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The Future of Cloud Gaming Is...Still Cloudy

One of the most popular topics I have been encountering in the online game industry, and among connected device businesses, is the concept of cloud gaming or streaming games to consoles, PCs, smart phones, tablets and smart TVs. I'm also often asked how I define cloud gaming, and whether a fat client or thin client approach is better. Cloud gaming is a very broad term being used to define multiple use cases. At a high level, most people define cloud gaming as running some portion of an online game in the cloud.

Delivering games to users on the plethora of devices on the market today has its challenges, including the fact that users often have to wait an unreasonable time to start playing a game. Game software typically contains libraries and components that need to be downloaded and installed before a user can start playing. So if a person wants to try a new game, they may still need to wait an hour or more to download and install it, before they can play. This is very different from the user experience with online movies or TV shows, where users can quickly and easily watch clips to determine if they want to watch, rent, or purchase a video. Videos can also be transcoded fairly easily for viewing on many different connected device environments. This process is not as easy with game software, since porting code is much more involved and costly, and may not even port to certain devices due to processing, GPU or memory constraints.  

Offering games available across multiple devices also requires creating different versions of a game for various devices. Today, consumers can buy a song or movie and play it across multiple devices, and they want to do the same thing with their games.

Thin Client Game Streaming or Cloud Gaming?
Using a thin client is one popular approach that helps overcome the challenges of "time-to-play" and game porting. Businesses like OnLive, GaiKai (recently acquired by Sony) and Big Fish have been early implementers.  Thin client leverages a light-weight installable client to act as a interface for the gamer, and graphics are pre-rendered on servers in the network and transformed into a video stream to the end device. The thin client sends user information back to the game servers in the cloud, which are rendering the game environment.

•    the game device does not require significant processing, memory or storage to play a game. Very complex games can be played on devices like smartphones, tablets or mini console boxes
•    start up times are relatively quick. After a player authenticates and selects a game, there's no wait time to download and install.

•    requires the end user to always be connected and have consistent last mile connectivity, since the game is not stored locally.
•    requires very short round trip times from client to server to ensure there is no perceived game lag.
•    costly to operate over time for heavy game users. For example, if a gamer plays 40+ hours a week on a 60" 1080p HDTV, and plays games that utilize a lot of resources like a first person shooter or MMO, this method can become costly.

Depending on the type of game, latency can have minimal impact or be critical to the user experience. From a business model perspective, the profile of the player (heavy, moderate or light gamer), the preferred gamer's devices (data required to render a stream for an HDTV is very different than a smart phone), and the preferred types of games need to be taken into account for determining a model that works for the business and the gamer.

I'll touch on the pros and cons of the Fat Client approach to game streaming in an upcoming blog post, and share thoughts on where the future may be headed. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what challenges have you faced in bringing your games to the vast world of connected devices today?

Kris Alexander is Chief Strategist, Connected Devices and Gaming, at Akamai.