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Head In The Cloud: Dave Perry Disrupts

In Space No-one Can Hear You Stream

Dave Perry is the sometime creator of MDK and now CEO of Gaikai, the streaming game provider. He thinks his tech is going to take over PC Gaming; because he's got his hands on one of those Molyneux Inc. Reality Distortion Fields, he's VERY persuasive. We caught up with him at the superbly-stimulating Cloud Gaming Summit in London to talk about Gaikai, inspiration in game design, why Battlefield games are awesome, and a few other topics that might interest you.

RPS: (Talking about an argument).

Perry: ...I love it when you get someone who rubs everyone the wrong way. So much fun.

RPS: Being challenged about your ideas is of tremendous import to your business, of course.

Perry: We're people who care passionately about the things we get involved in. That's why I enjoy getting into a really good debate on it, because we've spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff.

RPS: You would hope you had, yes! You've ended up with a technology that's applicable in so many different ways, it's a matter of how you're shaping it to the current market needs.

Perry: That's what we ended up realising, was that Gaikai was going to become more of a cloud platform, and we'd build one vertical, which would be advertising, to let gamers play F2P everything. If a publisher wants their own cloud, they build it on there; if TV wants theirs, they build it on there; military; casinos. Anyone that wants to have..?

RPS: (interrupting) Casinos? The MILITARY?

Perry: The military have a big problem since Wikileaks; they're not allowed to install anything and yet they've spent millions making simulation software, training software, which they can't install on their computers now.

RPS: So you actually have military people involved...

Perry: We have military people in our office now, walking around in full fatigues.

RPS: Are you allowed to talk about this?

Perry: I'm not revealing any secrets. The fact is, this is very interesting to the military, the ability to stream without installing software so you can have any content anywhere in the field. They also have a lot of very old equipment, old laptops and that, and they don't have the power to run simulations. This is like the Holy Grail. It solves multiple problems at the same time.

RPS: It goes back to when you used to have huge mainframes and you used to have terminals attached to those mainframes.

Perry: Also a bit like the arcades. The servers we put in are too high-spec for anyone to want to buy for their home, as a mass-market person, but that's what arcades were. An arcade machine was $10,000 and you'd go in and put your money in and play, so I could experience that very expensive hardware and have the most amazing game experience which I couldn't get at home and it only changed when they didn't keep up with what was happening at home. If they'd kept the edge, that would have been awesome. That analogy, where you're sharing the hardware, that's very similar.

RPS: Also, it's a way of locking down data and turning it into a service rather than a product. An arcade was a definite product.

Perry: One of the analogies I was thinking of when I started the company was “what would have happened had arcades continued on their path?” If you wanted to fly a flight simulator, which costs millions of dollars to make... software costs so much to make, but if you could have it streamed to your house to experience it... some incredible rich experiences are now available at home. This is the stuff that was catching my imagination at the time and the only way to do was the cloud. I was also dealing a lot with Free2Play, which is all about how many people you can get to try your product. The last F2P game I launched was Spellborn, which was three and a half GB, and the loss is just enormous. Because most of us these days are so impatient that if you say, here's 3.5GB come back in 2 hours, they're already busy doing something else. Their life moved on, probably about 2 minutes after, and when it finally arrives, they're probably not in their house any more.

RPS: Having seen some metrics for people finishing MMO downloads (link to Heatwave Day in the Life of an MMO feature), I can see even committed MMO gamers don't always finish downloads.

Perry: Horrific. So that's what we get focused on. The power of convenience. For me, anything where you're putting the consumer first and treat their time with great respect, is usually the thing that succeeds. In society, given two choices, the convenient choice always succeeds. Digital vs analogue photograhpy, MP3s vs CDs. What's funny is that MP3s aren't as high quality as CDs but they're way more convenient. Convenience always wins, but lower prices on convenience is like nitrous to it. That combo is a nightmare to compete against. Anyone who comes along and simplifies or makes convenient something you were doing... you look at things like Twitter, you can invent whole companies by making something more convenient. Communicating with your friends, keeping track of your friends, I can make that incredibly easy – Twitter. The inspiration for this kind of thinking is “what will make gaming more convenient.” In my talk, I said “gaming will never be as big as movies or music” because it's impossible to catch up unless we become as convenient. Everywhere I go I can watch a movie with my various devices.

RPS: But it's probably getting there quicker in some degrees than music and movies are...

Perry: I think this is the point. If we were to combine cloud gaming ubiquity with all the mobile devices and mobile processes, I do believe at some point we will be there. Secondly, people will expect to spend more, I mean people will pay subscriptions for a single game, that's crazy. Imagine you're subscribing to Avatar; it's the best movie ever made, you pay $15 a month, would you pay for access to it?

RPS: Assuming it's the best movie ever... no.

Perry: So the games industry has an edge! If we could become as convenient and monetise well, we could become the number one form of entertainment. That's a big focus for our company.

RPS: Obviously, you're not just doing games though; schools, military, casinos...

Perry: Education's the same problem; they have really old computers and they'd love to have new experiences. Someone sent me Virtual Field Trips recently and asked if we could stream that. Usin the Epic engine and they're done – it looks great but without cloud streaming it's not going to work.

RPS: You've produced a technology that's answering lots of questions people weren't asking.

Perry: People were asking why this company's called 'Gaikai' and it's a weird word, Japanese, meaning 'an open ocean'. Imagine you were out in the middle of the ocean, there's an infinite amount of direction to go in. That's what we think cloud gaming is. It's a window on another world. This device is looking out on what's going on elsewhere. But that elsewhere is an unlimited amount of computing and storage. We used to show demos of Split/Second running on an iPod. You know it's not running on the iPod, so it's a window on somewhere else. When you start thinking of all kinds of businesses, it would fundamentally change all of them.

RPS: What current barriers are still in place that are stopping you being immediate? Bandwidth?

Perry: Latency. Gaikai has spent a lot of time trying to be the fastest network. OnLive launched with 3 datacentres – we launched with 24. A very aggressive strategy, very, very expensive and difficult to do. We built it for speed and I tried from my hotel yesterday. 5ms. I did a demo in LA, 2.5ms. My house is 8ms. So we really have the fastest network, period. Our strategy is to go viral across the datacentres. So latency is solved; it's either fast or we're getting a server in your area.

Bandwidth; you're generally not doing two things at once. You're either on Netflix or Gaikai. That's help. If you have one megabit, it works but we cap you at two. At one, it's gonna look mushy.

RPS: My OnLive account always looks muddy, because the network in my area is so busy. 4 a.m. is fine.

So bandwidth is an issue. Bandwidth caps are another question. You know that saying “a rising tide raises all boats”? As more people want to stream content, then the infrastructure will be built to handle it. And bandwidth caps, they're not going to chop you off. “We'd love you to upgrade your package.” Or if you really are abusing it, in the top few percent, downloading BluRays all day long; they get a letter saying please stop that. The point is, the average amount of usage will continue rising. Because their money is in keeping you as a customer.

RPS: That's assuming there's room for broadband market entrants to drive down prices and drive up service quality.

Perry: I've tried to keep it real. Not everyone can stream through the cloud. A lot of people can, with variable compression. On the other hand, our download technology can help those people who can't. It's a non-linear crowdsourced progressive download. It's the fastest in existence. It's using the knowledge of what files it takes to get the game going and it's downloading those to you without installing a downloader.

RPS: Similar to AWOMO's tech?

Perry: Similar, but fresh and new. Games are non-linear now, they used to be linear. You used to be able to do predictive downloading, which we can't do. This tech covers the people who are not quite there, bandwidth-wise. They're not in the game in 60 seconds like normal, they're there in 3 minutes. Which is still pretty good.

RPS: Here you've argued that the future for games is games-in-TVs.

Perry: The basic thing is that the TVs don't have the processing power to run these games. They only have games like “throw the frisbee” in there, because they're not going to start sticking a $3-400 dollar video card plus CPU plus storage in there. This isn't going to happen any other way. If I'm on TV, I don't want to click and wait for an hour for it download and get ready to run, like you see with the Playstation currently. The only way to get around the data push and local capability of running stuff It has to be cloud gaming. All modern TVs have hardware decompress, so if we take the time to write clients to use their hardware decompress, then they can run the games locally. So the only Achilles heel to all this is bandwidth.

RPS: And not the interface?

Perry: The idea would be that if the TV company cared, they would include a white-labelled controller in the box. We don't even need to invent anything, they all exist. Just call the OEM, ask for this logo.

RPS: So, if that's true, what's the future for all these huge PC rigs that we have sitting around?

Perry: If you've got a really big gaming rig and you're happy for the games to download, that's a certain kind of gamer. I think they're going to be happy to keep playing their games. What I do think, is that they'll also have these other games that they're not sure they want to buy but they want to check out. By definition, a hardcore gamer wants to have at least a basic knowledge of everything that's out there, right? It's shocking how many times I talk to them and they're like “I got an invite to the beta for Starcraft II, but I know that when I do it it'll take time and I haven't had the chance.” Really? I mean, imagine if the email had a button instead of the code and you clicked on it and just started playing right away. So, that idea of making games much more accessible is pretty compatible with them. If they want to go through and download and install, that's fine, we support that too.

RPS: Are we going to see an alteration in ad-banners then?

Perry: Yes. I don't want us to be known as a banner company, but that's actually very relevant. Instead of clicking it and going in, looking at a bunch of text and screenshots, the game will start playing then and there in a shadowbox, right on the page. When you're done, you're done. There's no uninstalling, it's gone. I want to be clear that we're not doing this just as Gaikai, any publisher can do this on their website. It's not our customer, it's their customer. The surprise is that, what we've done, is make all games free to play. Check it out. If you like it, share it with your friends. If you love it, buy it. There's none of this, you have to buy it to find out if you like it. Every game is free to try.

RPS: Is there any conflict of interest, between you as a developer and you as the provider of this service? Is MDK going to be at the front of every grey-labelled store?

Perry: No, as the only games that are appearing are the ones someone's paying for. I'm not going to be paying to run demos of my old stuff. And if I did, it would stand alongside the rest. That's been the hardest thing, to stay Switzerland. We've had multiple retailers, publishers, offer to fund us from the game industry. We can't accept the money. It's the most difficult conversation to say “you can't invest”. We don't want any publisher to think... it's very challenging.

RPS: How far before this stuff hits?

Perry: On consoles, I don't think any console would want to be the one that can't do this. You don't want to be the site with no games. When they think of a game, you want to be the first thing that comes into their mind. That's what I'm hoping this becomes.

RPS: Will there be a central Gaikai far in the future? Or entirely white-labelled?

Perry: We're grey-label – somewhere it says “powered by Gaikai”. When we put demos on the web, we put them on our website too. It's funny watching the traffic growing organically, with zero marketing. Games themselves create traffic. Our intention is not to become Steam. We're not interested in that all – we're interested in helping Steam, helping everybody.

RPS: Have you spoken to Steam?

Perry: Well... we've spoken to everybody. I'm good friends with Gabe, I have a lot of respect for people like them. But I think Gaikai can improve them, it has a lot of friction. I would argue that Steam has saved PC gaming and that a lot of the growth could come from them if they so decided. If Steam one morning decided “we're going to increase the size of the PC audience”, they would only need to become a little more viral in their sharing, which is the friction into steam. It's currently 43 clicks and a whole bunch of forms to fill out – it asks your mother's maiden name on your first experience! They should be trying to get you hooked and then... “if you install this, I'll double the playtime on that.” Incentivise me!

RPS: You have a huge advantage over Steam's tech though, as you're straight-in, with no chance of piracy.

Perry: I saw a speech on piracy and they talked about that piracy is more convenient than buying the product. What if we could make getting the product more convenient than stealing it? Piracy's a lot of work. There's a cost to it and people value their time. There's a price-point at which it's more conveneinet to buy the music than pirate it. Spotify has achieved that goal. You start for free, then you sign up, go for the $9.95 and you don't even think about it.

RPS: Russia had that problem, with boxed copies in the streets that were better produced than the official copies and cheaper. They've pushed it back now, but it was amazing.

Perry: That's not good. Pirating games is so worse than music. It's so hard. One is that you can't trust running the code, as there might be a trojan. Two, these are enormous downloads. You haven't got away with it. Cloud gaming is one of the answers to that. Cloud gaming would make it so much more convenient to check this stuff out.

RPS: Also when they start googling for pirated games, your advert can pop up at the top...

Perry: Yeah, “play it now for free”. Some people look at pirates as just evil and that's the end of it. How about you just make it so your service is better than the piracy. It's not that hard!

RPS: Gaikai also negates the effect of marketing dollars, levelling the playing field for smaller titles; they may play SWTOR first, but they'll soon try Perpetuum, Wurm and the rest.

Perry: When I speak to people who don't play video games, I ask them “is there a song that works for you, fits your DNA, listen on repeat over and over?” The answer is; absolutely. An album? Absolutely. There's thousands of albums out there. Same thing for movies. There's lot of crappy movies out there too. And you get to the point where you respect the creators. It's harder to find those games, to find that game for you. Once you've played, it's going to change you fundamentally into a game-er. It's a challenge for our industry to get people to find that game for them. The FPS market is mature now, there are a huge variety of FPSes, they're not all good, but there's probably one in there. I can't think of any other way to find out; I'd have to buy them for $60, so my experimentation is probably going to stop at one. If we want to be the number one form of entertainment, we need to discover the game for that people.

RPS: Fragmentation of Gaikai by grey-labelled business; isn't that working against the smorgsabord you're saying your offering the consumer?

Perry: The traffic that shows up at Walmart.com or Bestbuy.com is incredibly valuable. When people go to a retail site, they go to buy; if they're playing the game, on the site, at 9am on the day of release..? That's very valuable traffic for the games industry – it's using technology to help increase the reach. I think the more we spread it, the better. Turns out it costs money to move people but it costs nothing to move games. The more we don't move people around with adverts, the cheaper this gets. Whoever pays for the advert, gets the customer.

RPS: Have you found your magic game?

Perry: I think the game I got in the most is Battlefield. The old RTSes – C&C and Diablo – but I get carried away in Battlefield. So much so that when it came out I bought multiple copies for my friends, so that they could play.

RPS: I do that with books; I've bought so many copies of Fear & Loathing and If On A Winter's Night A Traveller...

Perry: Because you don't want them not to buy it. Let's just remove that question, here's the game. The reason I like Battlefield is because you can play it your way. The infinite flexibility of “that idea didn't work, holy shit I got my butt kicked” to “let's try this, and this” or “I'll just be crazy tonight.” I've never sat down to Battlefield and been disappointed or bored.

RPS: I got that with Planetside, but most people didn't play it. With your service, they might. Will it work well with MMOs?

Perry: It works fine. Latency's not an issue. Think about this; there's a Planetside server on the backbone of the internet and our server's on the backbone of the internet too. The communication is pure fibre, as fast as it could possibly be. If a company really, really, really wanted zero latency, I'd put our server in their data centre. We'd get 0ms pings. Just that idea, that multiple people playing together are getting that really fast connection internally.

(Dave points at Dan's iPad keyboard-case) I love that. Someone was really thinking when they made that. It's so smart. The way innovation works is that you see someone trying to solve a problem brute-force. I saw a desktop computer with a wire strap around it and a handle. They were trying to make it look like a briefcase, because they needed to transport this stupid thing. It was a cry for help. A lot of innovation just comes from observation, from what people are trying to solve.

RPS: Gaikai sounds like it's sorted; what 's the next thing you're going to solve.

Perry: I'm actually working on an iPad game for the Save The Children, through One Big Game. But my personal thing is I'm going to get back into programming. I miss it terribly. I buy every programming book, my walls are covered with them. It's my only way to retain any feeling that I've got coding DNA.

RPS: Carmack on Twitter varies between pure code and epigrams, but he's never left coding. Do you envy that he kept himself in that space?

Perry: Yeah, I do. I look at the games industry like an MMO. You know, I've been levelling up different skills. I'm okay with it. I have a lot of experience with licensing, and then I get it, what next? So networking, and then I'm negotiating transit deals globally. I walk out of a meeting literally +1, +1, +1 networking. I'm dealing with the top venture capitalists in the world, our last round was $30 million, but you get to a point with them where you say “I get it now”, box checked. Advertising is next. We want to go in and disrupt. That's what drives me into that constant learning.

RPS: And you feel you've been maintaining the programming?

Perry: That's my backbone, my DNA. There's a moment of time as a programmer when you realise any thought that you have you can put on the screen. There's a curve of frustration and there's a moment where you think “I can now do anything I need to do.” As you don't do it, that falls off. Years ago I learnt to fly helicopters, and it's exactly the same thing. You have to get into it, once you work it out, you realise you can fly it anywhere.

RPS: You're completely free.

Perry: It's an epiphany. But what also happens, is that if you continue doing it, you notice the errors next time. Programming, you can't dabble in. I wrote a book on game design. I did a test once, I went into the local chapter of IGDA and I said to everyone in the room, “I want you all to invent a new weapon that's never been seen before, you have two minutes, go.” People stalled, understandably so. Then I scrolled on the screen a list of all the possible ways to die, everything you can possibly imagine, every disease, every bizarre way. You scroll the list THEN you say to people, “come up with a new weapon, go” and in two minutes, every single person has come up with a new weapon. Well, what's really happened there? Just some inspiration. I realised that the more you inspire, give them the place to jump off from, it's still their idea, but they were inspired by something. If you can deconstruct things, like if I said to you to make a villain, and I've included lots of character traits, you find yourself very quickly getting to what excites you.

RPS: A villain who's going to take over the world through streaming technology.

Perry: There you go. I want to rewrite that book anyway, and hone in on the core of that inspiration.

RPS: So, if Gaikai can rejuvenate games and films and the army; how are you going to do that for books? (Asked before Apple announced their iBooks 2 app).

Perry: With books, the challenge is to disrupt the model. I saw a really interesting in China, where the books are free and you just pay for the pages that you read, at a very low cost, a fraction of a cent per page. You're only paying for what you read, so if the book loses you, you're done. That idea that the books they add are free, I like that. I like digital books because they're searchable, if you can recall a certain bit, you can find it really quick. Digital is the future because of accessibility. The book industry is ripe for disruption. The Kindle is charging me a lot for a book.

RPS: Because it's still going through that entire creator-publisher-distributor chain.

Perry: Imagine if your library was infinite and you're reading 700 books and this one's really grabbing me and I continue and they're making money as I go. I come back to, what's more convenient for you and what's pro-consumer. Anyone that can innovate in that way will disrupt. That's what Apple does so well, is make things easy for you, save you time. I think their core message is not to go with the establishment, the lens they look at the world through is “we'll increase your productivity.”

RPS: Thanks for your time.

You can try out Gaikai right now, over on Eurogamer.

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About the Author

Dan Grill