Slowly and surely PC gaming has been moving to the cloud. It makes sense that the easiest way to eradicate piracy is to check ownership whenever a game gets fired up. However the way in which this process occurs is the real crux of how successful it is, and how well the often fickle PC gaming community will receive such technology.
The biggest PC games in the world all have an intrinsic relationship with the internet. Blizzard's World of Warcraft juggernaught is designed around players being constantly connected. In essence the game is one big database - when you throw fireballs at a gigantic dragon you are actually just querying a database. Take away the database and there is no World of Warcraft, just a set of art assets and a map viewer.
Even single player titles are becoming more entangled in the cloud. Ubisoft's current anti-piracy strategy involves games being permanently connected to its servers. Even though the entire game resides on your computer, if you lose internet the game will stop dead in its tracks until it reconnects with Ubisoft's servers.
This approach is quite heavy-handed in contrast to something like Valve's Steam distribution service. Through steam you can purchase and download games, which can have a third party copy protection or rely on steam for authentication. Once this happens you can put Steam into offline mode, which still lets you play your games without having internet access (as long as it isn't an Ubisoft game). Steam also includes optional cloud services for storing save games and letting you access them from any computer that you sign in on.
Moving the games to the datacentre
This level of online integration is nothing compared to services launching in the US at the moment. Most prominent of these is Onlive, but there is also a similar service called Gakai that is readying for launch.
What these services do is take the cloud computing model and run with it. Unlike World of Warcraft's approach, where the graphics, sound and game world are generated on the player's PC, these companies run the entire game on their server farms. The end user essentially ends up with a video stream that responds to their key and mouse presses.
If this works it has the potential to completely change the landscape of gaming. It means that as long as you can play back video and connect to a speedy internet connection you can game. This could be on any device from an internet-enabled television to an iPad. It would completely negate the need for game consoles or enthusiast graphics cards. Why bother to build an expensive PC when you can game on any old thing?
|Because Onlive does the rendering in the cloud, all it needs is a small box like this one that is capable of playing back 720p video to work.
The rough path to smooth sailing
Of course, the reality is somewhat different. The major challenge faced by streaming games is latency. When you push a button the software needs to register the event, send it to the server, have it processed and then render the resulting image and send it out. Delays in processing these signals would lead to 'laggy' controls, where you would push a button and notice the delay before the game registers it.
The combination of this and the need for high bandwidth to cope with the high resolution video stream means that services like Onlive are highly dependent on building datacenters close to populations enabled with high speed internet. Onlive quotes a minimum 5Mbps connection for its service, which currently only runs at 720p (1280 x 720).
One of the other issues around Onlive is that you are required to buy games but never actually own them. The software never gets installed on your computer; rather it sits on the server in Onlive's datacenter. Not only do you need an active subscription to access the games you 'own' but there is no guarantee of being able to access them in the future. At the moment it looks like most games will be available for two years. Even if you do end up buying a retail copy of the game, your saved data will be on Onlive's servers so prepare to start again.
It will likely be some time until we see such services appear in Australia. However the rollout of the National Broadband Network is going to provide a big incentive for companies like Onlive to treat Australia seriously. Fibre to the home is going to provide the necessary bandwidth and latency for the service to work well, and the clustering of population around the coast means that it is easy to build datacenters that cover a large proportion of the population. As to whether gaming in the cloud will take off, we will have to wait and see what happens as Onlive and other services roll out in the US.