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Xbox One Cloud Gaming – The Diamond in the Rough

Over the last few months I have been an ardent supporter of what Microsoft has done in it’s business planning for the Xbox One. Throughout these debates I’ve shown intense support for cloud technology – especially with regards to its influence in gaming. My perspective has not just come from “the cloud” (no pun intended). Since graduating from college in 2007 I have only worked for technology companies – even working five years with the largest reseller of technology in the US. Working for a reseller allowed me to meet many different “tech gurus”. Vendors from Microsoft, Adobe, AMD, Xerox, HP or Cisco would present new products before they got to market. Even the clients I spoke with were tech gurus. All of the socializing took place upon an ecosystem of constant tech talk – constant innovation. And I didn’t just speak with any “tech employee” – I spoke with THE tech employee, the Directors. I spoke with the people in charge of making innovation happen within their organization. Without this business environment I would not be so keen on my outlook for future technology. This type of tech-socialization – both with tech clients and tech vendors – mentored me into my tech-perspective. I not only learned greater appreciation for technology in general but also became more forward thinking overall. While it is true that sales and marketing requires that one must take this approach when promoting a product, all technology innovations must be explained without frivolity to a smart client; the field of technology doesn’t offer much room for hornswoggling sales pitches. In the field of technology one’s clients are smart and savvy. There is also a difference between working with technology and working to promote new technology. The former focuses on managing what is current while the latter is always looking for better ways to do what is current. This environment helped to shape how I look at technology today. This is just my belief; if you are incredulous about the potential of the cloud, you’re not that familiar with the cloud.

A Demo – 2009 – Game Developers Conference

I first read about Onlive from a Wired Magazine article titled OnLive’s Cloud Gaming’ Could Be a Game-Changer, by Chris Baker, who wrote:

Imagine being able to fire up your vintage low-end Mac laptop and play Crysis, a gorgeously high-resolution PC game that’s famous for overwhelming the GPUs of $4,000 Alienware rigs. Imagine being able to play the same game on a tiny device streaming directly to your TV. That’s the kind of service OnLive announced Tuesday.

Back in 2009 when OnLive’s cloud gaming solution was demoed it was also scoffed at – and probably rightfully so – by technology fans and industry veterans. The tech gurus felt it was almost impossible to stream games via the cloud, let alone a workable solution for modern gaming. Baker writes in 2009:

I got to see a demo of the service, and the visual quality was excellent. It remains to be seen whether OnLive has solved the incredibly complex problem of streaming that image without excessive lag or dropped frames.

But even those who were unimpressed with the GDC demo couldn’t argue against the concept and potential of cloud gaming – a concept that was unshakable. Michael McWhertor of Kotaku wrote at that time:

You may never buy a new video card ever again. Actually, the only PC gaming hardware you might ever need will cost you less than a Wii, should OnLive’s potential live up to its promise.

Though they may not have agreed with the current technology, the OnLive initiative was pure and forward thinking. Before Xbox One was ever chastised for not having powerful hardware, writers discussing Onlive were already talking about how the hardware you had at home wouldn’t matter. McWhertor writes:

Instead of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on the latest video game hardware that will make games like Crysis playable at nearly maxed settings, let OnLive’s servers handle the processing. All that’s required is a low cost “micro console” or a low end PC and a broadband internet connection.

Yes, even your sub $500 netbook or MacBook can play processor intensive, GPU demanding PC games. In fact, that’s the whole point.

Of course, incredulity does pay off for a certain amount of time. People who felt this technology wouldn’t work had some sort of vindication when Onlive filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Onlive had 200 employees that were let go and Microsoft announced that, while it would not purchase Onlive, it would be willing to hire many of the fired employees. At that time Microsoft said:

We are eager to speak to individuals and teams affected by the OnLive transition. With the stunning success of Xbox/Kinect and the accelerated growth of this business, we are looking to add key players who want to make a real impact in creating groundbreaking new products and services. We have positions in both Redmond, Wash., and in Mountain View. There are big projects in the pipeline for the rest of 2012 and beyond, and the team is growing rapidly to support the work ahead! We’d love to have YOU be part of our team!

The demo of OnLive’s cloud gaming solution in 2009 was scoffed at by technology fans and industry veterans, who felt it was nearly impossible to believe that streaming games via the cloud could be a workable solution for modern gaming. Though they may not have agreed with the current technology as it was, the OnLive initiative was pure and forward thinking.

Many people reading this (and those who have been reading up on gaming technology) will be one step away from becoming a believer in cloud technology, but you tend to be less “forward thinking” and more “current thinking”. By this I mean that you are incredulous until the technology is proven to work, but you don’t have a holistically optimistic approach about the tech unless it’s proven to you first. I, on the other hand, am very risky – which can be bad; I love new tech and I glorify everything that is NEW! (However, it may be unfair to say that I am optimistic about ALL technology. I have mostly glorified solar panels and cloud computing – or virtual desktops, really.) I believe we SHOULD glorify those two technologies because they make sense for the best mix of efficiency and performance).

Some have made statements in the media regarding perceived failures in business’ attempts to deliver a successful cloud gaming solution to date. Both Rob Condon and An Anonymous Friend of Mine share the same versions of incredulity towards cloud gaming. Their focus is more on the hardware you have in your home rather than the potential of hardware that is, say, in the Azure blades. This is naturally why so many people believe that Xbox One has lost the console war simply because it has weaker hardware. (Expect to hear more about the mysterious Xbox One eSRAM during the GDC conference.)

But other people, (and by that I mean AMD, Nvidia, Intel, Qualcomm – you know, the big tech gurus) being deeply engaged and committed to the gaming industry, and most recently to cloud gaming specifically, believe that quite the contrary is true; not only is the technology and concepts behind cloud gaming alive and working well today, but the capabilities of cloud gaming are poised to dramatically impact the way the industry engages with the opportunity of games—from service providers, to game publishers, to consumers.

Gaikai Anyone?

The pursuit of cloud gaming is absurd only when considering the concept of physics. Rendering graphics from a server thousands of miles away doesn’t make too much sense. But over the last few years people have played, demoed and watched other people – both inside and outside the game industry – play and gather feedback from game developers and publishers. Game developers themselves have talked about how their games played in the cloud. Titanfall wasn’t just a pioneer. It was simply the guinea pig, the test market. I mean, if people are praising Titanfall, they are in for even bigger surprises. I am sure that even many of the game developers themselves (and publishers) were “early nay-sayers turned converts “. The facts are clear; Cloud Gaming works. Even Sony is pursuing cloud computing through Gaikai, although this service will not come close to what Xbox One will be capable of doing through Direct X 12. The Xbox One will be like a PC that doesn’t need hardware upgrades. (The PS4, on the other hand, will be upgradeable only when PS5 comes out.) In 2012, a few months after Microsoft made its announcement to hire the fired employees of Onlive, news came out that a company called Agawi would partner with Microsoft for cloud gaming. Kevin Parrish from Tom’s Hardware writes:

According to Agawi, the service will stream Facebook and mid-core games, web-based MMOs and PC core games to Windows 8-based devices using Microsoft’s Windows Azure .

It is possible that Microsoft took the former Onlive employees and brought them into the partnership with Agawi. (AMD, meanwhile, is working with Ciinow). Google those terms if you are unaware of them. Googling tech pronouns helps you understand where cloud gaming is going.

The Bane of Cloud Gaming: Latency

Latency is one of (if not grandest) issue cited as to the road blocks on the viability and advancement of cloud gaming. But this is not like measuring processor chips, since the fundamental issue between linking the two is that both latency and bandwidth are not measured the same way within Moore’s Law. In other words, cloud gaming is not a function of bandwidth increasing or latency decreasing on set time tables. Kansas City, Seoul, and Stockholm all have unbelievable bandwidth speeds. In these locations latency is virtually zero. The greatest issue (and cloud bottleneck) is infrastructure. Thus, there is NO technical issue for cloud gaming, only a financial one. The technology itself is sound. An infrastructure problem doesn’t mean the technology outlook is poor or wrong. (Having no pavement built to make roads doesn’t mean cars are a fundamentally bad idea.) The real truth is that the current spread of broadband is slow. A 2 Mbps connection was once considered broadband, and to many of us this type of speed is worthless and unacceptable. Although this is a solvable problem, it is evolving slower than most would like, and the need for greater bandwidth to serve the growing needs of businesses is accelerating. Adoptions grow as business and consumers need them (or rather, are willing to pay for them).

This blog post is to urge everyone to continue their skepticism on the outlook of the cloud but to do so in a way that shows you are aware of what the industry is at least trying to do and where it is headed.

Today, on March 20th 2014, Microsoft will unveil many things for us, including Direct X 12. We can finally see whether my outlook on the Xbox One’s superiority is pure PR or good tech-clairvoyance.

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Chris Baker, (March 24, 2009) (Wired) – OnLive’s ‘Cloud Gaming’ Could Be a Game-Changer – http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2009/03/cloud-gaming/

Michael McWhertor, (March 24, 2009) (Kotaku) – OnLive Makes PC Upgrades Extinct, Lets You Play Crysis On Your TV – http://kotaku.com/5181300/onlive-makes-pc-upgrades-extinct-lets-you-play-crysis-on-your-tv

Dean Takahashi, (August 24, 2012) (Venture Beat) – Microsoft to OnLive employees: We won’t buy ya, but we’ll hire ya – http://venturebeat.com/2012/08/24/microsoft-to-onlive-employees-we-wont-buy-ya-but-well-hire-ya/

Nic Vargus, (August 17, 2012) (Ign) – Update: OnLive Acquired, Will Continue Operating – http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/08/17/onlive-possibly-being-closed-by-end-of-day

Kevin Parish, (September 11, 2012) (Tom’s Hardware) – Microsoft Partners with Agawi For Cloud Gaming on Windows 8 – http://www.tomshardware.com/news/Agawi-Windows-8-iSwifter-cloud-gaming-windows-azure,17515.html

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