Cloud Gaming and Streaming: the 101 for a New Era of Game Entertainment
The gaming industry is abuzz with talk of Cloud Gaming and some big announcements are finally out regarding new Cloud-based gaming services. But many people—both within the game industry and consumers—still have questions about what Cloud Gaming really is. The term “Cloud Streaming” adds to the confusion as well, because it differs from Cloud Gaming. So, to help get you up to speed on the Cloud discussions happening right now, I will try to shed some clarity on these new technologies and the future of video games on the Cloud.
To some, Cloud Gaming promises to revolutionize the gaming experience and usher in a new era of game entertainment. To others, it’s a disposable buzzword of empty dreams. I feel the reality is somewhere in the middle. Regardless, it is relevant for all of us, especially in the game industry, because it’s making an impact now. I’ll discuss the advantages and realities of games on the Cloud, and what Cloud Gaming might really mean for video game consumers. I will speak from my experience in the games industry—having watched many trends come and go—and rely on my team in the Ubisoft Winnipeg Studio and their expertise in Cloud technology, video games, and the technology behind them.
“To some, Cloud Gaming promises to revolutionize the gaming experience and usher in a new era of game entertainment. To others, it’s a disposable buzzword of empty dreams. I feel the reality is somewhere in the middle.”
The last time I bought a game, I purchased it in a digital store, and began the long process of downloading. I went away to do something else. The next day, I wanted to start the game, but it downloaded a massive patch of multiple gigabytes, which took several hours more. I was frustrated. I just wanted to play, and I couldn’t. That’s an experience common to most players for most games today. It’s a result of the current paradigm of buying a game and copying it onto your local machine. In a few years, the Cloud Gaming believers say it won’t be.
The disruptive technology that has enabled this shift is the Cloud. What is the Cloud? Well, the Cloud isn’t a cloud at all. It’s really a bunch of connected servers spread around the world. They are computers, not so different from whatever you are reading this on. What separates it is that the Cloud is such a large number of computers, tightly connected with really fast links, and spread really far apart. It’s such a huge number of computers that we can think of it as nearly infinite computing power, and nearly infinite storage. And if one computer on the Cloud breaks, it’s okay, another one can jump in to carry the load.
Moreover, there isn’t just one Cloud, there are many Clouds, owned by different companies—the big players, such as Amazon, Apple, Sony, Microsoft and Google. Their Clouds are all separate and competing and some are already announcing their intention to launch game-specific Cloud services. Whether or not they will become mainstream is yet to be seen.
With names like these behind the current trend, it’s easy to believe this is real and we’re on the cusp of the Cloud Gaming revolution. That said, there were some big names behind VR a few years ago but VR still hasn’t hit mainstream relevance. There’s a lesson there, but I believe the promise of Cloud Gaming is high enough, and the challenges reasonable enough, that Cloud Gaming is our inevitable future in one way or another.
Cloud Gaming refers to any game that is running on the computers on the Cloud; Cloud Streaming, however, is a specific technology to play a Cloud Game. It’s the method the Cloud Game uses to deliver content to the player. Let’s look at how it works.
Today, a game developer builds a game and sells it to the end consumer, who also needs to purchase a machine to run it, such as a PC or console. You copy the game onto your machine, and you can play it.
With Cloud Streaming, you don’t copy the game onto your computer. The game stays on a computer somewhere on the internet, and you, the end consumer, play on that computer from a distance.
The computer running the game sends a video stream to your machine (phone, TV or computer), while your machine sends your controller inputs (such as a gamepad or keyboard) back to the other computer.
That’s the basics of Cloud Streaming, but there is far more we can do with a bunch of computers working together than to just send video. Now let’s review some of the advantages of Cloud Streaming.
I’ll focus on two of the benefits that are most relevant to gaming: the first advantage for games is that we can use the Cloud to play more interesting and complex games. For example, today it’s impossible to simulate real water movement and dynamics in a game on a single computer. A naval warfare game needs to fake the water physics with wavey-shaped animations to make it work. However, we could run real water and flotation simulation using some of the computers on the Cloud. It would mean incredibly realistic water effects, ship movement, drag, wind, even rogue waves. And that’s just one example. Many different simulation possibilities exist such as character behavior, light, clouds, animation and more.
The second benefit to games is that we can use the Cloud to have many players experience the same huge game world at the same time. It takes a lot of computing power to put many players in the same world. Right now the state of the art is 100 players in the same game world at the same time where very little they do to the world can be saved. With the Cloud, imagine thousands of players across a persistent open world of thousands of square miles, where the creations players build in the world—like a castle, for example—are visible to every other player, and never disappear from the world. And you can have everyone from your guild live inside the castle. The Cloud can do that.
Today, when a game needs to be balanced, every gamer will tell you that updates take too long and the patches are too big. On the Cloud, if the game developer sees that one character, weapon, or spell is underperforming, updates can happen on the Cloud in real-time and instantly spread to all players. Even better, new characters, weapons, spells or any other content can be added without any changes on the players’ devices. This means Cloud Games can quickly evolve in response to the way players play.
The ultimate dream is games that the players control fully. Imagine a world where players can collectively build, change and destroy a shared game environment in real-time. A game that is an ecosystem with the players living within it. Empires will rise and fall within these games, worlds will live and decay, and species will evolve and die off as the ecosystems are driven under the yoke of the players. The Cloud can do all that, too.
So the Cloud can bring real advantages to us as gamers, but as with any new technology, there are challenges.
The biggest barrier to the Cloud Streaming revolution is latency. Latency is the time it takes for the actions you input into your controller to the time that you see the result on the screen.
Latency isn’t just a term used for Cloud Streaming; we talk about it for all our games. Imagine a game running at 60 frames per second (FPS). Each frame, each update to the game, takes 16ms (16 thousandths of a second). What that really means is if you press a button to make your character move forward, you don’t really see it happen right away. The game processes the input, and it draws the result on screen in the next frame. The time it takes from the input of your action to seeing the action on screen (the latency) of a game running at 60 FPS in about 16ms.
Now consider the same scenario for a Cloud Streaming game. The game running on your mobile device takes your input action and sends it over the internet to the Cloud platform. The Cloud platform processes the command, draws the next update, compresses it into video, then sends it back over the internet. Your mobile device receives the video frame, decompresses it, then draws it on screen. You get the point. Every one of those steps takes time, and sending stuff back-and-forth over the internet is the longest two steps by far. The time difference is so monumental that some games would not be playable at that latency.
That means it’s crucial to reduce the latency in all of the stages and get the result back to the player in the shortest time possible if Cloud Streaming is to succeed. The platforms providers (Google, Amazon, Sony, Microsoft, and the others) have an incredible amount of work to do to fix that and it’s not just limited to the Cloud. The telecommunications industry will play a big part in this. 5G, the next-generation cell phone communications platform, promises to alleviate a lot of the latency problem, but it is years from general adoption across the world.
There are cost savings to be made as well. Computation on the Cloud and bandwidth are both expensive. I trust that these costs will come down over time as economies of scale kick in. The real problem to solve is latency.
Assuming we solve the latency problem, the Cloud as a computing platform can provide additional services and more to the consumer that can vastly change the way we consume video games.
The latest trend and promise of the future is to create what some people are calling the Netflix of Gaming. It would be a service where a large number of games are available to any player who wants them, at any time. Some developers will continue to build games the current way—as standalone products—and make them available on the Netflix of Gaming. However, other game developers will change the way they make games. As with Netflix, where movie producers have adapted the way they make video content, I expect developers will build games to specifically leverage the power of the new streaming platform that the Cloud provides.
Clearly, there are advantages for the consumer, who may no longer require high-end hardware to play the latest games. Instead, gamers can stream to almost any device—including the ubiquitous mobile phone—bringing new players to the market and making gaming more accessible for those without high-end hardware.
With streaming, now the cost of hardware has shifted to the game publisher who pays to host this computer hardware somewhere on the Cloud. The amount consumers pay to access games needs to cover not only the cost of making the game, but also the hardware to run it and the bandwidth to stream it to the player. Nonetheless, with the economies of scale and hardware sharing opportunities, it stands to reason this should drive down the overall cost of entry for gamers to play the latest games.
Ultimately, game streaming needs to make sense for both the consumer and the game publisher. The consumer needs to feel there is value to not owning but renting the games. And with the extra cost of Cloud hosting and bandwidth, game streaming needs to have a strong business case for the publisher.
“The consumer needs to feel there is value to not owning but renting the games. And with the extra cost of Cloud hosting and bandwidth, game streaming needs to have a strong business case for the publisher.”
I’ve looked at where we are and where we’re going with the Cloud, and the many opportunities and challenges that exist today in the field of Cloud Gaming. The promise of more complex, realistic, and engaging worlds is just too exciting not to pursue.
Interestingly, using the Cloud for games doesn’t actually depend on video streaming to be successful. If latency remains an issue, limiting game options for streaming in the short term, there are still ways to leverage the massive computational power and storage of the Cloud to provide novel game experiences. As mentioned earlier, we could still perform simulation of complex systems (for example, water physics) on the Cloud, and send the result to your PC or console to be displayed.
In fact, another way to leverage the Cloud is for game developers to build their games directly on the Cloud. We are developing the technology for this at Ubisoft Winnipeg and I will write more about this in a following article.
There is a very bright future ahead of us in video games fueled by the power of the Cloud, whether it’s Cloud streaming, Cloud development or some other Cloud-based technology we haven’t even thought of. No matter which direction the technology evolves, I believe it will change the face of gaming as we know it.