Bethesda invited a small amount of press to its Rockville, MD-based headquarters in the days before E3 to demo one of its more business-oriented announcements of the show: a package of patented game streaming “techniques” they’re calling Orion. While Bethesda set some time aside for Orion during its E3 press conference, it was worried that the complexity of the technology would require more than a three-minute stage demo. They were right.
Orion is both a complicated pitch, but also easily capsuled: The technology team at id Software has created a suite of tools to help lower bandwidth and latency demands for streaming games, in an effort to improve the performance of the most demanding games. For example, id Software’s own Doom (2016) is as challenging a test for streaming technology as one could imagine and informed their decision to pursue this project in the first place. That’s the easy pitch. Here’s the rest of it.
THE ELEVATOR PITCH
According to Bethesda, video game streaming has a handful of major challenges and limitations: latency, computing power, and bandwidth.
First up is latency: For a high-quality, lag-free experience, “user input needs to change the on-screen display in real time and if that can’t happen without imperceptible latency [...] you’ll have a bad experience,” says Bethesda Softworks’ Director of Publishing James Altman. Compare this to a Netflix or Spotify stream, which has allowance to buffer when needed.
Next up is computing power. While a Netflix video can be pre-compressed once, and distributed many times, video game streams need to be compressed frame by frame, based on user input, and distributed to users. This constant compression contributes to additional server costs compared to pre-encoded files, but with Bethesda’s technology, the demands are lower.
And finally bandwidth. If you can reduce the size of the video stream being sent, it’s possible to reach more users whose connection speed or range from a data center prevents viable streaming. It also reduces bandwidth used, which is especially important for people with data caps.
Bethesda says it currently has four patented “techniques,” with other techniques still in review and others still not submitted. The one they illustrated for us is US patent number 10271055B2, or perhaps you know it by its catchy name: Systems and methods for deferred post-processes in video encoding, granted to id Software Senior Graphics Engineer Michael Kopietz.
That’s how the US Patent Office thinks about it. Altman explained the technology this way:
We believe we could achieve significant savings and significant improvements and enhancements to the player experience by starting our optimizations at the very earliest, literal possible point, which is at the game engine level.
The core distinction here is that id’s solution is entirely software-based and avoids the brute force hardware approach favored by other streaming solutions.
While Bethesda will obviously include this technology in its own games, including those made with engines it doesn’t own, it wouldn’t comment on any developments or discussions regarding other notable partners.
Bethesda later shared the following data:
- Bandwidth savings using a single Orion technique, in a 10-minute gameplay test, goes from 23.43 Mbps with the technique off to 13.67 Mbps with the technique on.
- Encode time is 30 percent more efficient on a per frame basis, for every frame at 60 frames per second.
These combine to be 20 percent more efficient on computing cycles, reducing the hardware cost and electricity draw necessary to drive streaming gaming.
If all of this sounds very business-to-business, that’s because it is. When asked how user facing this would be, Altman agreed it’s not the sort of thing they expect users to recognize. Instead, when delivering millions of hours of gameplay to users over a streaming service, Bethesda contends these savings — in addition to creating a better user experience, reaching more players — will also reduce the cost of delivery for streaming companies.
For id Software, Doom represents “the most difficult problem to solve,” according to Altman. If game streaming is the next major shift in the industry — and Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud suggest it is — ensuring that games like Doom work well while being streamed is an existential concern for id.
To show how effective the Orion techniques can be, Bethesda demoed Doom (2016) running on three instances:
- A MacBook Pro in Maryland connected to an off-the-shelf, “commercially available” Amazon Web Services instance in Ohio (~ 300 miles away)
- An iPhone in Maryland connected to an AWS instance in Virginia (~ 20 miles away)
- An iPhone in Maryland connected to an AWS instance in Frankfurt, Germany (~ 3,000 miles away)
The MacBook Pro-connected demo had a real-time counter illustrating the game’s demands. We were first shown the demo with the techniques turned off, and then again with the techniques turned on.
Both demos appeared identical; however, the Orion-enabled version used 30 percent less bandwidth, saved 30% GPU time on the cloud server (which helps with latency as well as electricity draw), and the video encode time was 22 percent faster (also helping with latency).
Given a chance to play all three demos, I can say that the Frankfurt version was terrible ... but at over 3,000 miles and across an ocean, it wasn’t meant to be playable. The point was to prove how far the Orion technology can be stretched in the most adverse of scenarios. With that in mind, it’s worth pointing out that I could actually play the game on an iPhone. It felt bad, but it also wasn’t representative of any real-life scenario.
When moved over to the Virginia-hosted version, it was immediately better. The demo unit used a controller, so was a bit harder to see the full impact of latency, but there was no doubt that it was considerably more responsive and playable. Having played the entire Doom campaign in 2016 with a controller, the difference on the Orion demo was negligible.
Lastly, when playing the mouse and keyboard-equipped MacBook Pro version, streaming from an AWS instance in Ohio some 300 miles away, I was able to whip the camera around instantly using the mouse, to test the latency. Like the Virginia-based test, it had a very small amount of latency, but it didn’t stop me from spending 10 minutes playing legit Doom over a streaming server. It still didn’t match the responsiveness of a local machine, but it was as close as I’ve seen with streaming technology.
Orion works. But so does technology like Google Stadia. Orion isn’t about making streaming work, it’s about making streaming work better. And if that means cheaper hardware costs for providers, good for them. If that means less bandwidth for users, then good for those of us saddled with bandwidth caps. But most of all, if that means lower latency for would-be players a little further out from a data center, making games like Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal that much more playable, then it’s a win for players. We’ll have to see if Bethesda’s business folks — and its lawyers — are able to convince other developers to license this technology, and whether or not that helps accelerate adoption of streaming technology. Right now, it’s still just a pitch.