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Gaikai: Cloud Computing Gameplay That Works?

Eurogamer versus gaming over IP: round two.

If it sounds as though Gaikai is more like a sampling system than a delivery mechanism for full-games, that's actually one of the options available to the games publishers. They're in complete control of the content and how it is deployed and how much you'll pay for it. "My personal objective for the end user is that I'd like them to be able to play for free until they decide they want to buy the game. Try the game now, if you like it, you can continue playing it," Perry continues. "I want to be clear, I'm not the one setting the pricing, I'm not the one trying to keep the lion's share of the money. The publishers set the prices. The publisher might not want you to buy the game digitally and we have no problem with that. They might say, 'Right you like the game, go to Gamestop and buy it.' That's fine, that's their agenda, it's their game. But at the end of the day, if the user wants to continue playing online, then the publisher sets the price for that. That's our model, it's very different to OnLive."

Until these game-streaming systems come online and are proven to work and be financially viable, there's always going to be a level of sceptiscism surrounding the whole Cloud computing concept. Gaikai sounds confident in getting this system up and running, but the concept of the localised, dense server structure encompassing the entirety of the USA sounds like a staggering investment in base hardware. I was told that a high-end server could handle seven instances of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but the make-up of the final servers is still to be decided.

"In practice the number of game instances per server isn't what matters, we care much more about server cost divided by game instances," says Andrew Gault. "This is more complicated than it seems as 'server cost' has to include power usage, bandwidth, maintenance, etc. One of the main goals with our upcoming beta is to finalise the server configuration we will launch with."

And then there's the issue of using Flash, at once the system's strength in finding a colossal audience, but at the same time perhaps a technological Achilles heel. Flash implementations vary in performance level from one OS to the next, from one platform to the next. Nobody I know personally in web development seems particularly thrilled by its performance level. "We do see performance differences between Flash on different operating systems, but all are easily capable of delivering a 30FPS experience on modern hardware," Andrew Gault reckons. "For older PCs and Netbooks we dynamically change the stream quality and FPS so that it will always run reasonably."

I'll fully admit that just like the OnLive piece, I came to look at Gaikai to find chinks in the armour, to unravel a technical mystery, but just about everything I annotated and commented on in the video fits in with the sense that this is possible and for just about every straight question I asked, I got a straight answer with unambiguous metrics. In terms of the initial Perry video, pretty much the only element that didn't work for me was the Need for Speed demo, which often drops to a poor 15FPS. Perry put that down to a rushed virtualisation implementation. He says it was a demo put together quickly designed to placate investors who said that a driving game couldn't work on the system due to the "twitch" control response required when racing at high speeds.

That virtualisation implementation is something I'm still keen to learn more about. OnLive and Gaikai are both using this technique of running multiple game instances on a single server, but while a lot of work in CPU virtualisation has been done by major names in the industry, I've yet to hear about how well a typical GPU can be split between multiple instances in the same way. I'm guessing that the proof the pudding will be in the tasting, or rather the beta-testing.

Other than that, any potential problems seem logistical and budgetary rather than technological. And in more ways than one Gaikai is keen not to be seen as an OnLine competitor even if there are similarities in the core notion of streaming gameplay video. They want to be seen as partners to the existing platform-holders, not competitors. "Trying to compete directly with the Sony/Nintendo/Microsofts of the world is just setting yourself up to fail, as they have fewer technical hurdles and have billions in the bank," says Andrew Gault. "Plus it limits your market. We run on the web, and want to reach billions, everywhere."

Perry also believes that setting up a game-streaming service like OnLive as a direct competitor to the consoles themselves is going to bring about inevitable comparisons that will do the service no favours... and it's all my fault. "We have a different approach here and we need to be really clear on this," Perry explains. "We like MP3 files. We think MP3 is great, because it makes music convenient. It's not audiophile, it doesn't have to be completely lossless, right? It needs to be good. And so our goal is to be as convenient as MP3 became for music and I think OnLive are crazy... I know what's going to happen with OnLive and you're going to be one of the people to do it. There's going to be lots and lots of side-by-side screenshots... The more they claim to be HD, 60 frames per second, 'you don't need a PlayStation 3 any more', the more you're gonna bust out the screenshot comparisons, right?"

Um... yes? "How many Nintendo games are going to appear on OnLive? The answer is none," Perry adds. "And some of the best games in the world are from Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft... I'm already talking to Nintendo. I'm talking to all the major publishers. Games like Mario Kart are a great example. I believe that games like this, played by people who haven't bought Nintendo hardware... when you experience just how well-made they are, how well balanced they are, how fun they are, I honestly think people will fall in love with Nintendo before they've even bought Nintendo hardware. To be clear, we're not going to be running any Nintendo games without Nintendo's permission. I think Nintendo could have a massive new audience overnight just by doing this...

"The idea isn't to take people away from their hardware, it's about getting them into their hardware, that's the difference."

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About the Author

Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.


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