Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gaming...What's next

These guys need Lafayette....and Lafayette needs these guys.

Lafayette has been chasing the star of the movie industry. Maybe it would be a better fit for the city to go after the new rising star of the entertainment industry: video games. And Lafayette would certainly be the place for a new streaming-on-demand version of video games to test their chops.

Games are big business these days with the game industry surpassing the movie industry for the first time last year and posting a 40% increase in size while doing so.

Cnet carries an interesting story on the latest "platform" to challenge the console gaming platform troika of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo (with 'puters making a fouth leg): OnLive. Admitedly, OnLive is only a startup but it is hard to argue with their basic concept: move the gaming industry online.

That is basically the same idea that has undermined the CD-based version of the music industry, is destroying the phone company, is arguably killing newspapers, and has radically restructured the retail industry in just about every business category from booksellers to auctions.

OnLive's version of the idea is to stream games. If their idea wins out—and why shouldn't it?—there'll be no fancy console or monster PC, no physical game cartridge/CD/DVD at all. Just stream the gameplay down to your computer's screen. All the fancy processing and video magic takes place on the server. Along the way, one presumes, the console goes the way of the dodo and the CD.

Now the problem, arguably, is that this model seems to be before it's time. It needs a lot of bandwidth to run a quality experience. And most people in most places simply don't have the bandwidth. LiveOn contends that they've got compression tactics that will allow them to run HD games over 5 megs. Maybe. But it seems a stretch. And latency is a BIG issue for gamers and is something that no amount of server-end trickery will alleviate—pulling the trigger in a first person shooter needs to be followed by an immediate spray of bullets for the game to work. Locating on a server on the other side of the contenient will be dicey on latency regardless of whether or not they can really compress their video stream into 5 megs.

Reading between the lines I am under the impression that a big part of their current business model is to give game sellers a place to market their wares that give game users a "taste" before buying. If streaming a game gives you a good idea of how it will play then OnLive's streaming games could substitute for offering crippled or time-limited versions that run the danger of being opened up by software crackers and widely distributed. For game developers and marketers a slightly "glitchy" streaming might be feature of the system rather than a bug. They'd probably rather you'd buy....and if the streaming actually works well enough in some cases to substitute for phyical ownership then they still get a nice revenue stream and an easy way to upgrade or extend their games to keep that revenue stream from established games going. You can see why game developers might be really entranced with the model.

But OnLive clearly has bigger ambitions; it is in their interest to have steaming games actually work well for all types of games. That way they get to stand in the middle of all that money streaming between the user and developer. But, fact is, streaming is not likely to be satisfactory for a lot of the fast action, quick reaction games that people play on consoles. Most networks just won't support it.

But here's the kicker (you saw it coming): the LUS system in Lafayette will fully support streaming games: If OnLive locates a server on-network they'll have an open 100 meg pipe to every user in the city inside the LUS "campus." No fancy compression algorithms that pixelate on fast motion, no latency to make reaction times feel sluggish. Very, very few places in the world offer that sort of connectivity and locating a server on LUS fiber will give OnLive a place to showcase the very best of what they can offer, running as it should on a thoroughly modern, fiber fast, low latency network.

Of course, Lafayette benefits too. The community needs a way to showcase that network and point to the sorts of applications and uses that will make full use of what we have built.

These guys need Lafayette....and Lafayette needs these guys.

12 comments:

monkeyboy said...

I think we are a bit away from streaming gameplay, even with fiber internet. Take www.quakelive.com (beta) for example. This is the first time Ive seen a game like this stream online like this, and the gameplay is sometimes choppy while the graphics are pretty low-end. Its cool and a great piece of technology, but I dont see streaming gameplay replacing Xbox 360/PS3 anytime soon. This is especially true now that console games will be taking advantage of the large data storage that Bluray provides.

monkeyboy said...

Id like to add that I think this technology sounds cool. Its just hard to believe they can pre-render the gameplay in an acceptable framerate on their servers and stream it to your TV without any issues or drawbacks. I can see this being the future but just not now. I would love to be able to rent games and have them on-demand.

John said...

Monkeyboy,

I think your hesitations are pretty much the same that mine are--I can't see how this technology will be able to compete in most places with, say, my PS3's graphics and gameplay.

So I was pretty shocked to see that someone seems to be seriously attempting it--and to have most of the big independent houses on board.

But...while I have trouble with the concept in most places I think it just might work over Lafayette's fiber. The in-system peer-t0-peer network will easily support the required video stream. Fiber, in part because it doesn't need to be regenerated very often is usually low-latency. The final bit is simply making sure that their renders are capable of rendering many independent streams at once. But that, frankly, is purely a hardware problem. Throwing more hardware at it makes it work.

Or so I reason. Not much of a gamer myself so take it with a grain of salt.:-) It does seem like a real opportunity for Lafayette.

Raymond Camden said...

I'd echo Monkeyboy. If they could render/stream at, oh, say XBox level (and I mean XBox1, not 360), I'd be incredibly impressed, but that is still a generation behind.

Of course, the flip side to this is the rise in casual gaming. A lot of the hottest games these days (outside of gaming nerds like myself), are smaller, casual games, that take a heck of a lot less power to play. Shoot, some of my favorite games are XBLA stuff that probably _could_ stream well.

FGF said...

Localizing platforms such as gaming on the edge of FTTH networks has one notable flaw: many of the most popular games are multi-player and most players will still be playing through the cloud. The user experience would be as strong as the weakest link.

John said...

FGF,

I'd think that as far as Lafayette gamers is concerned locating a server within the LUS network would be an advantage...you see the action some tiny fraction faster and your response is read and reacted to faster too. Everybody else would be sluggish by contrast.

Would Lafayette players have to accept some sort of point handicap? ;-)

monkeyboy said...

Here is another good article about the service.

http://gigaom.com/2009/03/24/can-onlive-really-overturn-the-gaming-industry/

I think this company is ahead of its time. Think what would have happen to Netflix if they came out with "Watch it Now" back in 2000 when Netflix first started getting popular, it wouldn't have worked out for them.

Off topic,
Anyone know how secure the "intranet" feature of LUS internet is? Im curious how it compares to Cox network. I dont think its easy (or possible) to see other users on the Cox network. I am behind a NAT firewall (router) but I guess you could use something like Hamachi to create a secure, local network.

monkeyboy said...

Here is an hour long video presentation.

http://gdc.gamespot.com/video/6206692/

monkeyboy said...

3rd post in a row :)

I just finished watching the demo. Its impressive, almost to good to be true. The features are on par, if not better than current gaming systems. The good thing is the mini console is suppose to be cheap according to the guy in the video. If nothing else, it might be worth buying as a second gaming console. The video has me excited now, just skeptical that its all smoke and mirrors though.

Speed said...

John,
Thanks for bringing this up in the blog. It sure would be nice to have one of their servers connected to the LUS intranet as that would definitely give us an advantage with the latency!

monkeyboy,
Thanks for the link to the video. I just finished watching it and I'm definitely intrigued. I have a few concerns though that I wonder how they will impact the popularity of this service:
1) If you buy the game, you are at the mercy of the company staying in business to play that game.
2) If your internet goes down or has packet loss, this could be a miserable experience. Besides the red ring of death, I can turn on my console/PC and play no matter if the internet is down. I would hope this wouldn't be an issue with LUS, but for most users I'm not sure how reliable their internet is and if they would consider that a detriment to using it.
3) He mentions that 4Mbps is about what they use for HDTV, so I wonder how nice the graphics will really look. I think most HDTV video streams are much higher than that, and there's been plenty of debate on whether video on demand like Netflix can claim to have an HD stream when they're not sending near the amount of data that an HDTV channel would.
Last) The pricing structure. I think the video mentioned a subscription fee, so the price of that could be a big deal if it would end up costing you the same amount to buy a console through its life cycle.

Assuming that they don't put a server on our intranet, the only thing that I don't like is that we would be limited to 4Mbps since our fiber connection could be up to 50Mbps. It's awesome to have these internet speeds, but stinks that we wouldn't be able to take full advantage of it by choosing a higher video rate. However, it'll be impossible to tell how good it looks until we try it out which we won't be able to until this winter unless you get picked for the beta.

monkeyboy said...

@Speed,

I have watched some streaming Netflix HD on my 47" LCD HDTV and its pretty impressive.

Speed said...

monkeyboy,
I added the latest CSI to my Netflix instant watch and viewed it on my 37" panny plasma and it looked pretty good! I only wish I had saved it on my DVR to see the difference, so I may save this week's episode and compare it to Netflix as they seem to have the episodes added pretty quick.