With services like Spotify and Netflix changing the way we enjoy music or watch movies and TV, games look set to be the next form of entertainment to embrace the cloud. In fact, you could say that the nature of gaming almost makes it inevitable. Even before there was an Internet, Multi-User-Dungeons (MUDs) had players exploring online worlds together, while the likes of Doom, Quake and EverQuest were popularising online gaming at a time when the idea of streaming music or video over the Web would have seemed ridiculous. Games and the Internet just go together.
Yet the coming cloud revolution goes deeper than simply enabling the next World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. As with what's happening with music and movies, cloud gaming is set to make games more immediately accessible, more convenient and more social. As with the smartphone and tablet gaming revolutions, it could see games reach an even wider audience.
The most obvious form this will take - and the one that's most synonymous with cloud gaming - is the growth in game streaming services, or Games as a Service (GaaS), as some like to put it. Like Netflix or Spotify, these services replace a boxed product, here the game disc, with one that you stream on demand from the server. There's an important distinction here: you're not purchasing and downloading the game as you might with a game on Xbox Live Arcade or Steam, but purchasing the right to play that game, either indefinitely or for a specific period, or as part of an on-going 'all you can eat' subscription. There's no massive wait while the game downloads, and within minutes - even seconds - you're in the game.
Streaming services can also have another big advantage. Played through a browser or through proprietary hardware or an app, the actual game is running on a server elsewhere, with the service taking your keyboard, mouse or gamepad inputs through the Internet connection, and sending you a compressed video stream of the picture that your console or PC graphics card would normally render. As a result, it doesn't really matter what device you use to play the games as long as it supports the service, has access to a fast Internet connection and has the performance needed to decode the video stream. A basic laptop or even a tablet will easily do the job.
This brings two obvious benefits. On the one hand, the theory goes, you never have to buy another dedicated games console or PC graphics card, as the server does all the processing for you. On the other hand, it becomes irrelevant what you're using to play. You can play the game on a tablet before work in the morning, have a sneaky go in the office at lunch then carry on using a laptop or set-top-box at home, or even an app for your Smart TV. As everything happens on the server, your progress is saved from wherever you are. This is a benefit that users of Valve's SteamCloud service, which can sync save games and preferences across multiple PCs and Macs, will already be familiar with, and one that Microsoft and Sony have both embraced through cloud saving features in PSN Plus and last year's Xbox 360 autumn dashboard update.
At the moment, there are two credible streaming services running. OnLive streams a growing range of current PC gaming hits, including blockbusters such as Batman: Arkham City, L.A. Noire, Assassin's Creed: Revelations and Driver: San Francisco, while older titles are included in a £6.99 all-you-can-eat PlayPack bundle. Games can be streamed to PCs or Macs, Android smartphones and tablets, where a limited number support touch controls, and in the near future an iPad app. OnLive also sells a universal controller, which works with PCs, smartphones and tablets, plus the OnLive Game System, a simple set-top-box and controller setup that allows you to stream online games through your TV. At this year's CES OnLive announced a partnership with Google that will see future Google TV products running OnLive.
OnLive's closest rival is Gaikai, described as a cloud gaming platform and providing streamed demos of big titles from Ubisoft, Capcom, 2K Games and EA. With games including Mass Effect 3, The Witcher II and Rayman: Origins it's easy to get a sense of what Gaikai can do, though plans to go beyond demos into subscription or retail services are hazy. Gaikai claims that its vision is to make video games as easily accessible as music or movies, and that it provides a platform through which publishers can brand and offer gaming on demand. What's more, Gaikia has also recently unveiled a beta of the service running from within Facebook, and a partnership with LG to stream Gaikai titles to LG Cinema 3D TV sets.
Both services are impressive, in that the gap from deciding to play a game to actually playing it can be measured in just a few minutes. OnLive uses a PC, Mac or Android player applet while Gaikai needs Flash and a recent Java update, but in either case there's no need to download games or content; the app or browser just needs a little time to set up the connection and buffer data.
However, both services also suffer from the same drawback: they're heavily dependent on a fast Internet connection. To maintain a smooth frame rate and minimise lag, both OnLive and Gaikai stick to an HD Ready 720p or lower resolution (though in some Gaikai titles this can be adjusted), both limit graphics detail options (again, some Gaikai titles allow adjustment) and both heavily compress the video signal.
OnLive prioritises a smooth and responsive experience over visual quality, with the result that, on a slower connection, your game looks a bit like it might if it were running on a mid-range PC through a really fuzzy monitor, with soft textures and compression artefacts everywhere you look. On a faster connection, it gets much, much closer to the original PC game, but that fuzziness never quite goes away. Gaikai seems a little less heavy-handed, but is also more prone to jerks, screen-tear and slow-down when there's a lot happening on the screen. None of this should distract you from the fact that the basic technology appears to work, and that, as Internet speeds improve, so will the overall experience.
Of course, time will also bring rival services and technologies online. Crytek, the developer behind the Crysis games, is currently trialling a service called GFace, which combines games streaming to PCs and mobile devices with a range of social networking features. The launch game, WarFace, is a free-to-play military shooter that looks like a credible rival to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3, though as both the service and the game are in a closed beta phase, it's unclear whether it's actually streaming as such.
Meanwhile another company, OTOY, is promising a next-generation remote 3D rendering technology that should enable games to stream to everything from a low-resolution smartphone to an ultra-HD TV with console-levels of visual fidelity. While little of the tech, known as Brigade, has been shown to date, the technology is impressive enough for the 3D applications giant, AutoDesk, to take an interest and partner with OTOY.
This is something that the existing console hardware players are certainly watching. At last year's Game Developer Conference, China, Microsoft Senior Architect Evangelist Brian Prince talked of the limitations of OnLive and Gaikai, but described such services as "the distant future of gaming in the cloud". "You will be seeing things in the Xbox platform that's cloud-specific" he explained, though couldn't provide details. It's widely believed that the next-generation Xbox, expected to be launched next year, will roll-in more cloud functionality.
This could be a smart move. Many games analysts expect game streaming services to take market share from existing console platforms. In January, EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich told the website IndustryGamer that, while the games industry as a whole would see growth of between four to eight per cent a year through 2015, the market for traditional HD gaming would remain flat. What would make the difference? "Companies like Gaikai will steal growth away from the traditional packaged goods HD market". Divnich explained, going on to predict that there "is a lot of dough on the table for companies like Gaikai to capitalize on-and they will."
If the approach taken by OnLive, Gaikai et al has a weakness in its dependence on high bandwidth, then there is a hybrid approach that brings many of the benefits of pure cloud gaming, but without the same degree of dependence on the Internet connection. Instead of running the whole game on the server and streaming video downstream, you can run the game within a browser and stream the game code and data from a server, but use the processing power on the host machine to run the code and render the 3D graphics.
This approach isn't completely new. Before its 2010 demise, the Web-service Instant Action was streaming browser-based 3D games built using the Torque Game Engine and running through a simple browser plug-in. You could play the games almost instantly through a browser, and as you played the remaining game content downloaded in the background. Meanwhile, the increasingly popular cross-platform game engine, Unity, supports browser-based play using a plug-in, with streaming of assets and resources as you play.
The most exciting recent development in this area, however, is Google's Native Client technology. Native Client is designed to run applications from within a Chrome browser at roughly the same speed that they would run were they installed directly onto your PC, yet all the program code and data is streamed from a remote server, not installed or stored on your PC. Native Client was designed to allow processor-intensive applications like image-editing or video-editing to run from the Web - a crucial issue for Google and its Web-focused Chrome OS - but it's a natural fit for gaming. Several big titles can already be found on Google's Chrome Web Store, including last year's superb action RPG, Bastion, and IO Interactive's entertaining Mini Ninjas, with more ports, such as a version of Ubisoft's beautiful 3D god game, From Dust, on the way.
Native Client brings many of the benefits of 'proper' cloud-gaming technologies to the table. You get the instant accessibility, with the browser caching a minimum of data to allow play to start, and portability. As game data is still streamed from a server and tied into a specific account, you can start playing from any Chrome browser on an x86 PC and carry on where your last session finished. With time, Native Client should also work across a wider range of chip architectures, devices and operating systems, meaning that the same game that works on your PC should work on your Android tablet, your TV or your Android smartphone (control issues aside).
If Unity Web Player and Native Client have a downside, it's that you lose one of the benefits of OnLive and Gaikai: the performance of the machine running the browser will still define how well the game runs and looks. With OnLive, you can get a good-looking game running on a smartphone, tablet or budget notebook, providing you have enough bandwidth for a high-quality video stream. With Native Client, a game will only look and play as well as it would if you had it installed on the PC. This is one reason why it's not the complete answer for the poor performance of games on Google's existing Chromebooks - there's only so much you can do with an Atom processor and 2GB of RAM.
Beyond the promise of being able to enjoy your games anywhere, anytime and on any device, the other benefit the cloud brings to gaming is a richer, more social experience. Just as services like Microsoft's Xbox Live, Valve's Steam, Sony Entertainment Network (previously PlayStation Network) and Apple's GameCentre make it easier to hook up and share games and achievements with friends, so cloud-gaming services are taking it to the next level.
You can see this beginning now with OnLive, where other players can stream live video of the game you're currently playing, and where you can record and post 'Brag Clips' of your favourite moments to share with your OnLive contacts. Part of the point of Gaikai's move into Facebook is that it makes it easier to share games: your friends can see what you're playing, and with a click they can join right in.
Crytek's GFace takes this even further, with an interface built around social networking, and the abilty to invite contacts to join a game just by dragging them in. The beauty of a cloud-based service is that there are no issues surrounding who has the game or a specific system to run it, and Crytek is already talking about scenarios where players on a tablet or smartphone can join in, perhaps not running the same game per se, but helping, for example, friends playing a military FPS game by coordinating bombing runs or overall strategy from a companion app.
Yet perhaps the most exciting thing is the way that the cloud is enabling different forms of online gaming, where it's no longer about four to 64 players meeting concurrently to blast each other to bits, but what we call 'asynchronous' play, where you're competing with friends even when you're not playing at the exact same time. It's an idea with roots in the classic online leaderboard, where scores or race game lap times are posted to a server so that players can compare their performance with other players. In itself, it's nothing new, but modern games are already taking it so much further.
Arguably, Electronic Arts is leading the way here. With its arcade racer, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, it introduced the idea of Autolog, a service that tracks your progress both across the game and in specific events, and compares it with the times being set by friends. Autolog added basic social networking features for players to brag or challenge rivals, and alerts you when a friend challenges you or topples your best time, so that you can go back and return the favour. While it's not cloud gaming as such, Autolog showed how cloud features could make what's still effectively single-player gameplay both more social and more compelling.
Clearly it worked, as EA has now implemented Autolog-like features across its titles, with Autolog returning for Shift 2: Unleashed, Battlelog in Battlefield3 and RiderNet in the snowboarding game, SSX, all offering a similar range of built-in social features. Even EA's sports titles are getting involved, the EA Sports Football Club of FIFA 12 and FIFA Street, and slick features like the ability to download custom players from friends for the latter.
Asynchronous play doesn't just suit racing games, action games or sports games; it's also what makes casual games like Words with Friends and everyone's current favourite, Draw Something, so compelling. Because players take turns to play rather than playing simultaneously, these games bring friends together without forcing them to schedule time to play. It's a more convenient form of online gaming. And a game like Draw Something is tailor-made for a social-networked world, where players use the likes of Facebook to set up games, compare achievements and share their best or most bizarre doodles. Make no mistake: more asynchronous and more social gaming is the way things are headed, and the cloud will be a huge enabler of that.
For all the excitement over streaming services and cloud gaming, it's unlikely that dedicated gaming hardware or gaming services will disappear overnight. There will always be players looking for rich single-player experiences, with the best possible graphics quality and sophisticated controls. At the same time, the potential of the cloud for gaming is undeniable. Anything that makes more games more accessible to more people through more devices can't help but expand the audience, and when you combine that with social networking and asynchronous online play the sky is the limit. Whatever gaming's future holds, the cloud has a huge part to play.