A Match Made in Heaven: Gaming Enters the Cloud
Online gaming has been implemented in several ways—through traditional consoles connected to the Internet, on PCs that usually require a downloaded client, and with browser games often created in Flash with limited graphics. All of that is about to change.
Led by a stunning announcement by AMD at the Consumer Electronics Show last month, cloud computing is set to become the next frontier in the gaming world. Fusion Render Cloud, AMD's planned petaflop-busting supercomputer, is expected to stream the highest-quality graphics to the smallest devices, and figures to be the most intriguing and talked-about example of cloud gaming in the next few years should it proceed past the concept stage. Others are sure to follow in its wake, and some have already preceded it to the cloud. Playce, a startup that wants to revolutionize casual gaming, announced its plans for cloud gaming last September and is set to enter beta testing this month. Gaming platform Steam has taken a small step, offering an extension for users to store settings and configurations on the company's servers.
Until recently, however, there has been little discussion about a marriage between gaming and cloud computing. Cloud services have primarily been geared toward enterprise and business needs, such as Salesforce.com and Google Apps, which make use of greater capacity and scalability but don't require large amounts of bandwidth.
"There has always been the assumption that gaming will be irrelevant, you will never be able to do gaming in the cloud because it is so graphics intensive, especially 3D gaming like World of Warcraft," said Geva Perry, a cloud computing expert who has tracked the development of cloud gaming in his blog. "We are getting more and more bandwidth, and now we are seeing the ability to process intense computations on the server side, and this one is a huge breakthrough."
If anything, the concept for Fusion Render Cloud is certainly ambitious. The massively parallel supercomputer is expected to break the petaflop barrier—more than one quadrillion floating-point operations per second—to take a place among the fastest computers in the world. The prototype supercomputer will run on Phenom II processors, AMD 790 chipsets, and more than 1,000 ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics processors, according to AMD. Another company, Otoy, is developing the software to render scalable server-side graphics that would be compressed and streamed in real time.
All that technology is expected to coalesce into an idea nearly as powerful as the processing power behind it. "Imagine watching a movie half-way through on your cell phone while on the bus ride home, then, upon entering your home or apartment, switching over to your HDTV and continuing to watch the same movie from exactly where you left off, seamlessly, and at full-screen resolution," said AMD director of digital media Charlie Boswell. "Imagine playing the most visually intensive first-person-shooter game at the highest image-quality settings on your cell phone without ever having to download and install the software or use up valuable storage space or battery life with compute-intensive tasks."
The ability to send high-end graphics to small devices is a key aspect of Fusion Render Cloud. Most technology pundits agree that portability is an increasingly important factor for today's computing needs, and the success of the iPhone ensures that consumers will want quality games that can fit in a pocket. Netbooks also figure to become increasingly popular, and cloud gaming would fit well with those devices, which lack powerful graphics cards.
Otoy's technology would compress data streams using the GPU's massive parallel computing capability to reach those devices efficiently, according to AMD representative Gary Silcott. "Their testing to date has demonstrated that latency and bandwidth are manageable," he said.
What's more, cloud computing could make games more accessible to casual users, many of whom don't make a big and constant investment in hardware in the same manner as hardcore gamers. "All these computer guys sort of worshipping the technology really just gets in the way of the common user," Boswell said in an Inquirer interview. "Fusion Render Cloud is going to bring in those people who have been excluded by the digital divide."
Some game companies, including Electronic Arts, are already preparing content to be delivered through Fusion Render Cloud, expected to debut sometime in the latter half of 2009. Those games are likely to take full advantage of the platform, including virtual-world games with unlimited photorealistic detail.
The technology won't be limited to games. Movies and other PC applications figure to get a boost from AMD's supercomputer, as special-effects designers take advantage of the system's combination of CPUs and GPUs.
Sin City and Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez is already a fan, expressing his support with AMD's announcement. "Having the means to create interactive eye-definition movie and game assets with Fusion Render Cloud and then to make them available to a broader audience through new distribution methods will bring about a renaissance in content creation and consumption," Rodriguez said.
Essentially, the concept could provide moviemakers and game creators with a platform to create high-definition graphics without needing advanced equipment. "Leveraging the processing capability of the Fusion Render Cloud to output a high-definition scene could greatly accelerate the production time without having to have the assets in-house," Silcott said. "That's the radical change envisioned with this prototype. The capability becomes available to a much longer list of creative content developers."
A Playce in the Cloud
While a startup company like Playce doesn't have the resources to compete with a heavyweight such as AMD, its goal is to serve individual game designers who want to create small, socially oriented games that don’t require a large time investment.
"We wanted to create a completely different experience," cofounder Carmel Gerber said at TechCrunch 50 last year. "We believe that people should be able to send a link to a friend, jump to a site together, and play a really hot, immersive 3D game. No DVD, no download, and no cost."
To do that, Playce is creating a platform based on georeferenced satellite imagery, using real-world locations as the basis for 3D games such as car races and first-person shooters. It's a concept the company likened to a combination of Playstation and Google Earth.
"Our world is very exact," Carmel said. "That means every pixel has a world coordinate, and like other geoworld applications, every pixel also has an http address."
The company has developed a streaming optimization technology to deliver its games through standard Internet connections. In an interview with VC Café, the company said the graphics engine would be capable of streaming three to four terabytes of data, roughly the same performance as Google Earth.
The real test will be Playce's ability to attract developers, and the company thinks its model will easily catch on. Developers will have access to an API (currently using C++ but eventually featuring a custom language that doesn't require coding experience), advanced 3D tools, hosting, and marketing and monetization services. "The game developers that we spoke with estimated that we can save them between 50 and 70 percent of their game development costs," Gerber said. Developers would also be able to port games to different locations, enabling them to quickly produce sequels.
"This is the beauty of the cloud," said Perry, who foresees platforms like Playce eventually catching on with larger companies. "Now if you have a concept for a game, you don't need to set up the whole infrastructure, which would be very complex and expensive. You just focus on what you do best, which is the creative aspect of it and the game design and so on."
At this point, Playce has about 500 developers ready to participate in its beta, and the company is building up its available virtual reality worlds, with parts of Los Angeles and Asia ready to go.
Game Over for Consoles?
Some forms of cloud gaming figure to start as hybrids, evidenced by Steam Cloud, which rolled out last year. Beginning with the game Left 4 Dead, users' game options can be saved to Steam's servers, which makes it easier to install games on different computers or make upgrades without losing data. The company plans to eventually make the feature available on its back catalog.
However, it may not be long—perhaps within a decade—before cloud gaming becomes the dominant platform and drives consoles to the brink of extinction. The news about Fusion Render Cloud had bloggers buzzing about an exciting future in which games are available wherever you go, on a variety of devices, with no need for storage or GPUs.
"All you really need on your end is a screen and a keyboard or mouse or joystick," Perry said. "Everything else happens on the server side. I do think if you take this development and extrapolate it into the future, it will mean the end of gaming consoles. It may take years, but that is the direction it’s going."
Leaders in the gaming industry have sensed the change coming, but there is no consensus about how long consoles will survive. In a BBC article, Electronic Arts’' head of international publishing Gerhard Florin said gaming platforms must go open source to accommodate the new form of distribution. "We're platform agnostic and we definitely don't want to have one platform which is a walled garden," Florin said. "I am not sure how long we will have dedicated consoles—but we could be talking up to 15 years."
AMD envisions its prototype as a complement for consoles, so there could still be a place for GPUs at the client level. "The Fusion Render Cloud concept is a gaming scenario that is very attractive for some usage models, but doesn't replace other options," Silcott said. "It is very early in the development of the prototype to be making projections on what usage will actually look like and how it will impact the market."
Silcott listed a variety of reasons that GPUs could still be relevant, including sharing compute load with CPUs on general-purpose applications such as video transcoding, accelerating graphics in combination with Fusion Render Cloud, and reducing client performance demands.
Ultimately, gamers might simply add cloud gaming to the variety of options currently available, using their Wii one day and hopping onto the cloud the next. At this point, the only certainty is that gaming will go through some exciting changes in the future.