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Saturday, May 19, 2012

(GAMING OPINION) – Is our gaming future in the cloud?

Nvidia just recently announced the Geforce Grid, which is their GPU (Graphics processing unit) solution for cloud gaming, and it’s impressive to say the least. According to an article on, Gaikai have been using Fermi based GPUs (GTX480 and GTX580) in their current servers, with One GPU per server with 28 servers in a rack. The new Grid solution uses Kepler GPUs (GTX680) and allows four GPU’s per server which is 84 GPUs per rack. The power difference is halved with the old Fermi solution being at 150w per GPU, and 75w per CPU with Grid. It reduces latency (the main problem with cloud gaming) up to 30ms. You can read more at Techspot  

Is this the really the future if gaming?
This is the multi-million dollar question that Onlive and Gaikai are trying to provide the answer to. Will gamers or even casual PC users gladly give up their own hardware, consoles, and PC’s at home for a cloud solution, the answer is probably yes, but not in the near future, but it’s probably inevitable, at least to some degree.

In my opinion, the technology and concept of cloud gaming is in its initial development phase, and not quite ready for prime time. ISP’s are not happy giving their subscribers unlimited Internet anymore and many have imposed data caps. They won’t come out and say it, but this is an attempt for the cable companies to stop or discourage consumers from leaving their pricey cable packages for Internet TV options, or just plain greed in some cases.  This will not help online gaming solutions like Gaikai or Onlive as they eat up bandwith quickly. If they partner with these cable companies that could alleviate the ISP data costs, and though I have heard rumors of it, I haven’t yet heard proof this is the case.

Graphic limitations and latency vs. convenience 

Cloud gaming seems to be stuck at 720p for now as the bandwith required for true 1080p is huge, and the backend processing is much heavier. When I have played games on Onlive, it plays like a mid level PC with stripped down graphic options. Unfortunately, playing a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution on Onlive doesn’t look as good as playing on your own mid level PC at home, at least at the moment.  The resolution is stuck at 720p, the textures are not as sharp, and the streaming artifacts are there, though minor. Latency seems noticeable when playing a first person shooter or quick action style game, the controls just don’t feel as tight. Gaikai seems to have slightly less latency, though that might be because of my location to the server or my ISP, and the graphics seem sharper to me. Where Onlive shines is the interface, I absolutely love it. When you log into Onlive and get to the menu screen, you have multiple choices. My favorite is the Arena, where you can watch other gamers play games live. Microsoft wanted to try something like this when they released the Xbox 360, they had plans for it with the Project Gotham series, but it never panned out.  When you start a game on Onlive it just starts running, and that is impressive. Once you load the client, going in and out of games is very quick, it amazed me the first time I played a game on the service. Gaikai doesn’t use that type of client (yet), it’s a website that install a java based client as you run the game, and plays in your web browser window. It doesn’t load as fast as onlive as you are loading each game separately. I played the Mass Effect 3 and Bulletstorm demos on Gaikai. I didn’t feel hardly any latency with ME3, but it was very noticeable in Bulletstorm which is a fast paced shooter.

The question is one of convenience; will gamers accept something of lower quality than the more expensive solution of owning your own hardware? As a musician, it’s easy to say to just take a look at the MP3. Many music lovers listen to their favorite music on 128 or 192 Kbits and are perfectly happy with them. I personally use 320 Kbit MP3’s on any music site that will allow them, some will only allow 192 or lower unfortunately.
Most people don’t want to download a 50mb or higher wav file for a song still, even though the quality is better. However, MP3’s don’t have latency, and if every MP3 file started with a 3 to 5 sec pause before the song starts, I think the average listener would be very irritated.

I think that eventually Onlive, Gaikai, Evolve, and maybe PSN and XBL will be on everyone’s cable box, TV, or internet device. That option will be there and people will use it, but this will take time, and until super fast fiber networking is available in every home, it’s going to be a slow process.

The merging of the cloud and home products.

This is what I think could be really interesting, especially for the upcoming next generation consoles that we all know are coming but haven’t been announced (I’m not including the Wii-u, from the specs rumored so far, it’s going to be more like our current generation in performance)

What if we could merge local hardware with cloud hardware?  What if you could make a game like Mass Effect where the level was on the local machine, but the backgrounds are in the cloud? Instead of painted or pre-rendered backgrounds with sparse geometry in front, you could have a Blade runner type of cityscape complete with advertisements geared to you while you’re playing the game? Using ME3 as an example, when you are on the citadel and looking out beyond the place your character is standing, you currently see a beautiful rendered background mixed with geometry that fades in detail is it goes. Instead, you could have the cloud render or stream a video of an immense city with advertisements geared towards the player. If you didn’t have the connection to stream, you would still have that background as before. It would be the best of both worlds.

Instead of a high end machine rendering everything, it would only have to render the parts that would be affected by high latency. Even if the game is at 1080p, the background image wouldn’t necessarily have to be.

I haven't heard anything regarding merging the technology, but it seems to me the way to go, at least initially.
Gaming might eventually go completely cloud, but this would be a great way to start the transition.

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