and print things to the amber or green monochromatic display. All the work was done on the back-end server, and the thin client had just enough horsepower to allow user interaction.That simple concept: “pushing all the work to the server” is the basis of Cloud Gaming.
|WebGL Quake II|
This is a great example of “how” Cloud Gaming will work. Your console will have to shoulder much less of the responsibility. It will communicate through some proprietary protocol to servers in the cloud which do all of the heavy lifting. Your device just needs enough power to display the interface, and transmit user interaction. If a web browser can do this, imagine what a specifically cloud-designed console could do! The technology evolution to cloud gaming will allow these future devices to be cheaper, smaller (think iPhone sized), and have a much longer life span. Their internal technology could remain static (even get cheaper), while the content they provide has the potential to become infinitely more complex and powerful.
Cloud Streaming is how companies like Sony plan to tie this into a business model. They will most likely provide a subscription service which gives users access to a huge library of games, much like Netflix does for movies. When a user selects a game to play, a properly sized cloud instance will spin up (in a nearby availability zone) and begin transmitting the content to the user’s console. This provides some deeply interesting cloud-based cost models for the provider. Time will tell if those models pay off, but I have a feeling they will.