A final nail in the coffin of cloud streaming
Streaming gameplay from data centres was never a good idea, and now it's a dead one - but the tech that drove it is helping to reshape our industry
January always brings with it a rush of pundits eager to christen the newborn year. 2016 will be The Year Of... Well, take your pick. The year of VR! Almost certainly. The year of Xbox One! Quite probably, given Microsoft's trajectory of improvement, though if you think they're going to be beating PS4 on sales by the end of the year I've got a lovely bridge I'd like to sell to you. The year of Microconsoles! No, for the fifth bloody time, just no, not even if they've got an Apple sticker on them. The year of Smart TV! You're just mucking about now. The year of eSports! Eh, maybe. We'll get back to you on that one.
One thing that nobody, as far as I'm aware, is claiming that 2016 will be The Year Of is cloud streaming. Last year was going to be the year of cloud streaming, as was the year before that, and the one before that too, if memory serves; but with OnLive gone and the Gaikai-powered PlayStation Now receiving a consumer response more chilly than lukewarm as it rolled out last year, the champions of this particular sector have gone quiet. Moreover, 2016 started with the most ominous news possible for the sector - that Shinra Technologies, backed by Square Enix to the tune of $15 million, has shut down after failing to secure new funding.
"The much-vaunted Power Of The Cloud isn't actually changing anything about the games and experiences themselves"
Why take the closure of Shinra, a company which never made the kind of splash OnLive or Gaikai managed, as a death knell for this sector? There are a few reasons why I think Shinra was more important than its media profile suggests, and why its shuttering implies the end of the line for (most of) the cloud streaming dream. Firstly, Shinra was backed up by Square Enix - one of the biggest publishers in the world, and one blessed with a particularly remarkable back-catalogue of beloved, valuable software which ought to have provided a solid basis for any cloud streaming software. It was also headed up by former Square Enix boss Yoichi Wada, whose lengthy backgrounds both as a publishing executive and as an investment banker would suggest that Shinra's failure to attract investment is down to a genuine disillusionment with this sector among investors, not to any failure of Wada's management.
Secondly, Shinra took an approach to cloud streaming that was arguably more interesting than its competitors. Where most cloud streaming firms are focused on creating services that simply move the processing load of existing games and retro titles over to server farms (so the consumer gets the same experience, just streamed over the Internet rather than rendered locally), Shinra was working with development partners to try and come up with new games that took advantage of that architecture to deliver experiences that couldn't be achieved by the existing technology model. What those experiences might have been, we don't know; perhaps we never will, now that the company has shut its doors. Whatever leaps had been made by the talented developers Shinra was working with were clearly not impressive enough to convince investors to part with cash.
In a sense, this highlights the problem with cloud streaming as a concept - that what it has promised up until now isn't actually a change to the experience of the game, just a process of moving around the pipes and plumbing that deliver said experience. As a consumer, the proposed advantages of cloud gaming are really just window dressing around the game experience; you'll be able to start games without a heavy download, and play high-fidelity games on devices that aren't equipped with powerful graphics chips. On the other hand, you'll be at the mercy of your Internet connection for the actual quality of the game (or even its playability at all), and devices without powerful chips tend to be mobile devices, where questions of mobile data caps rapidly loom into view, and which function poorly as controllers for games designed for PCs or consoles. There are pros and cons, sure, but however they balance out, they're all essentially rearranging deck furniture - the much-vaunted Power Of The Cloud isn't actually changing anything about the games and experiences themselves.
Cloud streaming could still have been a very big deal, of course, if it turned out to be hugely appealing to game publishers - even if it was still delivering the same experience to consumers, if it was a cheaper and more efficient way of delivering that experience, it would be embraced. The problem is, it's not. It shunts the actual cost of hardware, presently borne by consumers buying devices, over to game operators, meaning a huge up-front expenditure and game pricing that has to find a way to recoup the entire cost of the hardware the games run on. In an era when consumers are rapidly finding themselves equipped with more and more high-powered computing devices (just look at the benchmarks for recent smartphones, which comfortably exceed the power of the last generation of consoles, let alone the rapid adoption of the new generation of enormously powerful consoles) this seems like a bizarre and utterly unnecessary centralisation and concentration of financial risk.
In short, cloud streaming was a solution in search of a problem - and most of its proponents didn't even seem terribly keen on that search, proposing instead a variety of half-baked services that would essentially let you use your existing, powerful computing device to play games at lower quality and less reliably than they would have managed with local processing. Shinra Technologies, to its credit, seemed to set out to actually find the problem to which cloud streaming might be the solution, working with developers to figure out what new, worthwhile experiences could actually be delivered with this architecture that would be impossible on the existing distributed-computing, thick-client approach. That the company failed in this task, at least in the eyes of its would-be investors, genuinely feels like the last nail in the coffin of the cloud streaming dream.
"The core technology behind cloud streaming was solid, it was the business model and the overall concept that was deeply flawed"
PlayStation Now lives on, of course, but it's a service adrift; it's not clear who it's for or even why, exactly, it exists. To some degree it's a legacy of a hedged bet that turned out to need no hedging, a project initiated back in the time before the launch of the PS4 when most of the industry's analysts were confidently predicting that the new generation of consoles would launch softly and mark the rapid downturn of the entire console sector, perhaps performing so badly that they would be the last generation of home consoles. A streaming service that would let console-type games be played on the devices people would still own after this predicted rout of the home consoles seemed like a good pitch at keeping Sony and PlayStation relevant in a world that no longer wanted to buy full-fat console hardware. Here we are at the start of 2016, though, in a world where the Xbox One outsells its predecessor and is still being trounced by a PS4 that, beating everyone's expectations, is outselling even the stratospheric PS2. PlayStation Now is a way of delivering a limited selection of old games at an uncomfortably high price, in a world that's largely focused on the next PS4 blockbuster coming down the line; it was a good backup plan, maybe, but we're in a world where Plan A worked and Plan B is left fidgeting on the sidelines.
The sputtering out of the dream of thin clients and cloud streamed gameplay doesn't mean, of course, that the cloud isn't relevant to games; cloud storage and processing is still an exciting technology whose impact on games has yet to be fully felt, but that's rather different from the inelegant, brute-force approach of rendering actual gameplay in a datacentre and shoving it down a pipe to the end-user as a video stream. Equally, the actual technology developed in pursuit of that dream remains incredibly relevant, just not, perhaps, in the way that its creators imagined. Streaming gameplay is a big, big deal, not from data centres to consumers but in reverse. Essentially the same tech which would have powered cloud streaming has been flipped on its head to deliver live streamed gameplay from countless PCs, PS4s and Xbox 360s, as more and more consumers share their play sessions on services like Twitch and YouTube and more and more of their peers tune in to watch. Video streaming tech also crops up in places like the PS4's ability to treat the Vita or an Xperia device as an external display. The core technology behind cloud streaming was solid, it was the business model and the overall concept that was deeply flawed; it's the technology that will live on, powering new experiences and new ways of consuming videogames that are helping to redefine what consoles are and how people interact with them.
2016 won't be the year of cloud streaming, but it will be the year in which the technology that underwrote the whole cloud streaming idea - daft and malformed as it was - influences our industry and our medium to a greater degree than anyone imagined. Gaming, once essentially a private pursuit, is more public than ever before thanks to this technology; like a phoenix from the ashes, the video technology of a now-dead dream has burst into new life, and there's no doubt in my mind that 2016 will see streamed gameplay go from strength to strength, and open up new possibilities we never even considered back in fusty old 2015.
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