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The infrastructure behind Stadia and the next evolution of cloud gaming

Fri 7 Jun 2019 | Barry Jarvis

With the imminent launch of Google’s cloud gaming platform Stadia, Riello UPS Marketing and Communications Manager Barry Jarvis explores whether we are any closer to success in our elusive pursuit of a “Netflix for video games”

The cloud gaming market is set to become a pretty crowded field over the coming months. Established platforms such as PlayStation Now and Shadow will soon face competition from all of the tech titans.

Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud are approaching their official launch, while Amazon is reportedly building a service that will include live-streaming app Twitch along with its AWS cloud infrastructure. Rumour has it even Walmart will soon join the party.

With an audience of more than 2.3 billion gamers worldwide, it’s understandable why there’s such a clamour from all these companies. According to Statista, the market for cloud gaming rose from $45 million in 2017 to $66 million in 2018, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. By 2023, this figure is projected to top $450 million.

Cloud gaming is, in essence, live streaming for video games. The actual game is stored, executed, and rendered on the games company’s servers, rather than downloaded onto the player’s own PC or console.

This makes owning – or continuously upgrading – the hardware irrelevant. It means gamers can play across several devices and locations. And it gives them the opportunity to “try before they buy” new games in an instant without having to download content.

Another false dawn?

The concept of a “Netflix or Spotify for gaming” isn’t anything new. But unlike films, TV shows, or music, which are relatively passive experiences – i.e. choose the song, playlist, programme, or film, then sit back and relax – games are far more dynamic.

They require the two-way interaction of a player sending inputs to the cloud while simultaneously receiving video and audio back from the server. This makes cloud gaming much more dependent on the quality and speed of internet connection, which is why it’s proved such a tough nut to crack so far.

Issues with latency have been the main stumbling block in previous attempts at “gaming on demand” dating back to the start of the decade and services such as OnLive. The subscription platform, launched to much fanfare in 2010 before fizzling out in 2015, allowed users to rent or demo games via streaming, as well as incorporating a fledgling “spectator” mode that enabled them to watch other gamers in action.

While there were quibbles over the cost and the restrictive range of subscription models, the overriding problem with OnLive was the overall gaming experience simply couldn’t compare to running a console or gaming PC at home. There’ll inevitably be a trade-off, but the performance gap caused by a lack of bandwidth was just too much for many committed gamers to take the plunge.

“Decentralised, hyper-local data centres at the edge will bring processing closer to the gamers themselves, eliminating the need to send information to and from a few centralised server rooms thousands of miles away”

Despite OnLive’s claims of latency under 80ms, the reality proved nearly double (150ms), leading to laggy gameplay that spoiled fast-paced ‘Shoot ‘Em Ups’ and action games. In the USA, OnLive was co-hosted by five major data centres: Santa Clara, Virginia, Dallas, Illinois, and Georgia. But users needed to live within 1,000 miles of these server farms to receive what the provider itself described as a “high-quality service”.

For players living further afield, the gameplay lag was even more frustrating. Combine this with variable video and graphics quality depending on the game, and it’s little surprise users quickly turned their backs on an inferior product.

Answers lie at the edge

Fast-forward to today though, and there are a couple of technological advances with the potential to overcome these obstacles and provide something which can come close to rivalling the performance of traditional gaming.

Edge computing and the rollout of next-generation superfast 5G offer incredible opportunities across many aspects of our Internet of Things-driven way of life, and gaming is no different.

Decentralised, hyper-local data centres at the edge will bring processing closer to the gamers themselves, eliminating the need to send information to and from a few centralised server rooms thousands of miles away.

This reduces lag, as data only needs to travel the minimum distance necessary, which is crucial for today’s high-performing games that increasingly feature bandwidth-heavy virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR).

Consider Google’s much-hyped cloud gaming venture Stadia, which will deploy its own servers to store and run games, enabling users to play direct from the Google Chrome browser on any internet-connected device, including laptops, TVs or smartphones.

Think of all the data centres and in particular edge nodes that Google already have installed across the world to deliver content on platforms such as YouTube. This infrastructure will be the driving force behind its promise of up to 4K cloud gameplay at 60 frames per second, with plans to eventually hit 8K at 120 frames per second.

Naturally though, no matter how fast Google’s servers are – or any other streaming service provider for that matter – the crux of the matter is that performance will ultimately boil down to a gamer’s own connection speeds.

This is why many in the industry are pinning their hopes on superfast 5G. These wireless networks are capable of providing upstream and downstream connectivity at broadband speeds in that crucial “last mile” to a gamer’s home.

It also opens up the possibility of a boom in “gaming on the go”, with players turning their smartphones into high-spec mobile gaming devices. In the next decade, mobile gaming is expected to grow into a $100 billion a year market, while major mobile phone operators believe cloud gaming could account for 25-50 percent of all 5G data traffic by 2022.

Will edge infrastructure and 5G converge to deliver the long-anticipated "Netflix for Gaming"?

Mission accomplished or work in progress?

So far so good, but it’s important to acknowledge that 5G is unlikely to achieve full market penetration for a good few years yet.

Even in developed markets such as the UK and USA, high-speed internet is far from universal, and even where it is, will the cost of 5G and the amount of data cloud gaming requires make it a viable alternative to buying a gaming PC?

For all those companies aiming to crack the cloud gaming market, can they deliver enough infrastructure to overcome distance, reduce latency, and cope with rapidly increasing processing demands, while at the same time remaining financially viable? Even for a Google or Amazon, there are only so many graphics processing units (GPUs) they can afford to install at the edge to deliver the necessary connection speeds.

One final factor to consider is cybersecurity. Think back to the early days of Pokémon Go and stories of hackers being able to take over a user’s smartphone camera or access their Google accounts. Obviously, edge reduces the amount of sensitive data being sent to and from the cloud, but the more devices that are used for gaming in the years to come, the more chances there will be for cyber criminals to exploit.

Just as there are hardcore music or film fans who will always prefer the touch and smell of physical media like vinyl or discs, there are die-hard gamers who won’t ever swap their specialist hardware for the convenience of the cloud, no matter how fast gaming on demand can close the current performance gap.

But we live in an era where video streaming accounts for well over half of all internet traffic. Netflix subscriptions trump DVD or Blu-ray sales, while music streams and downloads dwarf sales of vinyl and CDs.

As long as the technology and infrastructure keeps pace, it’s not hard to imagine the day when the more casual gamer, in particular, will ditch their console in favour of smartphones and subscription-based cloud services.

Experts featured:

Barry Jarvis

UPS Marketing and Communications Manager
Riello

Tags:

edge gaming Google stadia
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