Friday, 13 January 2012

Back to the future with cloud gaming?

So first of, what exactly is cloud computing?
Well it sounds good doesn’t it? 
It sounds all technical and important. 
But it seams that the truth is nobody ‘exactly’ knows. 

‘The cloud’ had been used to mask a variety of disparate distributed network systems and at one level seems to be little more than a new catch-all buzz-word for combining existing networked stuff in new an interesting ways...
Basically, it’s a generally used term meaning any centrally-based system or resource that is accessed through a non-specific network infrastructure.

Got that? No, nether did I...

What does all  this gobbledegook mean for gaming?
The cloud is spreading all around us whether we see it or not. It’s running web-based applications and/or services; like Google’s Apps, web-based  document storage, and on-demand video; as well as much of  the information you are accessing through simply browsing the Internet, and gamming hasn’t escaped this trend.
Like using one of Google’s on-line apps, or even playing Runescape you don’t have to physically download any actual program code to your machine in order to use these products. This means that the physical hardware you are using to view these ‘cloud’ programs is largely irrelevant, and games are no different.
Using this ‘cloud’ technology it’s perfectly feasible for any modern networked TV or other networked device  to play the latest games, irrespective of the format they were originally written for; PC, MAC, xBox 360, Playstation3, VIC-20... it doesn’t matter; as long as you have a client capable of connecting to the server platform hosting them.
With services like OnLive now beginning to provide live games streaming directly to your client hardware the only limitation is whether or not a ‘thin-client’ program is made available for your device. You may have noticed that I didn’t say ‘computer’ here, because the ‘client’ hardware doesn’t have to be a computer. Any device capable or running the client software is capable of accessing and running the games directly on and from the central server. Just as if you were using the high-powered machine directly... and if that all sounds a bit familiar... well, there’s a very good reason for that.

Is this a whole new way to play games then?
Err, well, actually... no not really, and yes, sort of.
When people talk about playing games through the OnLive service they generally talk about ‘streaming’ the game to their client, whatever that client machine may be, in the same way as you would stream a TV program or film but with your input being sent back to the server to tell the game what to do next. And while that is a decent analogy for modern Internet users, it isn’t the only analogy. There is a much older one that fits pretty-much exactly, and that one takes us way back to the very beginnings of gaming.

Have you heard of the Colossal Cave adventure game?

If you have you may also have figured out where I’m going with this. If you haven’t, this is generally regarded as the very first text adventure game, developed in 1976, see I did say way-back. It ran on a PDP-10 mainframe, one of the first ever publicly available computer systems, and was incredibly expensive to own and run, not to mention physically taking up an entire room. So it wasn't very likely that you'd have one in your bedroom.
These mainframes were ‘timesharing’ systems, which could generally only be found in big industry research labs or at universities. A large number of people could use the machine at once, via dumb-terminals. These terminals were simple keyboard and monitor devices that performed much the same function as a brand spanking new OnLive TV box, or a client program running on your PC, MAC or phone. The difference being that the OnLive system uses tunneling protocols to go through the Internet to reach its server where the old dumb-terminals were ether physically attached or used hard-wired networking to reach their hosts. But the basic principles are the same, and it wasn’t long before the simple Terminal evolved into the ‘virtual machine’ client.

When Doom first came out I remember trying to play it on my old 386 computer. 

It worked, but only just, as long as you were ok looking at a jumpy screen the size of a postage stamp! But we also had much beefier servers at work, and those run virtual desktop client-server software.
This let you setup any old PC to run a desktop directly on and from the much more powerful central server. Just as if you were using the high-powered machine directly.

And these virtual clients could access the server through any network, even remotely, even if you tunnelled in to the server via an Internet connection from home. Now I could install Doom on the server and play it via a virtual machine from the same old hardware... only this time it was running full-screen and fast! As long as the network connection could handle it that is.
 Sound familiar? Well it should. Fundamentally it’s pretty much what OnLive does now.

Are cloud games the future, and will the traditional console become obsolete?
It’s hard to say where things will go at this point. But I definitely think it will be something that is going to be part of the future for games.
Realistically there is still a lot of investment tied up in the current consoles race, but it seems likely that some form of on-demand gaming may be introduced to the consoles of the (not too distant) future.

Things like OnLive and even download services like Steam, not to mention the heavily networked desktops of the current consoles,  all rely on the speed, reliability, and ease of access offered by today’s internet providers. And this is the main difference between the wide-area networking capabilities of yesterday’s technology compared to that of today. We are only now beginning to have the local to world-wide network capability required to support these types of on-demand service, and that is something that definitely isn’t set to disappear any time soon.

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