Clouds are fluffy. They can take the shape of just about anything, too: bunnies, cars, lion kings - you name it. Oh, and they block the sun, which has been known to beam horrific, disfiguring burns down from the sky. Yet, in spite of those rather admirable qualities, we hardly ever notice them unless they're about to open fire (read: water) on our outdoor fun or belch out a couple tornadoes. The same, oddly enough, can be said of cloud gaming. I mean, the potential's there for a total upheaval in terms of where and when we experience super high-end PC games. But "core" game communities happily ignore all of that until someone whips out their "The End Is Nigh" sign and starts waxing incoherently about how it'll kill hardware-based gaming forever.
As is typically the case with these things, the truth will - in all likelihood - fall somewhere in the middle. Nvidia recently announced that it's betting on cloud in a big way with its OnLive and Gaikai-approved GeForce Grid technology, and while that's not inherently good or bad for PC gaming, it signals the beginning of change - perhaps even a fairly major one. I spoke with Nvidia general manager of cloud gaming Phil Eisler about why he thinks cloud's set to become the biggest thing in PC gaming within five years - as well as how that stands to be equal parts very good and potentially quite bad.
First, though, Eisler considered the present. After all, fully streamable games are still on the fringes - especially, oddly enough, on their closest thing to a home, the PC. According to Eisler, it all comes down to the little things.
"There's certainly a gap compared to today's PC gaming experiences," he admitted. "One of the things we did at [the GPU Technology Conference] was compare cloud gaming to console gaming. Because consoles have gotten so old, the experience hasn't improved in the past seven or eight years – whereas on PC, it gets better every year. So when we deliver PC gaming on the cloud, we can put it on a TV with an experience that's pretty similar to a console gaming experience. It's not as good as a local PC experience. Typically, we're 720p. Most gamers are playing 1080p or higher today."
"So the modern PC gamer is still gonna prefer a PC gaming experience. However, I think he's going to appreciate that he also has the opportunity to enjoy that experience on other displays. I don't think it'll replace his PC gaming experience. It'll just extend it. He'll give up a bit of resolution and latency, but I think he'll appreciate that for the convenience of being able to play on multiple devices."
Really, though, that's hardly the only elephant in the room. As Diablo III has all-too-frequently shown us, stability will always be an issue so long as heaps of crucial data is stored server-side. Cloud's brand of convenience, sadly, comes at the cost of full user control by its very nature, but will it also come at the cost of, er, convenience?
"I think quality of service is an important factor in any service offering," said Eisler in response to Blizzard's plight. "It has to be top-notch. And that involves a lot of people. Nvidia's involved in that. The middleware platform providers like Gaikai are involved in that. The network operators are involved in that. If you're renting a Netflix movie and it's not reliable, you get discouraged. So it's challenging, but they're solvable problems, and I think the quality of service will get there."
Further, when frequently accessed servers are in the picture, odds are, a quick game of "Where's Waldo" will turn up a hacker or 12. Once again, Diablo's brought the problem back to the forefront, but the danger's hardly restricted to Blizzard's debatably hacked hack 'n' slash.
"There's obviously been publicized hacking of things like the PlayStation Network, and that's sort of a well-understood problem and something that needs to be guarded against," Eisler acknowledged. "I think that's part of what these middleware companies provide. They have to maintain user accounts and they have to maintain their security. That's paramount. A lot has been learned by having all [these recent hackings], and those lessons are being applied to make it a safe environment. I think those problems are solvable."
Given, however, that no system's perfect and malicious sorts will always keep poking and probing for new ways in, any solution - at least, of those in our current arsenal - is temporary at best. That said, while Eisler's reasoning in regard to security is questionable, his insight into what we'll actually be playing turned out to be quite a bit more promising.
"What's been really exciting to me is the reaction from developers," he enthused. "Almost all of them are wholeheartedly embracing it. They're coming to Nvidia and saying, 'We see potential to make cloud gaming better than local gaming.' We have people coming to us and talking about writing engines specifically for the cloud. So this thing is going to get better and better over the years. I'm really excited about some of these major developments in new cloud engines that we'll see a couple years from now that'll, I think, really change the game a lot."
Which sounds all at once incredibly promising and - at least, for now - highly, highly far-fetched. And then there's the matter of how such specialized engines might limit the control we have over our games. What, for instance, happens to mods in this scenario? OnLive promised to start supporting them many moons ago, but so far, no re-textured, genre-bending dice. Easy piracy prevention, meanwhile, makes it tempting to use the tech to lock down games even further, and cloud - by Eisler's own admission - is "the ultimate control over piracy." However, he thinks there are - buried under those worries - gigantic potential upsides for both PC gamers and PC gaming as a whole.
"The current common wisdom is that, if you want to sell a computer game, you design for the cheapest hardware that was sold in the last five years," he noted. "That's quite limiting, as it turns out. With the cloud, you can get this common platform that we view is probably going to be updated annually – kind of like the PC. It'll get better every year. For the game designer, they can always know what the 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 game hardware is going to look like and design for that. So we do think it can definitely raise the bar on the quality of games."
"What's also exciting is that you've got the supercomputer in these cloud data center with access to all kinds of resources for memory and storage. Games keep getting larger and larger with all the art they put into them, and the downloads are becoming unmanageable. With cloud, you no longer have to download, so you can develop even richer worlds."
And ultimately, Eisler was sure to emphasize, the cloud won't mold itself into some horrifying mockery of everything you know and love. It's looking to kick off quite a growth spurt, yes, but it won't replace more traditional options - at least, in the foreseeable future.
"To say that it's going to take over everything would be like saying that Netflix was going to take over all ways of enjoying movies. You know, people still go to theaters. They still rent Blu-rays. They just also watch a lot of Netflix movies. I don't think we think the other forms of gaming are going to disappear."
Even so, he fully expects cloud to swell from constantly doubted niche to try-but-don't-buy majority, and in that respect, perhaps the modern music industry provides a better point of reference.
"I think there's huge potential when you make something really easy. And, you know, [online streaming services like] Spotify and Pandora make music even easier. You barely have to think about what you want to play. There's huge potential in cloud to make gaming just as easy. So I think games will become free and easy [to use]. It's no longer the notion where you have to save up and walk down to the game store with 60 bucks in your pocket, install it, and update it with patches. You just log onto a website and play instantly – probably without even a credit card. It'll be just like Spotify one day."
And admittedly, that does - on many levels - sound very nice. But these are games - not songs. Spotify and Pandora have essentially blurred the line between renting and owning music, but games are rooted in our unique experiences or - less esoterically - our incredibly specific stats and 100-hour save files. Things, in other words, that we own. The forecast for this particular sector of gaming, then, looks cloudy in more ways than one.
"I don't think people are going to stop buying games tomorrow," Eisler concluded. "What you're going to see is that cloud gaming will become the fastest-growing area of the game market. And it'll probably be where the growth in gaming is going to be over the next five years. The other areas aren't going to stop over night."
"I don't see [PC gamers] changing in the short term. That power user is not going to want to give up [anything performance-wise]. I said we can get the latency to be as good as a console, but not a local PC. But those are ten percent of the world's gamers. There's another 90 percent that will probably be quite happy with the convenience."