Cloud gaming is a concept in need of rehabilitation. That's according to Cloudgine co-founder Dave Jones, who spoke with GamesIndustry.biz recently about what happened to the tech that a few years ago was supposed to be the "Next Big Thing," and why it might still happen yet.
"I think it got tainted, to be honest, because it was a very generic term. Five years ago, when everybody mentioned cloud gaming, it was about streaming the game from the cloud," Jones noted, pointing to Sony acquisition Gaikai and the now defunct OnLive. "I think that's initially what it was associated with, and that's a difficult one for a lot of gamers. That's the same experience with games I've already played or own; it's just a different way of delivering them. And it was hard sometimes to see the value in that, so I think that kind of clouded and tarnished the name a little bit."
That's partly why Jones stresses the term "cloud compute" over "cloud gaming," but even that segment hasn't really taken off as advertised. It was four years ago that Microsoft was hyping its then-unreleased Xbox One with a heavy emphasis on cloud computing, promising that the developing tech would give the system "infinite additional processing power." In the time since, Microsoft has backed off its talk of cloud computing, and the poster child for the effort, Crackdown 3, has been hit by repeated delays and won't even launch until next year.
Despite that, Jones is still a believer in the power of the cloud, calling it "inevitable." He believes it is already reshaping the gaming landscape, but mostly behind-the-scenes for the moment, with developers using cloud services like AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform for tasks like multiplayer server hosting.
"It's always hard to talk about these things without going out and building them yourself to demonstrate what you mean"
"Compute I think is one of those things that's not quite as easy," Jones said. "It's needed some technology to be put in place to make those kind of services acceptable. I think that's what we've been looking at. How do we start to open pure compute up in a very, very simple way?"
But now that some of that infrastructure is in place, Jones acknowledged it's time to prove the cloud can actually change games.
"It's always hard to talk about these things without going out and building them yourself to demonstrate what you mean," Jones said. "So we've been on a mission with that to put together examples of, 'Once we've got compute, what are the things we can do from a creative and technical standpoint to start to showcase and highlight some of the opportunities available with it?' I think it needed a couple of catalysts, and there are a few companies starting to work in that area. We're one of them."
To that end, the company unveiled a proof-of-concept game, They Came From Space, last month. With an aesthetic derived from 1950s B-grade sci-fi films, They Came From Space is a team-based multiplayer action game where players can either don a VR headset to play as a titanic, city-destroying alien invader, or skip the VR to control one of the alien's drone fighters in an effort to claim the planet over a rival alien squad.
The game uses cloud computing in a few ways. First, the physics of the game's destructible cities are beyond what could be done in a normal game. That level of dynamism in a game world would be impossible to handle properly right now in VR, Jones claimed, considering the requirement of 90 frames per second to keep the experience comfortable. Finally, the cloud will help power a new feature designed specifically for streamers. Because the usual VR experience often doesn't work well for streamers, They Came From Space will feature a cloud GPU-powered virtual camera that streamers can use as the feed their audience will see.
"Streamers can turn to that camera and talk to the audience, make it more cinematic in how they present to the audience," Jones explained.
"If Google and Amazon are spending billions of dollars every year on AI research, that's a great asset we could potentially tap into..."
Destructible environments, VR, and features designed with streamers in mind are all old hat, but Jones hopes this particular implementation and combination of them makes it clear to players what "the power of the cloud" can really offer them.
"If consumers don't get it, if you can't put something in front of them that makes them go, 'Wow, I get this now because I could not have played this on my current systems...' It needs to be that transformative experience, and I think we all fully agree with that," Jones acknowledged.
Of course, They Came From Space is only the first step toward that, and Jones believes there are a number of further avenues for cloud computing to explore in games. For example, he's a big proponent of using it to power AI in games. If developers set aside 5% of their CPU budget for AI right now, what might they accomplish with 50 or 100 times the resources to throw at the problem? Would they even know what to do with it?
"It's kind of chicken-and-egg," Jones said. "[Game developers] know they can only do fairly simplistic AI, so they have to design around that. Optimally, do they really want a radial menu with five options to select from, or would they have something that can recognize my voice like Alexa or some cloud-based service which is much more intelligent and responsive? I don't think it's because they want to make it very simplistic. I think it's just that now, the technology and toolsets don't allow them to try new things. Some games may want a design like that, but I think a lot of designers find it much more exciting if there was a little opportunity there to explore with AI, which we're not seeing at present."
There will be a learning curve as developers figure out what they can do with more power at their disposal for AI, but Jones said it might not be as steep as one would expect. One factor working in gaming's favor here is that this is one of the seemingly rare times where game developers aren't the ones pushing the envelope for the tech they'll use.
"The great thing is there's technology we can tap into," Jones said. "We don't have to develop it ourselves. Games typically have been quite insular; we tend to develop everything ourselves. But I look out there and think, if Google and Amazon are spending billions of dollars every year on AI research, that's a great asset we could potentially tap into, because all those things reside as services in the cloud. So I think all those things will maybe happen quicker than we expect, because it's not something we have to take the initiative to develop from the ground up."