It may soon be time to say goodbye to custom-built gaming PCs costing thousands of dollars. If a slew of start-up companies have their way, 2010 could be the year that companies bring graphics-intense multiplayer games to low-end laptops, TVs and even smartphones.
Gamers have long buzzed about "cloud computing," the use of multiple remote computer servers to run games, freeing players from specialized hardware. The servers would render the games' graphics, and then beam them back to users' devices as a live video feed. That's called streaming, in which data flows to the user's device rather than being generated by the user's device.
As users play the streamed games, their inputs are sent back to the server and affect gameplay.
That's the dream, at least. The technology isn't commercially available yet, but several companies rolled out demos of their gaming services in 2009, and at least one plans to launch a product to the public in 2010.
"Clearly, this is emerging fast," said Bjorn Book-Larsson, the chief operating officer and chief technology officer of online gaming service GamersFirst.
Cloud computing is not new, nor is it unfamiliar to the industry. GamersFirst, for example, delivers its service with an "internal cloud" of its own servers and an "external cloud" of rented server space from companies like Amazon. But players still have to download and install the games themselves.
Companies like California-based OnLive hope to change that. OnLive's system would move all of the game processing inside the cloud. Players would need only a 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) Internet connection – which is faster than a dialup connection but relatively slow as far as broadband goes – and a 1 megabyte software download on a relatively new Mac or PC. To play via TV would require an inexpensive microconsole, like an Xbox 360 but much cheaper.
Another California-based company, OTOY, aims to be completely web-based, which would require no plug-ins at all.
The challenge for these companies is to deliver heavy-duty graphics through unreliable internet connections and to do it quickly. Players won't tolerate what's known as latency: a lag between when they hit a button and when their online character, or avatar, makes a move.
OnLive claims to have solved the problem with a new adaptive video compression process, or algorithm. As long as a player is within 1,000 miles of a processing center, executives say, latency will be less than 80 milliseconds – imperceptible to the human eye.
Now in Beta testing, OnLive is "on track" to launch the system by the end of March, company spokeswoman Jane Anderson told TechNewsDaily.
Meanwhile, OTOY is working to build a supercomputer capable of running one thousand trillion operations per second to support its system. And Netherlands-based GaiKai plans to begin Beta testing in Europe "soon," according to the company's Web site.
Even if cloud gaming services do launch, it remains to be seen whether their promises of speed and convenience will hold up when hundreds of thousands of users log on. But if the idea works, it could mark a move away from game purchases and downloads to a system of subscription services where almost any game is fair game.
"Things like this do not change overnight," Denis Dyack, president of game company Silicon Knights told an audience at the Game Development Convention Europe in 2009. "I don't know if OnLive is going to be successful at all. And then we might not see a cloud computing model for another few years. But in 20 years? For sure we'll be using clouds."
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