Playing games used to be around the couch, with a gaming console, or at the PC. You would get together with friends and play against each other in the same room.
As technology progressed, your friend would actually be in another room, and eventually he would be at the other end of a telephone line. A modem, a computer, start a match, that was it. Oh, the simpler times.
Now, with the advent of Internet and later on, cloud computing, things got a little more complicated than that.
It’s incredibly easy nowadays, to start a multiplayer match with a friend or with a complete stranger. You can do that from your computer, from your Playstation or X-Box, even from your netbook, tablet or cellphone. It’s not even hard to do it, it usually requires a couple of clicks and touches.
This always connected landscape created the perfect ecosystem for games that are multiplayer only. Games that are specifically designed to be played with or against other people.
Games far, far away
But as recent as 15 years ago (it sounds so ancient, doesn’t it?), some games started to appear that were not even processed on our computer. Our PC’s got relegated to being just another entity in these worlds. I’m talking about Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (widely known by the acronym MMORPG), which were actually a graphical evolution from the early Multi User Dungeons (MUD’s for short).
These worlds were out of your control, for better or for worse. You would go in, slay a few monsters, make a few friends, loot a couple of chests and then leave, only to come back and realize that things have happened when you were away! Madness, I tell you!
Fast forward a few years, and you see that online games are as common as any other. Not only that but they mutated into different offspring’s, you have the ones that can be played on Consoles, you have web games that only need a current browser, games that are played on both cellphones and the browser at the same time. You can also attest of the success of this genre but looking at how its influence made it into any other game setting. I swear, there are multiplayer games about anything you can think off. Cars, golf, all kind of sports, spaceships, medieval battles, fashion events, reality shows, you name it.
The Cloud is all over us
Then, all of the sudden. Virtualization and cloud computing went mainstream. Everywhere you look, you can have a dedicated server, at the palm of your hands with a couple of clicks (don’t just take my word for it, just take a look at our own City Cloud). Couple that with increasing internet penetration and more broadband speed, I mean, remember the 56k blazingly fast modem? Sorry, I don’t, the sound of my 6 megabits home connection is distracting me (and no, I’m not rich nor do I live on the most advanced city in the world).
You have right now, February 2012, a service called OnLive that let’s you play any game, from a device that can stream video. Really, the barrier that required you to spend thousands of dollars (you read that correctly by the way) in an amazing gaming computer has been erased, blown out of the water. I can go get my tablet with Android, and play a game like Crysis 2 (the specs are right here). Gaikai is soon to follow as I’m sure many others.
Backstage, this is powered by virtual and physical servers, on a well secured datacenter somewhere. There are even engineers that are creating specific hardware to take advantage of this situation. The final game is one thing but to have the right infrastructure to be able to serve thousands of players is mind boggling.
Yeah, yeah, that sounds great but…
Of course, this shift in terms of how and where to play games is nothing but disruptive. These are some of the questions that this whirlwind has dragged:
Where is my game?
This is definitely one of the most intriguing facts. You have no game, there is no box, there is no game files on your hard disk or memory card. Nothing. The game and savegames are all stored at the datacenter, and that datacenter is off limits to you.
Maybe the world is changing, and going into the direction of entirely digital goods. Steam and the likes already made big strides into that. Maybe in the future, physical goods will be souvenirs or coveted prizes, even added value. If that’s the case, the only fair question left is, “When?”.
I cannot play this with this latency!
Okay, the actual words are usually more of the “what the… this game sucks!” variety but you get the point. This is one of the showstoppers, there are games that require low latency to be played. Meaning, a few milliseconds is the difference of defeating your enemy or losing. And anyone that plays competitive, with friends, amateur or pro, knows how frustrating this is. Is the difference between enjoying the game or not playing it at all.
On the other hand, there are turn-based games, or games that have a slower pace that can easily be played with soft latency. There already seems to be a market with these games.
Where should I play?
I’d pay real money to see what Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are thinking about their online strategy for their upcoming consoles. We are talking about having a smart TV today can become the console of tomorrow. Imagine that, every TV manufacturer out there could potentially be all of the sudden a player in the games arena, no pun intended.
Even cellphones makers could get their cut. I mean, the Apple App Store and Android Market are already crowded with games, many developers are making a living working on these titles.
The platforms are being blurred, and what’s left, is the network.
I have to trust somebody else
This is one of the things that could break it. Your games would be on an account, saved on a server stored by another company that all of the sudden could determine, for whatever reason, that you no longer have access to your account. This also has a lot of privacy issues written all over it.
If I play a game at my house, nobody is watching me, nor I think anyone would. If I play on a company server, they can track my habits and eventually send me advertisement, etc. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but with a game at home, I don’t have to answer to anyone else.
This will have to mature along with transparent policies and a way to get the games out if, for instance, the company goes bankrupt. Something not that uncommon, unfortunately.
One network to rule them all
And that’s where we arrive, games are being pushed back into the network. Games as a service is a term used more and more. What matters now is quality of service, latency, subscription models, free to play models and premium models, how to get to the consumer faster.
There are also new challenges, not everyone has a datacenter nearby. Or not everybody is just willing to pay for a games service a la Netflix.
Is all of this going to be the future? Is a complete convergence inevitable? Or we are just opening the market?. If we look real closely, major and minor development studios and publishers are paying attention. Next consoles will probably have a network fallback of some sorts, they will be even more connected and intertwined.
Would it be insane to think that we could be playing a game in Playstation 4 in the west coast of U.S.A. against our friends in Europe that have an Xbox 720? It’s too soon to tell, that’s for certain but exciting to think about it.
And in the midst of it all, it’s the network, the cloud, private and public. If we are going to get to a more mature level, we are going to have to grow together, both development and infrastructure wise.
I cannot wait to see where this is headed.