Published on July 22nd, 2013 | by Joshua Poole2
PlayStation 4: The Last Console?
For $8 a month, in the US, Netflix allows you to stream a large portion of their library of movies and TV shows to your phone, tablet, television, or computer. Without commercials, even. For about the same price, Gamefly lets you rent a single game, for any platform, and keep it as long as you want before mailing it back. What if these two services were combined?
(For the sake of clarity, since I’ve heard some confusion expressed before, a streaming service is something like Netflix or Pandora, where the content is stored on a server that you access via internet.)
Enter Gaikai. Gaikai is a “cloud gaming” service that a lot of people are hearing more about thanks to their recent purchase by Sony. The purchase of Gaikai has allowed Sony to add support for the service to both the PlayStation 3 and upcoming PlayStation 4 this fall. But how does cloud gaming work? What sort of benefits could it have? What about drawbacks? And why would it make the soon-arriving generation of consoles potentially the last?
Cloud gaming is just like cloud computing or streaming movies and music. Games are stored on servers around the world and streamed to any internet connected device. Soon, the powerhouse that is the PlayStation 4 will be one such device. Gaikai in particular boasts the highest quality servers in the world, which allows them to stream games interactively without any delays or hiccups in response time.
If you’re an MMO gamer, this concept isn’t foreign to you. For most massively multiplayer online games, a portion of the game is installed on your computer, but the majority of content is generated on the server-side. Cloud gaming, though, is more like Netflix; there’s no real need to store anything on your own hard drive, it’s all handled on the side of the server.
This presents a few obvious immediate benefits. For one, no more worrying about how many games you have installed on your console or PC. Since all the information is stored on the servers, very little has to come from your device at all. In addition, like with downloadable games, there’s no need to keep up with discs, or even go through installation hassles.
With no need for developing systems for separate consoles, the only thing that would need to be changed is control layouts, between different controllers or keyboard and mouse. That cuts down on development time and costs. Which leads to another benefit: no real division between consoles anymore. If everything is stored on the same servers, or at least the same infrastructure, then the possibility for cross-platform multiplayer is easier than current tech allows. At that point, whether you’re connected via a PlayStation, Xbox, PC, internet connected TV, you’re accessing the same game and same information.
Pirating would be a thing of the past, since nothing is stored on hard drives. without the need to develop new consoles, companies like Sony could take all of that money used on research and development of new consoles and funnel it into strengthening the infrastructure of the servers, and in moving games along. Reduced costs and reduced piracy means lower prices for gamers. Including the possibility of a flat rate paid monthly to access a certain number of titles at a time, like Gamefly already does.
Barring a major leap in technology, the PlayStation 5 won’t be much different from the PlayStation 4. If the hardware specs aren’t very different, then why would we need another generation of consoles? Cloud gaming publishing would have the infrastructure in place already to allow for new releases. Again, if they can stream classic games and current games, why not future games? If that became the case, then a new console won’t necessarily be needed. But if one were made, a PlayStation 5 if you will, it would likely be a social hub, able to handle streaming large amounts of data, and integrating gameplay and streaming with other features. Saving money on console development means more money for making games and building the streaming network.
However. Despite all these seemingly excellent benefits for gamers, there are a number of drawbacks. For one, the entire idea requires a large number of “ifs.” If Sony and other companies funnel money into making it better. If consumers have access to fast enough internet with high enough bandwidth. If they can provide current games along with classics.
Consider that in the US and other countries, bandwidth caps by ISPs are a real problem. One of my fellow writers here at Eject Disk, from Scotland, has a twenty gigabyte cap. Per month. Just twenty gigs. People in the States have been in an uproar because Comcast places a 250 gigabyte cap on their users. To put that in perspective, we can look at Netflix. To stream a two-hour movie in HD from Netflix takes about 3.6 gigs of bandwidth. A thirty minute TV show in HD takes about a gig and a half. Those numbers add up quick on their own. So imagine what amount two hours of playing Skyrim might use.
Speaking of Skyrim, there’s another major drawback to games being only server-side. No mods. At least, no true content mods. Skyrim was a great game in it’s own right, but the hundreds of excellent mods that change things from skins and textures to complete gameplay overhauls has helped make it the fan favorite it is today. A lack of mods takes away a very large appeal to most PC gamers and isn’t something that the PC gaming community is likely to accept as a whole.
Server size and capabilities seem like they may be a drawback, but don’t have to be. To add another if to our scenario, Google already has its fingers in almost everything. It’s only a matter of time before they make a strong foray into gaming, and if cloud gaming takes off, Google might add its seemingly endless array of servers to the equation.
As things stand presently, cloud-based gaming is a novel idea at best. One that’s been tried before, less than successfully. With real powerhouses like Sony leading the way, and powerhouses in the gaming industry like Ubisoft and EA backing Gaikai as a service, there’s potential in the future for it to become a serious alternative to actually buying and downloading games. Whether it can gain enough momentum to become an industry standard is something that time, and a lot of ifs, will have to decide.