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RPS Asks: Cloud Gaming = PC Gaming?

The future is sort of here. Soonish. Maybe.

Pay attention, students - here's your homework for today. Cloud gaming services such as OnLive and Gaikai: discuss. They're on the rise, and approaching the point where they're not just a fascinating gimmick but a viable way of playing high-end games at reasonable graphical quality. But what do they mean for PC gaming? Indeed, can they be considered PC gaming? And most of all - how seriously should we, and you, be taking them?

Cloud gaming, if you've not managed to keep up with the streaming Joneses, is a system whereby the game you're playing is actually running on a high-spec PC somewhere on the other side of the world (or ideally much closer), and streamed to your monitor/TV/tablet/whatever as essentially a high-resolution video that reflects the keys or buttons you push. So, if you load up Dead Space 2 and press fire on your keyboard, a command is sent to a remote machine that then renders the action and effects thereof, and as close as possible to instantly transmits the resulting image back to your PC via the internet.

Is it magic? Yes. Probably. Don't ask me, I just press the buttons and watch stuff happen.

Is it something that is actually happening and possible today? Also yes. With the proviso that it doesn't look anywhere near as good as a locally-running game even in the most ideal circumstances (those being not just your ISP, but pretty much every piece of cable and exchange between your computer and wherever the remote server is), and in the rather less than ideal circumstances most of us actually have, you simply can't avoid a loss of detail and a bit of lag. In theory, this can be improved both as the average web connection increases in speed and as canny optimisations and smoke and mirrors are found to compensate for the delays and the fidelity hit.

Prices also need to improve - OnLive's quite happy to charge what pretty much amounts to full retail price at the moment, but on the other hand it does have an increasingly up to the minute selection of games. It's been quite back catalogue heavy for a while, but now the likes of Duke Nukem Forever are up there. Most games can be played for free for half an hour too - so right now you could go try out FEAR 3, for instance, even though it doesn't have a demo anywhere else. That kind of thing could be an enormous way of driving sales - and potentially torpedoing a game's success, if a quick play of the opening section suggests it's a stinker. (So if this really did take off, I can imagine publishers/developers making games with this in mind - making the first half hour astonishingly good at the possible expense of the later stages).

In some instances, the pricing ain't bad - for instance, you could 'rent' FEAR 3 for three days for $5, which would be time enough to complete the singleplayer quite happily. Of course, you wouldn't own anything at the end of that time - question is how important that is, in this age of constant new releases, constantly getting distracted by the next big game?

The most important thing, of course, is the the tech itself, which is working surprisingly well. My first experiences with OnLive when it first launched didn't exactly fill me with hope - a tiny, muddy window and a whole lot of lag. Yesterday, however, I was playing Metro 2033 at a reasonable resolution and looking... well, nowhere near as sharp as if I ran it locally, but not at all bad. Not bad at all. There was still an element of lag which made things feel a bit dreamlike, but I reckon it's tolerable for more casual play. If you've not tried it for a while, I really do recommend it. And Gaikai too, which uses similar technology but with a very different end in mind. While OnLive's plan is to have you essentially rent entire games, Gaikai's current shtick is offer game publishers a way to present potential customers with instant demos - so renting out their servers and streaming tech to third parties for promotional purposes. No downloading 3GB of code (and, mildly troublingly for such as I, no need to read some journo's write-up of a preview event) - instead click a button on a webpage and you get a playable chunk of the game there and then. Followed by, of course, an option to buy a copy of the full game via a partner retailer or download service. It's clever bloody stuff for sure.

Deep in the RPS dungeon, we've had some discussion amongst the ol'Hivemind as to a) whether or not this is PC gaming b) either way, should we cover it here and c) what does it imply for the PC as a gaming platform in the years to come, if it does hit big?

My take on it right now is that, despite options to play OnLive on an iPad or with a special 'microconsole' that connects directly to a TV and a gamepad, it's very much a PC thing. For one, it's running the games on a PC somewhere. For a second, the cheapest, most readily-available means of accessing it is a PC. Any PC, so long as it's online. The hardware in that PC is more or less academic, which is bad news for the processor and graphics cards industries but good news for anyone who wants to play high-end PC games without having to upgrade any time soon.

For the console companies, even the concept of this stuff must be absolutely terrifying. Who would want to drop £200-300 on a big ugly box to stick underneath their telly, and one into which they had to pick up new plastic discs all the damned time, when they could just hit a button on either a PC or a gamepad that talked directly to their internet-enabled TV and start playing any game right there and then?

For the PC... well, it's a bit different. If these games are being played on high-end PCs somewhere, should these services and concepts become successful that rather suggests there'll be lots of games being made that take advantage of high-end hardware. I.e. a PC. Why not make these games directly as well as remotely available to PC owners - especially given, as with today's status quo you'll get the best possible visuals, customisation and whatnot on PC, so there's a good chance this of all platforms has the best chance of continuing to thrive alongside OnLives and Gaikais. We're a long way off a streaming video really being able to rival the visual quality of a high-res PC game - while it might be almost possible for the richest of the richest, the road to getting the majority of internet connections suitably high speed is a ludicrously long one.

The flipside concern is that even a PC becomes an unnecessary part of the chain, if tablets and phones finally stumble across a way to have decent controls, if internet-enabled TVs bundled with console-like gamepads become big, or even just if Xbox 4 or PlayStation 5 elect to become nothing more than a tiny plastic box streaming cloud games into an HDMI port. Click'n'play is going to be a lot more appealing than waiting two hours for Steam to download it, then finding your graphics card isn't up to it or you've run out of hard drive space. Or more appealing than loading an MMO and finding there's a 1.5GB patch to download and then the file's corrupted and aaargh. The PC is the home of complexity and often that's a good thing - but a little more ease of access wouldn't be a bad thing. How the PC adapts to cloud gaming is going to be just as fascinating as how the console-makers adapt: because the thing about cloud gaming is that, in theory, it works on any platform and any hardware. A screen, an internet connection and some manner of controller are all it really needs.

Contrary to all that again is stuff like modding, indie games and (almost) lag-free multiplayer. The PC, the most unbound and adaptable gaming platform there is, can only remain king there. Cloud gaming cannot beat it on that front, even if it manages to marginalise it on others.

And that's before you get into the issue of not really owning anything - just renting access to something played somewhere else, and relying on the fact that the service doesn't fold, games aren't cynically switched off in favour of sequels, and someone like Lulzsec doesn't decide to knock all the servers offline for an hour, a day, a week, a month. Cloud gaming's an amazing concept - but it's also a bit sunshine and daisies, based on the presumption that everything will be A-Okay, Every Day. The events of the last month or two do seem to suggest that we'd be pretty foolish to be 100 per cent reliant on remote services for our digital entertainment. They don't, however, mean that the games and technology industry is going to lose interest in the cloud as a platform. This is only going to grow, I'm sure of it.

Again, don't mistake for me for being hysterical about this - while OnLive and Gaikai's offering has improved significantly over the last year, I'm quite sure we're many years away from the point where it could become anything like the norm for gaming. But it is on the rise, it is improving and we should take it seriously - both as a new gaming platform and as the next step in the PC's fascinating, ever-changing, ever technology-defining history.

So expect a little bit more coverage of Cloud Gaming to appear on RPS in the not-too-distant. Question is - should we make it regular? Over to you.

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