Sony's Cloud Platform: The New Gaming Frontier
Digital Foundry on why the Gaikai acquisition goes beyond simply streaming PlayStation games
Despite some bizarre denials, the news that Sony was going to move into the cloud gaming space ranks as one of the worst-kept secrets in the games business, leaked to the press over a month before the official announcement. Perhaps what is more surprising in the light of Monday's confirmation of the Gaikai acquisition is that we still have very little idea of what it all actuallymeans for the gamer.
"Gaikai is more than just a delivery platform for existing content - in the hands of Sony's game devs, the possibilities for new gaming experiences built for the system from the ground-up are mouth-watering."
The only additional piece of detail that tells us much of interest is that it's Sony Computer Entertainment that is the buyer, meaning that this is a PlayStation deal, not just a shot of gaming adrenaline into the arm of the company's ailing HDTV business. Sony's statements on its plans for the cloud sound suitably grand, but don't really tell us anything we didn't already know anyway:
"By combining Gaikai's resources including its technological strength and engineering talent with SCE's extensive game platform knowledge and experience, SCE will provide users with unparalleled cloud entertainment experiences," explained SCE overlord Andrew House.
"SCE will deliver a world-class cloud-streaming service that allows users to instantly enjoy a broad array of content ranging from immersive core games with rich graphics to casual content anytime, anywhere on a variety of internet-connected devices."
The obvious conclusion to take from this would be the migration of existing and planned PlayStation content to Gaikai infrastructure, representing an enticing opportunity: state-of-the-art titles in combination with an enormous back catalogue running on an ever-expanding range of streaming devices. Kotaku ran with a great headline on this story yesterday: You May Already Own PlayStation 4.
To a certain extent, we've already had a preview of just how cool cloud streaming the latest games can be: on Digital Foundry at Eurogamer, we've already suggested that OnLive running on an Xperia Play smartphone offers something approaching a true next-gen handheld experience: latency is still an issue but downscaling an HD image onto a smaller, mobile mobile screen solves many of the image quality issues that have blighted cloud gameplay thus far, and the overall effect can be very impressive. It's a taste of the future, and improvements to infrastructure in combination with server-side technological advances are almost certain to turn what is currently a great tech demo into a viable cross-device gaming platform.
Sony's Xperia Play smartphone runs OnLive very well indeed, the smaller screen resolving many of the image quality issues. Latency is still an issue but it is a tantalising glimpse of the future of streaming gameplay.
Looking at things from a more short-term perspective, there's already been some talk that we could see Gaikai tech implemented to supply playable demos. While this is a possibility (running PC versions on the existing Gaikai network), there's a strong chance that developers and publishers wouldn't want to see their console games represented on the PlayStation Network in this way - perhaps it would be better to use streaming tech to get demos seen by a new audience, one perhaps not so concerned with matters like input lag or video quality - things that are noticed by the core audience.
I would hope that Sony would take a more measured approach in how Gaikai is deployed, especially as there are major technological issues to overcome in integrating the technology into the PlayStation Network. Gaikai's chosen infrastructure uses a completely different hardware architecture to any PlayStation platform, past or present. Sony has traditionally created its own gaming hardware, while David Perry's outfit uses server farms based on Intel processors and NVIDIA graphics cores.
"Streaming existing PlayStation content over Gaikai can't happen overnight - the cloud infrastructure runs on fundamentally different architecture - Sony will need time to adapt."
The obvious solution would be to roll-out a mass of back-compat PlayStation 3s to the Gaikai datacentres, perhaps utilising a variation of Sony's Remote Play technology to get everything integrated fairly easily. Unfortunately, this wouldn't produce very good results: even when using a local network, Remote Play is very laggy, and factoring in the internet would reduce a sub-optimal experience to a borderline unplayable one on any fast-action game. This approach would fly in the face of all the hard work Gaikai has done in making cloud gaming work, and to be frank, Sony could do it themselves without forking out $380m for the privilege. It's the know-how, tech and infrastructure that Sony has paid for.
The basics of "how cloud works" in providing a playable experience are fairly straightforward: the idea is to get close to current console latency by running games at 60Hz (or even higher) compared to current console standards of 30Hz. Running game code at twice the speed has the effect of significantly lowering input lag: the time you save is then budgeted towards encoding/transmission/decoding of game video. Conceivably this technique could be applied to Sony's back catalogue titles running under PC emulation - and the platform holder knows plenty about that.
For PS1 and PSP, Sony already has extremely strong software emulators that can run virtually any piece of software - this is how PS3 can run any PS1 title, and how Vita can host PSP downloaded games. The company is also starting to roll out PS2 titles for the PlayStation 3 that run entirely using software emulation - an impressive
technical achievement in its own right. All of these different emulators could be ported to PC and deployed on Gaikai servers - the performance of the PCSX2 open source emu suggests that the 60FPS gameplay cloud thrives upon shouldn't be a problem.