Monday, 3 October 2011

Is the future of gaming in the cloud?

A gaming passion

Being a games developer it comes as no surprise that I’m interested in computer games and gadgets. My obsession started back in the 80’s with a Sinclair +2 Spectrum (yes, I am that old).
As computers developed and graphics started to expand beyond their 16 colour limits I followed the trend with anticipation. First buying a Mega Drive (16 bit colour and stereo sound!), Mega Drive 32x (remember that?!), a Super Nintendo, a Gameboy (less colours than a SNES but my first foray in to the handheld gaming world), a PC, an Xbox (my first console with a built-in 3D card), another PC, a Wii, another PC and finally an Xbox 360. For some reason I never went down the PlayStation route much to the derision of some of my friends. I’m not biased; it was just a personal choice. My friend’s followed similar routes, but as hardware improved over the years I began to see a wedge form between the console and the PC users, and this separation still exists today.
Personally I’ve become more of a console-ist myself, partly due to the fact that I have a laptop (and no external mouse). The idea of resting my computer on my lap all night as it heats up my groin, achingly rotating my finger around the mouse pad and shouting at the screen because it thinks that by pressing the Shift key so often I must want it to start using the disabled features of Windows, doesn’t give me the gaming satisfaction I crave.

Console or PC?

Some console-ists will argue that using a console is more entertaining, offering a better gaming experience and providing a more sociable gaming environment. Others however will point out that the PC will always be the better choice simply because computer games are always demanding more from its hardware and only the PC can evolve with them.
Games companies are continually pushing the boundaries of their game engines, but console systems and PC hardware are finite and limiting in that they can only present to the user whatever their hardware and software can achieve. Sooner or later the dreaded drain on your finances will arrive, leaving you to make that same choice once again – buy the latest console, or upgrade your PC’s hardware. And there’s the rub…the one thing that binds both console and PC users alike. Either way you look at it, sooner or later you’re going to have to shell out for new technology.
This issue hasn’t gone un-noticed, and one company has been quietly working at a solution, one that solves the console/PC issues using other modern day technologies. The result? A cloud-based gaming platform!

Gaming in the Cloud

I first heard about Onlive about 4 years ago. Their chief director was discussing how they had begun developing a system that will allow any user to play a computer game with the best possible graphics and sound, and all they’ll need is a basic PC or, alternatively, purchase the OnLive box. The only requirement was that the user must have a reliable and relatively fast Internet connection. Of course 4 years ago we couldn’t afford the speeds we can get now and had the system been released around 2007 it is safe to say that it simply wouldn’t have worked. Fast-forward to 2011, where an Internet speed of less than 6mbps is laughed at, where cloud-based technology is the new buzz word and where games are more hardware demanding than ever. Onlive couldn’t have picked a better time to launch.

Cloud gaming? Explain yourself!

So what is it, and how exactly does it work? The simplest way to describe it is to imagine having a Skype conversation with your friend and asking them to put a webcam in front of their TV and boot up their console. Once the game loads, start shouting the direction you want your player to move, and your friend will navigate the controls accordingly. Technically you’re not playing the game directly, but you are in total control of it via your friend’s actions.
OK that example’s a little crude but you get the idea. OnLive works in a similar (but obviously more technical) way. You send the movements you want to make down the Internet to the OnLive cloud based servers that are running the game, and they will (virtually) instantly stream back the visual response to that movement. You are remotely playing a game through the Internet. And what’s really great is that you don’t have to worry about how good your graphics card is because you’re effectively watching a video, not rendering a 3D environment on the fly. OnLive have built an incredibly powerful piece of architecture to handle all the hardware and software involved in the game, and all you see is the final result. And as technology improves, so too will their servers.
OnLive is not available on both a PC and MAC (and soon a tablet version will be released!) but they have also released a small, lightweight console and gamepad. The gamepad rivals both the Xbox and Playstation both in terms of looks and usability. If you went for the console and gamepad it will cost you a measly £70 (but keep an eye are their constant deals. You can pick up a game and console for as little as £35 plus shipping). Simply plug your ethernet cable in (or go wireless via a wifi bridge), and use the HDMI out to plug in to your TV, press the on button and you’re ready to go in less than 3 seconds.

Can a cheap, affordable console that plays all the latest games and never needs upgrading exist? I’m quietly confident, but maybe I’ve just got my head in the clouds….
by Meta Matmian
[In my next post, I shall delve into more detail my experiences’ with OnLive - the good, the bad and the cloud]

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