OnLive vs Gaikai
We’re not usually in the business of predicting the weather, metaphorical or otherwise. Lately though, the clouds over the current technological landscape have grabbed our attention.
A few got drizzled on in the early days of cloud data storage – it had its teething problems like any new tech – but now most of us enjoy saved games backed up in Steam’s cumulonimbus of information, and trust our most treasured documents within the altostratus of LiveDrive.
There are yet more strange shapes forming in the sky above PC gaming; namely Gaikai (pronounced guy-kai pop-pickers) and OnLive (pronounced on-live). They both offer gamers an ever-increasing library of PC games to play instantly on your PC, Mac or smart TV.
It might sound like Steam without the download time, but it’s more far-reaching than that. These two cloud gaming services potentially enable you to play demanding PC titles at max visual settings on a machine well below minimum specification, or even cut out the PC entirely and play PC exclusives through your tablet or smart TV with a proprietary console.
You’re basically playing the game by remote control, sending your mouse and keyboard inputs back to a remote PC that deals with all the heavy-duty processing and rendering. These services have the potential to let gamers play any game they like without worrying about system requirements, annual upgrades or even hard disk space.
There’s no need to overclock a system, no SLI setups. But if that potential comes to fruition, what of our twenty-year relationship with the home PC?
It becomes a media streaming box with mouse and keyboard inputs. Either that or it lies in the bin while we play on our TVs and iPads. Hardware manufacturers are left without direction, as there’s no incentive in buying more powerful components. The industry takes a Wile E. Coyote glance around as it observes itself suspended above an infinite drop, and promptly plummets.
That was the rather lurid view shared by a few commentators as the first details of cloud gaming emerged. But in fact, OnLive and Gaikai could be really good for us – the PC gaming hardcore.
Let’s say the ease of cloud gaming turns a few console and casual gamers onto PC titles. The PC’s revenue share increases. Title budgets increase. Publishers fund adventurous projects to create new franchises, so we get original games like Outcast and Grim Fandango again.
Remotely accessed content poses a big problem for pirates, so digital theft figures drop and DRM becomes less draconic. A renaissance for the PC, all thanks to cloud gaming.
Is it possible? As cloud gaming gathers momentum, it’s easy to look at Gaikai and OnLive as direct competitors. Furious adversaries like Henry Ford and Karl Benz, Mr Coke and Mr Pepsi, Al Capone and Kevin Costner, shaking their fists at each other from their respective headquarters on opposite sides of the street.
The reality’s inevitably more complex. While the two can be compared in terms of the technology they employ and the experience they make possible, they have different ideas about how to make money from it and how they want you to use it. Also it was Eliot Ness who took down Al Capone. Don’t believe Costner’s lies.
Gaikai’s service is fairly straightforward. Folk visit its site, and try its range of game demos straight from Gaikai’s browser. Because the content of these demos is held remotely, users don’t need to download anything, and developers don’t have to create a separate build – they can just code in a time limit.
You can add Gaikai to your site or blog easily enough to add an extra dimension to a game review or simply allow like-minded web folks to share a game demo you’ve enjoyed. If you’re a big-league player, say a retailer or a game company yourself, you can use the browser demo as a game advertisement on literally any site. That’s a pretty powerful marketing tool, and we’d be surprised if it didn’t become widespread.
Offering a game in its entirety with a soft-coded time limit would be suicide under normal circumstances – that game would be de-limited and on pirate sites in the blink of an eye – but the nature of Gaikai’s streaming services makes it a much safer proposition for the game company. Gaikai is about the renaissance of the game demo, and that’s something all gamers can get behind.
Live game feed
OnLive takes remotely accessed content and adds a dollop of Steam’s digital distribution model. As with Valve’s omni-store and EA’s young upstart Origin, you can peruse OnLive’s available games from your browser, but should a particular game tickle your glands you’ll need to download the OnLive app to play it.
There are plenty of demos, again time-restricted rather than original content, but OnLive also allows you to buy games. That’s right. Buy games that’ll never make it to your hard disk. It’s an idea that sits as comfortably as releasing a sequel to World of Warcraft as a Sims 3 expansion pack with the seasoned PC gamer.
OnLive does have a clever purchasing model to alleviate that though. If you want a particular game forever, it’s the usual £30 to £35. However, if you back yourself to finish a new title in one determined weekend, you can save yourself a lot of money by buying a three-day pass for around £3.99. There’s a five-day pass if you fancy scouting around a bit more too.
Think about how many big-budget single player blockbusters you’ve played recently that were over in a matter of hours. If you could have bought a three-day pass for them, how many hundreds of shinies would you have saved?
Multiplayer titles are a different matter, but they don’t comprise 100 per cent of anyone’s game collection. For Example, F.3.A.R.‘s multiplayer is available in the ‘Play Pack’, but you can access the brief single player campaign with a three day pass.
Ah yes, the Play Pack. Subscribe for £6.99 and you get unlimited access to a generous bundle of 100 titles that includes the likes of Bioshock and Just Cause 2, and then 30 per cent off any other title you want to buy full-time. Our Steam accounts are populated by a worrying volume of tantalising weekend deals as it is, and OnLive’s deals look set to deplete our precious money reserves even further.
OnLive has buddied up with BT to launch its UK service. Hopefully that partnership will lead to a sensible workaround on data usage limits. A few minutes on OnLive is akin to streaming HD video, so ‘fair usage’ limitations that ISPs impose could be a real thorn in both OnLive and Gaikai’s sides.
We quizzed BT on this, and were encouraged to hear that BT/OnLive customers will get a six-month data usage ‘holiday’ with no fees. We couldn’t however get a straight answer out of is spokesman when we asked if unlimited packages might increase in price if OnLive becomes popular. Time will tell.
The bandwidth issue
More fibre needed
But that’s the nature of the beast: ever-changing. When we first got our hands on the two services, the games we played suffered noticeable input lag and looked like YouTube videos. Currently the visual fidelity issues remain to an extent, but the input lag seems to have been minimised lately.
As our dear old Blighty’s data pipeline gets a bit more 21st century and fibre optic broadband becomes the household standard, we just might see a cloud gaming experience that’s imperceptible from a locally run game in the coming years. And that would be a scary development for hardware manufacturers.
Andrew Ditchburn, Gigabyte’s mainboard product manager, doesn’t seem all that spooked though: "Cloud gaming could be the beginning of something big in the console market, but personally I don’t think it will every truly become mainstream in the PC market. Consoles cannot be easily upgraded and [creating] storage space for games, music and movies is always a problem – in the PC market upgrades are not really an issue."
PC gamers will still demand performance gear, Ditchburn maintains: "Personally we don’t see the need to adapt. PC gamers are normally very demanding on the requirements of their systems, and upgrading provides an opportunity to gain an advantage over their competition. Also PC enthusiasts tend to take pride in the quality of their PC and hardware installed."
This calm and even encouraging anticipation of cloud gaming’s advent is shared by John Inwood, MSI’s UK marketing manager. "It is yet to be seen if [cloud gaming] is a phase or something which will become mainstream, however it is clear that there are a number advantages to gaming in the cloud which could see it establish itself for some time to come… however, the gaming experience on the cloud is still a long way from that of gaming on a dedicated PC. It’s not likely that we’ll see any trends forming in favour of lower spec PCs as a result. If anything, this may have more of a significant effect on the console market – the experience consoles offer is a lot more comparable [than the PC] to that of cloud gaming."
Cloud gaming means business, and in business there are winners and losers. Component manufacturers insist they won’t be losers, but messrs Ditchburn and Inwood both agree who will be – the console market.
A recent quarterly report posted by Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division (comprising all things Xbox) revealed that the division accounts for just 10 per cent of Microsoft’s overall revenue, and generates just 2 per cent profit on that revenue. Those figures cover Xbox 360′s Kinect-related resurgence, too.
Sony, whose PlayStation Move motion controllers didn’t quite steal the market share from Microsoft and Nintendo is hardly enjoying a golden age either. Both giants have suffered at the idle thumbs of casual gamers, losing market share to iOS apps and social networking site games, such as FarmVille.
Current generation consoles are being left behind, and that trend hasn’t been missed by some of the industry. Blitz Games’ CEO Philip Oliver expects games to be distributed primarily in digital form in the near future: "If you were designing a machine right now, why would you want physical media? It would be crazy."
THQ’s Brian Farell went one further at the first cloud gaming conference in San Diego this September, boldly predicting that the next wave of consoles will move to the cloud entirely.
From a publisher’s perspective, it’s exciting: "no physical goods cost for game makers, no inventory, no markdowns, and all the money spent by the consumer would go to the developer or publisher". You only have to look at OnLive’s Game System, a micro-console and controller, to get an insight into their commercial aspirations – it’s going after console and casual gamers.
PC Gaming Alliance President Matt Ployhar contemplates the impact of cloud gaming: "By and large I believe that streaming works in favour of the PC. Consoles can also benefit, however due to their proprietary nature, I believe they’re somewhat less compelling.
"Would you rather choose to ship your game for 500 to 600 million households worldwide? Or better yet… integrate PC functionality into every TV and hit close to a billion households? Or would you rather target the individual active users on an Xbox 360, PS3, or Wii which are, on their best days at best one tenth of the active install base of PC users; or one twentieth of TV households?"
The widespread adoption of motion controllers is testament to the current generation of consoles’ ability to adapt to rapidly changing user demands. With competitors now jumping on the motion control bandwagon, it’s clear that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo will need to reinvent themselves again to compete with cloud gaming services – and by all accounts, it’ll be a tough battle.
The next step for services such as OnLive is to get developers to optimise their games for the cloud. It’s something CEO Steve Perlman is keen to see in the near future, and may well result in a smoother, better quality experience for the gamer. But how receptive are developers to this notion?
Kieran Brigden, the Studio Communications Manager at Creative Assembly, provides some insight on his very PC-focussed studio’s viewpoint: "It’s hard to be sure what the technical issues would be, but lag is clearly a big one and would probably require very careful design to hide it or mitigate the impact … With games like the Total War series, another issue would be what level of graphics to provide.
"We design TW games to last for many years, so they scale extremely well. The player can ‘turn up’ the graphics all the way from a cheap netbook to well beyond what current top-end hardware can cope with. What would the cloud be able to cope with? Would it be able to deliver graphics that no home PC is capable of? Is the same true of AI?"
Distribution and developer-publisher relationships are another area for consideration: "There are always going to be many routes to market for a game, even within a single distribution platform. The infrastructure required to make the most of a developer’s [product] will still be substantial, and it’s publishers that provide that. Large developers could opt to carry that overhead, but in doing so they will become publishers. Nothing has changed in that respect."
Despite his obvious excitement for the possibilities cloud gaming provides, when asked if developers want their games to be played over the cloud rather than locally, Kieran is succinct: ‘Not yet…’ What does it all mean for the PC, then?
Hardware manufacturers are unlikely to go bust at the expense of cloud gaming. PC traditionalists will always want to own and play their content locally, enthusiasts will gladly pay £500 for a graphics card and twitch gamers will always look to gain a technological advantage over the competition.
Every breed of gamer enjoys a demo though, and thanks to Gaikai it’s likely to be easier to try before you buy. Power to the consumer! It’s still up to the publishers and Gaikai themselves whether games actually appear prior to release dates, of course.
OnLive looks likely to be massive for the casual gamer, console gamer and tablet user, but it could indirectly benefit our platform hugely. If the PC enthusiast dares to dream, the increased revenue for PC titles could change what publishers see as commercially viable in a game, and give us weird and wonderful new projects.
Piracy’s unlikely to go away entirely, but the availability of demos and the headaches involved with remotely run content might at least curb it. Then we might be able to kiss goodbye to today’s horrible DRM. Our PC renaissance might be just around the corner.