Taking consoles to the cloud

Taking consoles to the cloud
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

April 23rd 2014 at 11:20AM

Do the PS4 and Xbox One have what it takes to truly achieve the potential of cloud gaming? Develop investigates

When Microsoft first unveiled the Xbox One, most people lost count of how many times the electronics giant mentioned ‘the cloud’. This has been thrown around as a buzzword for many years, and in the past year it has established itself in the lexicon of console games development – but has its presence been limited to just that: talk?

The benefits of cloud-based computing and storage have already made themselves known in mobile and browser games, allowing developers to synchronise user progress and other data across a number of devices. And yet, even with the growing bond between sister platforms such as PS4 and Vita, few titles take full advantage of this in the console space.

Both next generation consoles have been built to utilise cloud processing, but have they already been left behind?

“I do not believe so,” says Geomerics COO Chris Doran. “Microsoft has the Azure platform behind Xbox One and Sony has Gaikai behind PS4. These are both large, enterprise cloud services and both parties are dedicating part or all of these to the next generation consoles.

“Microsoft in particular is betting heavily on the cloud in general for the future of the company, so I really don’t expect them to fall behind. Quite the opposite, in fact. I expect the next generation of consoles to lead the way in cloud gaming.

“They have both already provided good functionality to link social media into their platforms, and both have the infrastructure in place. They also have strong networks of players through their respective programs, so I don’t think you could ask for much more from the platform holders.”

Bruce Grove, general manager of one of the pioneering cloud gaming services OnLive, agrees: “In Sony’s case, we’ve seen how it is using the cloud to tackle the problem of backwards compatibility. Both the console platforms are more than capable of taking advantage of cloud gaming’s features, and maybe we’ll see those applied over time as the customer’s expectations change.”

Microsoft in particular is betting heavily on the cloud in general for the future of the company, so I really don’t expect them to fall behind. Quite the opposite, in fact. I expect the next generation of consoles to lead the way in cloud gaming.

Chris Doran, Geomerics

OnLive and Gaikai, the latter rebranded as PlayStation Now, are examples of cloud gaming at its most ambitious, offering Netflix-style services in which users play games that are entirely streamed to their screen. It’s a model dependant on solid, high-speed connections and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has yet to have the impact early enthusiasts expected.

Doran argues that this is stretching cloud gaming beyond the technical limits that currently exist in today’s market: “If you define cloud gaming as cases where the entire game is run and rendered in the cloud, I don’t think anyone has done that very well yet, and I’m not convinced it is a good idea.”

DATA STORM

It’s a lesson that OnLive has learned the hard way, having flirted with bankruptcy back in 2012. The firm recently revamped its offering with CloudLift, enabling users to stream games already purchased on other systems such as Steam. Providing the title is compatible and offers cloud saves, users can continue their progress on smartphones or tablets just as easily as using a PC.

This is more indicative of how cloud gaming can be better used and, crucially, better accepted, says Grove.

“The basics would be to optimise saves and their locations,” he says. “Cloud syncing is a simple process and doesn’t involve moving huge data packets around. It’s also key to think about ‘how’ players could play their games more; some titles lend themselves to touch-screen control, others depend on a controller or mouse-keyboard setup.”

But Born Ready Games’ principal engineer Greg Booker warns: “Devs should take care with cloud synchronisation across multiple devices. This is a cool feature when it works, but an irritating one when it causes loss of progress or resources – the worst case being if those resources are purchased in a microtransaction environment.

“I’ve lost count of the number of mobile and tablet games I’ve played that become unresponsive or even crash entirely when my data connection is lost or constrained. Often this appears to be simple technical oversights, blocking code that waits for a response from network resources, such as ad providers or leaderboard systems.”

CONSOLES AND THE CLOUD

So while Xbox One and PS4 can draw a lot of power from the cloud, developers are urged to use it responsibly.

Unlike smart devices, where an almost permanent connection enhances local computing power, the next-gen console hardware is already advanced enough to handle the heavy tasks like graphics, leaving the cloud for more interesting tasks. Recent release Titanfall, for example, uses cloud servers to process the AI, resulting in the frantic and unpredictable battles that are the title’s biggest selling point.

“You should use cloud for dealing with large datasets and compute-intensive tasks, with relatively small IO and poor latency,” says Doran. “So I would steer clear of putting graphics-related tasks into the cloud. Anything that is tied to the framerate, you want to keep close to the player.

“Where cloud can really come into its own is in tasks like AI and social interaction. I’m still waiting to see the first game that utilises cloud computing to create sophisticated AI agents that behave in an intelligent manner. I can see some really cool possibilities here.”

The onus is on the development community to look at the features of cloud gaming and innovate upon them

Bruce Grove, OnLive

Grove agrees that Xbox One and PS4 could lead to new advances in the technology: “The consoles are approaching cloud gaming differently to us because they’re delivering a living room gaming experience. Most console games are designed that way, too. Now that cloud gaming features are in a developer’s toolbox, we could see the games themselves leading their adoption.”

Cloud computing is by no means exclusive to gaming. There is a lot developers can learn from other industries, particularly entertainment sectors such as film.

Playcast Media CEO Guy de Beer says: “Content developers should learn from Hollywood and the music industries: the cloud is used to monetise back catalogues, control prices, protect brands and leverage distribution platforms.

“Cloud is critical today for the strategic publishers, because this is the time in the value chain that defines the way the users’ dollar will be split. Most of the medium-sized publishers are already monetising their libraries with the cloud today, treating this as money found. Small and indie publishers should look at cloud as an emerging platform worth following, but throttle actual spend against actual available footprint.”

SHIFTING FORECASTS

The ultimate aim for cloud gaming pioneers is to create games that can be played anywhere at any time on low-cost hardware with little to no latency. That dream is still many years away from becoming a reality: even in the UK, mobile data coverage and broadband availability is far from consistent, with some areas of the nation still unable to connect to either.

But with more investment being allocated to improving broadband speeds – particularly in the markets where Xbox One or PS4 are available – the tools are in place for studios to finally harness the power of cloud computing to enhance their console games. But the revolution won’t happen by itself.

“To a large extent, the onus is on the development community to look at the features of cloud gaming and innovate upon them,” says Grove. “The opportunity is to have more gamers playing more of the time. How to incorporate a part or all of cloud gaming’s feature set is best left to the creative genius of those making the games.”

Doran agrees: “The next step is for developers to embrace the cloud features provided and start making games that really exploit these capabilities. I think we will start to see cloud exploited heavily in some of the headline MMOs due out this year.”

It’s been five years since Gaikai and OnLive were first announced, and advances in cloud gaming – at least, in the form defined by these two companies – have been minimal. Mobile developers are adept at using the technology to power games that users can access on various devices, but Grove believes we have only scratched the service of what it can bring to games development.

“Market conditions are changing fast and cloud gaming is still in its infancy,” he says. “On the one hand, you could reasonably expect the availability to increase in much the same way as mobile phone coverage proliferated. Or you could surmise that games will go the same way as video and music, and our expectations surrounding content being platform or device-locked will change.

“Personally, I see cloud gaming as a technology that connects the dots, adding convenience and mobility. But who’s to say that it won’t feature in every single touchpoint from secure beta testing? It could address the emerging challenges of marketing and retailing, until players just need to own a wireless controller to access all their games by simply logging in at a screen. I certainly see a lot of this happening before we get entire meals in pill form, or get to drive around in rocket cars.”