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Cloud gaming comes to the UK

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Upon logging into the Playstation Store over the weekend, I noticed that the open beta for Playstation Now was available. If you have not already come across Playstation Now, it is one of the two major cloud game streaming services available at the moment - the other being NVIDIA GRID Playstation Now is currently limited to renting individual PS3 games, but Sony promises that the catalogue will be expanded in the future. Playstation Now will not even be limited to PS4s - the Japanese giant is planning to roll it out to their Bravia TVs and even other manufacturers’ products. NVIDIA’s offering, GRID, is a similar service for streaming PC games and recently came out of beta last month with the launch of its paid-for premium service.  GRID  streams PC games to NVIDIA’s SHIELD tablet, handheld, or console, all of which run the Android OS.  You can connect any of the devices to a TV by HDMI for the experience on the big screen.

How it works

Although the technology behind GRID or Playstation Now seems pretty incredible, the practical effect of the service is simple enough. Impressively, all the graphical and processing power is provided by supercomputers in the cloud somewhere and the games are streamed entirely over the network with no download or install required. The model appears to be that you either rent individual titles for a given number of days or pay a monthly subscription to receive access to the full collection of games - a bit like Netflix for games. The latter and more attractive option is not yet available on Playstation Now, but will be introduced in the future. GRID was entirely free in beta, but is introducing a paid system now.

I thought all of this sounded pretty cool, although the selection of games on Playstation Now was rather low and the pricing rather high. Despite my tight-fisted nature, in the interests of science and this blog I duly paid £2.99 for a 2-day rental of God of War II HD.  This proved to be a mistake. I quickly came to regret my choice of game and was left wishing I had gone for one of the £4.99 options - I am not a huge fan of hack ‘n’ slash and as it turned out to have originally been a PS2 game released in 2007, it has dated quite a bit!

My unfortunate choice of game notwithstanding, the actual technology performed flawlessly. I carried out a connection test, paid the £2.99 on my credit card and the game booted in under a minute. I played for around 15 minutes until I got fed up, and while the graphics were only 720p and the sound only stereo, I did not experience any lag whatsoever. I was playing on a BT Infinity 2 connection over WiFi, which exceeded the minimum connection requirements of 5Mbps, but I was still expecting some latency. I had deliberately picked God of War 2 as it looked like any input delay would show up, but I did not notice any. In contrast with my extremely laggy experiences with PS4’s Remote Play, I was left quite impressed by this technology. As I do not own a SHIELD, I have been unable to test the GRID, but our own Peter Dalton owns one and informs me that it works similarly well, although it requires a fast internet connection and a 5GHz router (the routers given away by most broadband companies are 2.4GHz, so this would be a separate purchase).

I had been expecting that bandwidth issues would be the biggest problem with this new technology - I can remember all too well the experience of lagging out in a Counterstrike match on a dial-up modem. While my experience was good, I imagine that latency is going to become an issue once 1080p is introduced or the connection is stressed. Fast-twitch games may prove a frustrating experience if other members of the household are on Skype, Bittorrent, and Netflix at the same time. ISP monthly data caps are also going to be a limiting factor for many. Server-side CPU and graphics processing-related lag could also become an issue if current-gen games are introduced and the service becomes popular in the future. 

Legal issues

If this technology does take off, what are the legal issues that it raises? For a start, pirating streaming-only games would become extremely difficult, although not impossible. It may still be possible to spoof IDs in the manner certain gamers do with MMORPGs and similar, but it will be a further step-change in difficulty to pirate games, following the general trend over the past decade. The opportunity to eradicate copyright infringement could be a strong motivator for games developers and publishers to sign up the streaming model, but if it is part of a Netflix or Spotify-style service, then publishers would have to determine whether the potential reduction in piracy would offset the lack of people paying £50 per copy of the game. Indie games studios are also more likely to benefit - Call of Duty’s developers have no problems in getting punters to pay full retail for each release, but unknown games are going to get more people trying them out if the risk of buying something you don’t like is removed. Larger publishers are also going to benefit from being able to monetise old intellectual property rights as part of a streaming service, as with the current PS3 back catalogue. 

Some gamers, especially hardcore gamers, might dislike the prospect of having to always be connected to the Internet, even for a single-player experience.  There was a similar controversy over the always-on DRM in Diablo III or Starcraft 2, for example, but as streaming games offers a benefit at the same time it may be more acceptable to the gaming community. See our full article on piracy for more discussion of these issues.

The other major legal issue is that providing games as a streaming service is really providing software-as-a-service (“SaaS”) rather than a sale of goods.  Consumer remedies for a breach of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 are rather more limited than for a breach of the Sale of Goods Act 1979. In the UK at least, this problem should be largely resolved once the Consumer Rights Act 2015 comes into force this October and all forms of supplying games are reclassified as “digital content”, but streaming games will still raise untested questions of consumer law. Instead of the problems of buying and being unable to return a broken game like Arkham Knight, new disputes will arise. 

What happens if Sony withdraws (perhaps for good) your favourite game from its streaming service when you are just a few hours off completing it, particularly if longer subscription periods are introduced. A lot of gamers were upset when Nintendo withdrew multiplayer support for Mario Kart Wii and gamers have already been increasingly exposing themselves to the risk that a publisher stops offering a game on its online store. A streaming service is going to make this potential dispute even more acute.  At least with my boxed copy of Baldur’s Gate, no-one can stop me from ever installing and firing it up if I so desire (and find a spare 200 hours from somewhere). Disputes around what constitutes the required quality of service could also arise, especially once the service moves to current gen games. You might think that if you are paying £19.99 for a monthly service the potential fallout is going to be limited. After all, if you don’t like the service you could simply stop paying for it, right? That might be true, but what if the Witcher IV is streaming-only, or even if there were a retail release as well, what if you were 90 hours into your saved game and Sony started offering a reduced and laggier service.

Final thoughts

Despite these potential problems, overall this could be really disruptive gaming technology - it may even become the normal way to play games in a few years. Just as an electronic catalogue on Steam and consoles’ online stores have largely replaced having a shelf full of games, at some point it may become normal not to stream games and not even have to worry about buying the latest hardware or downloading, installing (and, inevitably, patching) games. Games retailers may be worried that they may fall victim to this, just as Blockbuster did to streaming videos.

It could also change how we consume games as users - my experience of a service like Netflix is that you end up watching some or all of films you would not otherwise have bothered with. It would likely be the same with games. But just as film buffs would want the full HD and surround sound experience from a Blu-Ray, a hardcore gamer is unlikely to want to stream the biggest releases of the year without some serious improvements in technology. I can see that the service would be especially appealing to casual gamers or lapsed hardcore gamers, at least initially. I probably fall into the latter camp - for my part, I do not have the time or money to keep up with upgrading a PC nowadays, but I would be interested in playing a few now and then if NVIDIA are going to provide the latest graphics cards in their cloud systems. The service is likely to be less popular with hardcore gamers, at least with release titles if not back catalogue offerings, who are likely generally to prefer having their gaming software as goods rather than as a service.

Perhaps most disruptive will be Sony’s introduction of direct play on a TV with a DualShock and no console required. If you can play games directly on your TV in the future without needing to buy the latest console or graphics card for your PC, that technology will be truly disruptive. I can certainly see it becoming a difficult sell for my long-suffering fiancée if suddenly there is, strictly speaking, no reason to have a £349 lump of black plastic in the living room. I will have to make sure she doesn’t start reading this blog!

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