We all know what Gaikai is by now, and if not, there's the official website to loosely explain the concept: play games in your web-browser, even if your PC or Mac would be unable to run them for technical or licensing reasons. There's also that widely-viewed demonstration video of Gaikai co-founder and chief evangelist David Perry using it on his PC and commentating over the top.
We also know that, unlike OnLive, Eurogamer's resident mad scientist and Digital Foundry blog editor Richard Leadbetter believes it will actually work. It's not making outlandish promises about 720p at 60 frames per second, it's saying that with a bit of window-resizing, a variable frame-rate and clever programming, you can have a solid experience that most people would accept - especially the people Gaikai most cares about, the idling PC and Mac users who currently play millions of rubbish Flash games at lunchtime and while the dinner's in the oven.
But there are still plenty of questions. What do publishers actually do? How does Gaikai avoid server congestion? There's also the question of what form the consumer experience actually takes. It's not a portal website that lets you pick games to play - the demonstration site used in Perry's video walkthrough was for testing only. Nor is it a subscription service. There's been talk of it appearing on game publishers' websites, or at retail locations, and even on sites like Eurogamer. But if you dig down into Perry's comments, there's nothing concrete, just hypotheticals.
The reason there's a lot of confusing chatter about the Gaikai end-user experience is pretty easy to diagnose: Gaikai isn't sold to you; it's sold to the Activisions and EAs of the world. But what are they buying?
"So, selling to them is to sell new gamers," Perry tells Eurogamer after his Develop Conference speech last month. Perry believes that the number of gamers clicking to play using Gaikai and then actually following through on that and playing will be significantly higher than on existing game portals and download services, which often lose potential customers to technical problems or boredom - games not launching, games taking too long to launch, and so on. "If I told [the publisher] for every gamer, it's currently costing you $5, and I can get them for $1, and it's like a fraction of what you're currently paying, then it becomes commercially viable and makes sense to a publisher, and I don't have to explain any more."
So how does it work from a publisher's perspective? "They put the game on the service. They come to a dashboard, they create an account, and they add their game to the service. So if you wanted to publish a game tomorrow, you could do that. You come on, you register, you add the game to the service - it will have to be tested of course to make sure it's not breaking any rules - but as long as it's not breaking any rules you can drive people to your games." The way publishers use it is analogous to iTunes, he says. "Apple doesn't go, 'Please can we have your games?' They just make the service and if you use it, great, if you don't, that's fine." Just remember: the way you use it will be very different.
That's also the reason Perry is constantly correcting people who liken Gaikai to OnLive. They have some common technological genes - or at least philosophies - but their commodities are considerably different. OnLive is closer to something like Steam, with a different delivery mechanism and attendant cost concerns, whereas Gaikai is more like an embeddable YouTube window showing licensed content with a range of possible access levels determined by the licensor. In other words, publishers use Gaikai to expose you to their wares, but how they do that is up to them. Nintendo might embed a trial version of Mario Kart on Eurogamer as part of a marketing campaign, for example, or Blizzard might let you play full-blown World of Warcraft on its website. And by selling volumes of gamers to publishers, Gaikai is in a strong position to react to demand rather than having to anticipate, say, one million people turning up at midnight to play Grand Theft Auto V.
"The OnLive model is actually worried about that," Perry argues. "Say they have a million people show up, how the heck are you going to handle that? You're going to have to design a network and fund a network big enough for the peak. We buy servers based on demand, which is a way better business model, because we're building the structure to support what publishers need. We're not selling subscriptions - the publishers are buying the time, and we only offer the time when it's available. If Gaikai only has one server and somebody's got it, no one else can buy it - sorry." And once that server is full - Perry estimates that servers can handle around five users each - Gaikai can buy another, funded by the money it received selling off the gamers active on the existing server.
There are issues that doesn't cover, but Perry reckons he's anticipated most of them. Server time is more valuable during certain periods of the day, for example - you would expect the network to heave during peak hours after work, but you'd expect it to be dead by the time 3am rolls around - so Perry will use a dynamic pricing model similar to the way Facebook, MySpace and Google price their advertising inventories. With dynamic pricing, Perry is confident he will always be able to find a buyer, no matter the time of day, so servers won't lie dormant.
There is also the question of friction - one of the subjects of Perry's Develop Conference speech. Gaikai has the potential to be a great way of avoiding seepage between the point a gamer becomes interested and the point at which it's possible to start playing; it can remove barriers like hardware compatibility and download times. But that's only effective if the Gaikai method doesn't require you to sit through reams of terms and conditions. EA Master Accounts anyone? The Blizzard WOW process?
Perry is keen to point out that the customer - the games publisher - can have whatever they want in the end, but in the meantime he's not just going to tell them they're always right, especially with T&Cs. "I'll be saying, 'Please, put them all into one, just put them all into one and scroll to the bottom, have your legal department really rethink this, can they have us type yes and then we're done? How can you make it as low-friction as possible?' That's what my job will be. If they ignore me and say, 'No, we're not changing anything', fine. The amount of people that come in will probably be higher than today, but it probably won't be as high as it could be."
As for which publishers are involved at the moment, Perry's examples are largely theoretical, but he does claim that three publishers offered to invest in Gaikai during private E3 demonstrations - something he attributes to the nature of the offering. "It's not competitive, and it's a way of reaching new audiences they haven't got today," he says. "It's impossible to do today - I can't get Spore into Kongregate, for example."
For the moment though, Gaikai is still small-scale - just three servers, in Irvine near Blizzard, in Freemont near Adobe (Gaikai uses Flash heavily), and in Amsterdam where the core developers work. Beta sign-ups are live, but we're not using Gaikai ourselves and it doesn't sound like many other people are either. But, Perry argues, even the existence of sign-ups is beneficial to a service facing Gaikai's unique geographical challenges. "In a weird way," he suggests, "the beta test has already begun, because we're collecting statistical information on everyone's connections... I can already tell if you're in California before you even type anything."
The geographical issue is another interesting side of Gaikai. In order to offer interactive content in real time, it relies on a deeper knowledge of the weird way the internet is hooked together than other streaming services like Netflix. Perry clearly enjoys this side of the technology though, and his research also illustrates Gaikai's present small scale.
"I really wanted to solve this one," he says, "so at my house I pinged out all of the local cities and did a map - I live in sunny California - and it shows you how weird the internet layout is. I can ping to San Jose, which is [further away] than the length of England, in 20 milliseconds, but if I go south, I can go about a third of that distance. If I go out to Las Vegas it's 17. Imagine if this bar is Las Vegas, if I go that much more [gestures a small distance] it's 93, and the reason is because clearly Las Vegas is not connected to this [second part], and I'm having to go all the way around to get there from somewhere else.
"You can see it immediately in the numbers, and that means if we want to serve customers in Utah, we have to put servers in Utah. It's not complicated, because with the map you crunch the numbers and Utah's screwed, so we've got to put a server in Utah, and the question is can you afford to buy the servers, and that comes up to do you have investors that are supporting it?"
Part of it's investment, but there's also a big question mark over the technology, which Digital Foundry did its best to scratch off recently by grilling Perry and his colleagues Andrew Gault and Rui Pereira. Rather than dial back the rhetoric though, Perry keeps introducing new elements, like the idea of users' idle processes being hauled back into the cloud to crunch data for others. "I have a friend who's working on that," he says mysteriously. "He's making good progress. It's quite complicated. One of the hardest parts is convincing people to install it on their computers, because it's less the technology challenge and more the structural challenge."
If it all comes together, though, the theory is that Gaikai-based games and game demos should start to appear as soon as next year. Perry's hypotheticals are arresting. Embedded time-limited demos on publisher homepages could allow for instant gameplay and then ask the user if they want to buy the game, immediately transporting them to the publisher's e-distribution arm, or providing a pre-order coupon for retail. Console games could be offered and even retain their multiplayer elements - a Nintendo console could be emulated so that the host could send a link to friends who then loaded it up, clicked a vacant "Player 2" controller graphic and immediately joined in, and the service layer between a guy with a keyboard firing blue shells in London and the server interfacing with the Nintendo console's wildly different hardware needn't be that complicated. With the game session's hosting handled remotely, games can run on whatever platform Perry's clients want the servers to run.
There are limitations. Anyone who has watched the demo - especially the one annotated by Digital Foundry - will know that games use different resolutions, and some games don't yet perform brilliantly, like Need for Speed. Perry's answer is: give us time. The sight of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare on Perry's test-server portal page was tantalising, and the reason he didn't load it up, he says, is that the methods used to get FPS games working well on Gaikai are in progress. "There's two solutions to that," he says. "One is elegant, one's not so elegant - we've got the not-so-elegant solution working, and I'm really holding on until we get the elegant one."
From a gamer's perspective, Gaikai is, for now, a lot of unfinished ideas, hypothetical scenarios and business speak, and to some extent has only been thrust into public view this early in order to illustrate the difference between it and OnLive. On the one hand, it could perhaps do with a bit more marketing coordination. On the other, you can understand why Perry's focusing on the sales pitch: Gaikai isn't for you; it's about you, and what you represent once you've been lured in by the technology and packaged for sale. The interesting thing about it - apart from the fact it sounds like it will work - is that gamers stand to get hold of a useful new toy in the process.
Dave Perry is co-founder of Gaikai and also creative director at Acclaim. Article by Tom Bramwell, interview by Rob Purchese.