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Three Cloud Gaming Services to Watch For

Your Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 could become outdated sooner than you think. Internet gaming, or “cloud gaming,” is quickly becoming the next big thing in the gaming world. With the release of the first major cloud gaming service, OnLive, gaming has taken a step away from the home console into the expanse of the Internet.

With cloud gaming, all of the graphics processing normally performed by the console or computer is done on remote servers. This means the entire program is streamed across the Internet, in the same way that music and video are now streamed across the Web. This allows complex, high-resolution games to be played on less powerful and much cheaper devices than ever before. In a sense, players don't purchase the game — they purchase access to it.

In a way, cloud gaming has been around for a while. For instance, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 both have massive online multiplayer communities supported by server farms. But it's not quite the same thing because all players have had the game installed and run on their console in their living room. The new cloud-based gaming services take the concept a step further.

Here is a look at some of the most prominent cloud gaming services available or in development right now. They may not be what you're used to, but they certainly are the future of gaming.

OnLive

OnLive is the first major cloud gaming service to make it to market. The response is still mixed, but for the most part gamers seem impressed with the service. PC and Mac owners can sign up for a free account and play games off the OnLive servers directly, while those who prefer to play on a TV can use the recently released OnLive Game System microconsole. About the size of a Nintendo DS, the microconsole is much less conspicuous that current-generation consoles and provides the same service as the PC.

OnLive is also notable among cloud gaming services for putting together such a good catalog of games from various publishers. It doesn't have everything, but a good portion of the popular new releases are there, and OnLive is adding more every day. What's more, the games in OnLive are almost always cheaper than buying them off the shelf.

Gakai

Gakai has yet to launch, but early demonstrations make it look like a strong competitor in the market OnLive created. Gakai works very similarly to OnLive as far as gameplay goes. A simple computer accesses servers that run the game over a broadband connection. In fact, Gakai have done some impressive demos of a simple Intel Atom-based netbook running Mass Effect 2, which is far too processor-intensive for such a simple computer to handle. And yet the game plays smoothly, beautifully showing one of the big advantages of cloud gaming.

There are a few distinct differences between Gakai and OnLive, though. The biggest is that players don't purchase games in the system; instead, the whole thing is based on advertising revenue. Users will have to decide for themselves if they would rather pay for a game or put up with ads, but it's certainly an inexpensive option. Gakai is also only available on computers, for now, so there is no microconsole to hook up to the TV.

Gakai is currently in beta but is supposed to launch before the end of the year.

GameString

GameString is using the flexibility of cloud gaming to bring games to places you wouldn't expect. For instance, it has already demoed a version of World of Warcraft on a Google TV. Most recently, it has taken cloud-based gaming to the extreme by playing World of Warcraft on a smartphone that was streaming from their servers.

GameString has a broad focus, including hosting and streaming 3-D content on its servers, but the Adrenaline service focuses specifically on cloud gaming. GameString has also thrown a twist on the cloud gaming tactic by making it possible for gamers to play games installed on their own PC through an Internet browser. That may sound redundant at first, but it would mean being able to play your favorite games anytime and anywhere, even if you're on someone else's computer.

GameString's gaming services are still in beta and aren't publicly available, but should be available in 2011.