In my previous bit, I wrote how the shift to cloud computing could really have an impact on whether PC gaming will exist as a major concern 10 years from now and beyond. Whether or not gaming migrates to the consoles almost exclusively or not, it’s relatively certain that gaming will slowly but surely follow Valve’s lead and march into the cloud. It’s my hope the rest of software publishing will follow it - for the benefit of everyone.
The storm cloud
What iscertain, however, is just how much immersion gaming can have into the cloud. There have been a smattering of new services being developed right now that are trying to take everythingthat has to do with a game and host it from the cloud: software, hardware, and rendering; effectively all the gamer needs on their end are peripherals, monitor, speakers, and just enough processing power to decode a video stream. One such service is OnLive, which made their debut PR splash at the Game Developers Conference in March. Most of the major gaming news outlets fell into the all-to-familiar pattern of amplifying bullshit hype instead of doing some actual journalism. OnLive seems to think that they can deliver a good gaming experience from the cloud, where the visual and audio rendering is all done from their mainframe and delivered to you streaming over the internet. At 60 frames a second. At 720.480 (480p). At 1.5 megabits-per-second.
This is laughable. I’ve been dealing with internet-based video here for the better part of a decade now, and I tend to think I know a fair bit about it. There’s no video codec in existence today that can compress 480p @ 60 frames into a watchable stream(let alone something playable as a game) at 1.5mbps, especially when considering high-motion FPS titles. It’s a virtual impossibility - the shit would be simply be unplayable.
But say we put that aside and say that you coulddeliver crisp, clean video and audio for FPS games over the internet. WHAT ABOUT THE LATENCY? Look, the time that it takes to get feedback on mouse movements on your local machine is extremely short, less than 1 ms. If it were any larger, the sense of immersion and control you get from FPS games would be gone, as the time it takes between mouse motions and corresponding crosshair movements would actually be percievable in real time. Even 1 ms would be too long, and would become unplayable for RTS and MMO players as well.
It appears nobody asked this question: who the hell has a net connection quick enough to support this kind of gaming?
OnLive is barking up the wrong tree. Gaming cannot be done exclusively over the cloud, it’s simply too demanding of processes that need to happen as quickly as possible, processes that can only happen on a local device. It’s not a matter of waiting for technology to ‘catch up’ to this hairbrained idea, it’s a physical impossibility.
The silver lining
There’s a damn good reason why so many publishers have taken to distributing games over Steam: it’s immensely difficult to pirate games off of it, or used pirated copies through it. Sure, you can find torrents of most Valve games out there, and they’re usable to a point, but with most recent Valve titles being very multiplay-centric, for those trying to get cracked Steam games to play nice over the Steam network without getting burned, the complications involved are usually a large enough deterrant. It’s easy to say with confidence that the vast majority of people playing Steam games at any given time are doing so legitimately.
Steam was launched in 2003, far before ‘cloud computing’ was part of the tech dialog, save for in academic circles. In this light, Valve’s development of this platform was prophetic, and any publisher, gaming or not, currently dealing with rampant piracy issues (looking at you Adobe) would do well to look at how Valve has stayed well above the widespread piracy problem; at they very least they’re faring far better than the typical publisher who distributes in physical formats through brick-and-mortar outlets.
Valve sees software pirates as ‘underserved customers,’ instead of as criminals (at least as the immediate response). The pirate’s rationale is easy to discern: why should I shell out another $60 for this year’s marginally better edition of the same sports title? Why should I shell out $60 for a game that I’m probably only going to play a handful of times? Even if I am going to play it a lot, why should I pay double what I think the product is worth when I can pull it down off the internet for free?
Valve has managed to stay ahead of the piracy curve with a near constant stream of patches and tweaks to the games and to the Steam platform itself - the more constant your updates, the harder it is for the people building cracks to keep up. But they also pack a great deal of value into their titles. Take TF2 for instance: since it’s release in 2007 they’ve continued adding a great deal of content (for free) in the way of new gameplay types, new maps, and class-specific achievement packs as well as tweaks to loadouts and unlockable toys. In short: the now $20 you have to plunk down to get everything TF2 is an excellent deal when you compare the potential playtime you may get out of it: the value is greater than the cost.
Combating piracy isn’t as much controlling the means of distribution (Valve has done this better than anyone else regardless) as it is making the product worth the cash you’re asking for it. What a novel concept (looking at you EA).
What it means for publishers, and you and me
Even if gaming can’t move fully into the cloud, it still has the potential to bring increased value to publishers and gamers alike, and should definately be examined by software publishers eveywhere. There’s reason to suggest that the Steam model of software distribution has the potential to simultaneously increase publisher’s and developer’s bottom lines while making all software more easily accessible and affordable to end users. For example, let’s take Adobe’s Photoshop. A licence for this program runs $700. To think that everyone using it has a legitimate copy is preposterous; piracy of this program is widespread. So who’s pirating it? It’s not the people who are using it for a living, 40+ hours a week; they can buy it and get the tax writeoff. It’s everyone else that has reason to pirate it - the folks that don’t use it for a job, use it once a week at most, and really can’t justify the $700 price tag to get in the door, and the extra $200 yearly to keep up with new version releases. For these folks, value < cost = pirate it. What if Photoshop was distributed over Steam (or something comparable)? What would this mean for Adobe? What would it mean for users? How could Adobe make more money from Photoshop by trying to recapture these underserved customers? It’s easy: time-controlled licences. Steam-based distribution cuts down on piracy, thats obvious. But Steam-based distribution also allows for licence control in real time. For the casual user, it’s a dream to be able to put down a dollar or two in return for access to a $700 program for a day, just long enough to get done the one task they need it for. Everyone wins! Adobe gets more return on Photoshop than they would have if these users had just pirated the software, and used it for a day or two before deleting it, and more people are able to use Photoshop at a price point that they can easily budget. There’s only one question left for me: Why aren’t more publishers already putting this model into practice?