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Here comes the cloud

Clouds are incoherent. They suggest fanciful whimsy, lack of clarity, a formlessness that plays tricks on the gaze of the beholder.

It is not inappropriate to draw these comparisons to the thing that is called "cloud gaming." At the Cloud Gaming USA conference in San Francisco this week, much talk and vapor was expelled into the ether, producing a promise of the future that is ... well ... cloudy.

The problem is elemental. Warm gushing technoptimism meets a cold front of reality. The two are, for now, irreconcilable. They fail to coalesce.

Cloud gaming's promise is nothing if not refreshing. Imagine being able to play any game on any device, instantly accessible, ultra-connected. There is no need for a game box that does lush graphics because all the computing is done in a vast, hot server farm, two counties away.

Your miserable office PC, your tablet, your humble browser, your TV set are all equal to the task of a gigantic gaming rig, or next-gen console. The cloud takes the hard out of hardware.


The cloud already exists for many activities. Right now, I am typing these words into a Google Doc, while listening to Pandora (I recommend the "Native American" channel). My children are upstairs watching something on Amazon Prime. Work, music, film, all stored somewhere else. It's pretty snazzy.

Unfortunately for gaming, the reality is sobering. Games use up a lot of server space, which is expensive, and comprise many moving parts, which is technically challenging.

Many games rely on ultra-speedy delivery and so are ruined by any kind of lag. Even if you have a great internet connection, the experience of playing a game served from a remote location can be severely impacted by events beyond your control like, for example, your beloved partner deciding that now would be a good time to catch up on Army Wives, while you are in the middle of playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution via OnLive.

I have been an OnLive member for a year and have enjoyed the service. But it can be sluggish, with action games especially. OnLive is a good demonstration of another harsh reality of cloud gaming, the lack of a financial model that might persuade games companies and consumers to commit. OnLive has struggled to survive and is now seeking to relaunch, much the wiser from the last few, brutal years.


Its main competitor in the first flush of cloud gaming's life is Gaikai, which fared better by being bought by Sony, and this brings us to the new promise; delivery of content from afar, except to dedicated and expensive games boxes.

If you think this rather obfuscates the point of the cloud - which originally proposed a device-free future - it really is worth taking a look at what might be on offer with the new consoles.

At Cloud Gaming USA 2013, Gaikai founder Dave Perry (below) sat in the audience, among a few hundred attendees. I approached him during a break to ask what PlayStation 4's promise might be. He wouldn't say. Plans are still being finalized.

But he did outline a vision of the cloud that might offer a few clues. "It means more people playing many more games," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're on your crappy office computer, or on your smartphone, you can just play."

He said that discoverability is "a nightmare" on most digital stores, like mobile app stores or Flash game hubs. "We need something that lets us just jump in and try things," he added.

Sony will seek to make use of Gaikai's technology by bolstering the PlayStation 4's digital storefront. The ability to play games as you browse them, to be able to download those that you enjoy, while you play "seamlessly" in the jargon du jour, is a genuinely useful thing.


The cloud can also offer a solution to all manner of digital distribution problems. Back catalogues and smaller, slower new games offered on an anytime, anywhere basis through subscription models are an enticing proposition.

Microsoft has offered some insights into its cloud plans for Xbox One, which include making use of that computing power to simulate better, more humanlike AI which adapts based on how real people play millions of millions of games on the company's vastly expanded network of servers. (This is 'Big Data" as a benefit, rather than as a creepy intrusion into your private life.)

Games like Titanfall will make use of the cloud to optimize the gamer experience, carrying latency-neutral computational burdens that might otherwise slow events down.

All the console manufacturers are also hyper-keen on connecting their machines and their services to handheld devices like tablets, and they are not the only ones.

At Cloud Gaming conference, Electronic Arts' enigmatic futurist, guru and chief creative director Richard Hilleman showed how the company is experimenting with ways to strip big game brands like FIFA and Mirror's Edge down to the point that they could be delivered and played as shorter, more digestible experiences, with vastly simplified controls.

Hilleman figures that the number of people who own games consoles is extremely small compared to the number of people who own TV sets and tablets.

The audience he's going after are gamers who want to play on mobile, tablet or online in shorter spurts. They want to be able to jump right into a game and play, They don't want to spend time learning how to play and navigating a complex controller.

The point when games that are current gen console quality can be played inside a browser is not so very far away.


"You can open gaming to a lot more plays who aren't restricted by the hardware that they own," said Ian Griffiths, a product manager at Microsoft, who works on the games side of the business. "We are looking for more shared experiences across devices where you take our game from one platform to another."

He acknowledged that there are many design issues to be confronted, and many infrastructure issues.

This was a common theme of the conference, which veered between the opportunities that cloud gaming might bestow on gamers and on games companies, and the many problems that need to be resolved before you and I can play the latest Call of Duty right from a browser on our iPhones.

Even if solutions seem to be works in progress, this conference attracted representatives from big hitting organizations including most of the major games publishers, digital portals and retailers as well as technology players like AMD, Nvidia, Sony and Microsoft.

David Helgason, CEO of Unity said that his company is also working on ways to incorporate the company's tools into a cloud future. Summing up the general tone of the conference, he said that cloud gaming's main problems were not merely practical, but also creative. "It has to beat everything that is already available," he said. "It has to make people say 'wow'."