MORE THAN 70,000 gamers, developers and publishers descended on Los Angeles to goggle at each other’s wares and show off their own at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), which began on June 11th. This year big publishers like Ubisoft and Square Enix used the annual video-game jamboree to show off previews of new games. Keanu Reeves, an actor, hyped up “Cyberpunk 2077”, a hotly anticipated title in which he plays a big role.
One of the most significant announcements at the show was also one of the briefest. Towards the end of a two-hour presentation, Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft’s gaming division, offered a few more details about Project xCloud, Microsoft’s foray into cloud gaming. The service will be available in October, he said, before letting gamers loose to try a demo version in the conference centre.
Cloud gaming aims to do for video games what companies like Spotify and Netflix have done for music and films—make them available on any device with an internet connection. For the $140bn gaming industry, that would be a revolution. The consoles and beefy PCs required to run modern games cost several hundred dollars. Cloud gaming aims to shift the computational heavy lifting into data-centres and to pipe the results to users over the internet. That would allow gamers to play cutting-edge titles on nearly any screen with an internet connection, no matter how feeble the underlying hardware.
Microsoft is well-placed to make cloud gaming work, says Piers Harding-Rolls of IHS Markit, a research firm. It has a 20-year pedigree through its Xbox series of consoles, and its Azure cloud platform is the world’s second-biggest, after Amazon Web Services. But it is not the only tech giant interested in the idea. A few days before E3, Google, which also runs a big cloud business, gave more details about Stadia, its own cloud-gaming product, which is due to launch in November. Industry rumours suggest that Amazon is mulling a similar business. The threat from the cloud giants helped to persuade Sony, which makes the PlayStation series of consoles, to jump into bed with its arch-rival. It already runs a cloud-gaming service called PlayStation Now but in May Sony signed a deal to employ Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform in its future endeavours.
It all sounds promising in theory. Whether cloud gaming will catch on, though, remains uncertain, for it is technically much more demanding than existing streaming services. Unlike films or music, games are interactive, which means they must respond instantly to a player’s input. The laws of physics impose limits on how quickly a player’s commands can traverse the internet to reach a data-centre to be processed, and then how quickly the resulting video can be sent back. For the twitchy action games that dominate bestseller lists, even delays of a fraction of a second are an irritation for players. Such technical glitches are one reason that previous attempts at cloud gaming, by firms such as OnLive (which launched its service in 2010 but shut down in 2015), failed to catch on.
The cloud giants insist that times have changed. Microsoft, Amazon and Google have data-centres dotted around the world, which should help keep response times low. Consumer internet connections are faster than ever and data allowances more generous. And although dedicated gamers may turn up their noses at even short time-lags, cloud gaming could prove attractive to the less hard-core.
Cloud computing can be used in other ways, too. Rather than running the whole game remotely, one intermediate option is to use it for tricky calculations that are also relatively insensitive to small delays. “Crackdown 3”, an action game released for the Xbox and PC in February, uses cloud computing for complex physics calculations, allowing players to blow up their environment in a realistic way without overtaxing their computers. An updated version of Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator”, shown at E3, was also, according to its trailer, “powered by Azure”. Cloud computing has already disrupted everything from films to corporate IT departments. Gaming, it seems, is now also in play. ◼