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January 7, 2016updated 31 Aug 2016 10:45am

Hardware remains king as cloud gaming complexity fails to live up to hype

Analysis: Streaming games may be a good idea but while challenges remain with latency and security the benefits of hardware outweigh the cloud appeal.

By James Nunns

The UK games industry in 2014 was worth £3.9 billion to the UK economy alone; by 2017 it is predicted to global revenues of $107 billion.

The streaming of high-end games reached around 150 million people in 2015; these figures highlight the size of the gaming market and a growing focus on cloud-gaming.

Customers don’t necessarily want a large hard drive pinned onto their expensive games console and splashing out for the largest amounts of hardware storage can make your games console a lot more expensive.

So to combat this console manufacturers are increasingly turning to the cloud for storage and streaming of games. The idea is that in the end it is cheaper, it frees up storage space and gamers can benefit from the compute power in the cloud.

The cloud gaming industry is a difficult one to compete in, with dominant consoles from Sony and Microsoft both running their own cloud facilities.

Azure in particular for the Xbox consoles has an Xbox live customer base of 39 million active users. One of the big challenges posed is combating latency as this can quickly ruin a game. While a company like Microsoft can reduce latency through its data centre power, the burden on servers can be great.

Consider also that a growing market in China of users is predicted to overtake the size of the US market in the next few years. The US market brings in $20bn in revenue while revenue in China from gaming is set to hit over $22bn by 2020.

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This is likely to put a lot more burden on servers, particularly when a new game comes out. The Call of Duty franchise is one that has created difficulties for servers due to the amount of users trying to play at once.

Adrian Sanabria, security analyst at 451 Research told CBR: "There is a long, long string of failures to bring gaming technology to market where the rendering/compute horsepower remains in the cloud or at least off the device the user is directly interacting with."

"The main challenges have all dealt with latency. There are few gaming genres where latency issues don’t kill the user experience."

Sanabria went on to say that the successful stream games have been done over the local home LAN, so you can stream your games from say your PC in your living room or mobile device.

He said: "Trying to do the same across the Internet where conditions are more unpredictable gets tricky and this is where most of the failures have been. It is one thing if you’re Netflix – you can just buffer a bit and be fine within certain parameters.

"In gaming, buffering doesn’t work, because it has to remain responsive 100% of the time in both directions, or the user will be able to tell."

Nvidia uses a Fast Capture API which it says solves or certainly reduces some of these problems. It works by capturing the output of multiple rendered games, or the entire operating system desktop from the GPU and sends the images to an encoder.

This it says can reduce latency for users by up to 30ms over a standard graphics card, but that’s for a PC and not a console which you cannot upgrade the hardware on until the next console comes out and you can buy a new one.

Latency is of course not only a server issue, network speeds and the quality of infrastructure is also vitally important. One option is to make 99% of the necessary information pre-positioned on your device so that the final 1% is all that needs to be delivered via the cloud.

Dr Tom Leighton, CEO and co founder Akamai, told CBR: "Demand is rising so much faster than the infrastructure can keep up, and that’s where tech has to come in and make it feel to you that your phone is really fast, even though it’s not. That we pre-position stuff on that device, so that 99% of stuff is already there and that last 1% is coming in and that can be done fast."

This would mean that the data isn’t necessarily coming from a central data centre that gets crushed when demand is high.

Another complexity is pricing, whether these gaming platforms can treat the use of their cloud services for free or whether users should pay.

An Xbox Live Gold subscription for example can cost upwards of £40 and while Nvidia’s platform GRID offers a number of streaming games for free it is swallowing the cost of paying developers.

As more users opt for cloud gaming and games became larger in size, the burden on cloud storage grows, suggesting that the cost of cloud gaming could also increase.

Finally we come onto the problem of security; the latest example of Xbox Live being attacked was in December, when Lizard Squad launched a DDoS attack.

Phantom Squad which threatened attacks on Xbox Live and the PlayStation network said: "Why do we take down PSN and Xbox Live? Because cyber security does not exist," and "Some men just want to watch PSN and Xbox Live burn."

This highlights part of the problem, the attacks can come from anywhere and anyone and there doesn’t necessarily need to be a political motive behind it.

Leighton summed it up, saying: "You don’t have to be very sophisticated to run very sophisticated attack tools…you can get bot armies very easily and inexpensively that give you tremendous capacity."

The complexities that have been outlined don’t paint a particularly rosy picture for cloud gaming and when you consider the impressive hardware that can be acquired and the increasingly cheap cost of hard drives combine to suggest that cloud gaming may not be worth the expense.

 

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