Between ever-increasing internet connectivity and the breakdown of the console upgrade cycle, cloud gaming is likely to make it big sooner than we’d expected.
"C"loud, the final frontier. Over the past few years, we’ve encountered plenty of innovation and advancement in terms of how we engage with games. While motion controls are still not exactly mainstream, the Wii popularized that concept ten years ago, and today’s Steam Controller features gyro aim that’s far from gimmicky. VR’s finally become something of a mainstream proposition. While we’re yet to see the Rift and Vive go the way of the 90’s VR craze, significant content is being produced for a change. 4K and HDR are taking us a step closer to that somewhat far-off point of time when the monitor reaches its logical endpoint, as a window into the outside that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.
Sony and Microsoft’s decision to out the PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio has completely changed the way we look at gaming consoles. The hardware is no longer fixed: as with mobile, the new model centres on iteration. The downside to this is that there is no longer any guarantee against your hardware becoming obsolete: your console no longer becomes that comfortable 5-year investment you’d expected it to be. Games are no longer tied down to platforms because the platforms themselves are no longer fixed. Take Microsoft’s repositioning of the Xbox brand, for example.
A decade ago, an Xbox was an Xbox: a (physical) Microsoft-designed home console box that you’d set in your living room and hook up to your TV. There was no talk about phones or Crossplay or Continuum. An Xbox was an Xbox, simple as that. But what does the cloud mean for the Xbox? Today, Xbox is nearly everything it possibly could be apart from the Xbox One, and this leads us to an interesting proposition: What if we were to fully de-tether the brand from the platform? What if Xbox meant games which didn’t have to run on a fixed hardware platform like the Xbox One or Project Scorpio? What if you could play Halo 5 on your phone, on the way to work? Cloud gaming is the logical next step forward.
The upsides are obvious: AAA games have always been constrained by the need to run on fixed hardware—namely whatever consoles are current at that point of time. The seventh gen gave us some remarkable titles, but at the end of the day, seventh gen games had to be able to run respectably on GPUs that were within the performance profile of Intel’s HD 4000 iGPU. The infamous spate of “downgrades” in eighth-gen titles, from Watch Dogs to The Witcher 3, to The Division only serves to underline this point: when you’re dealing with fixed hardware you have a (very) limited rendering budget. In the case of the Xbox One, this limitation prevents the console from running most AAA games acceptably at 1080p.
Compromise is the only way to make a game that will work on the fixed hardware that most of your customer base will be on. Cloud streaming solutions, on the other hand, augment or get rid of the weakest link—fixed hardware. Instead of individual users with relatively weak local hardware, firms with the capital can invest in massive server grids with virtually unlimited amounts of rendering power on tap and offer games as a subscription service—something they’d make far more money off of in the long term than a fixed hardware purchase every couple of years.
This is a market that Nvidia’s been trying to tap into for quite some time now with their Geforce Now service running on Nvidia GRID servers. In the “console” space (although that word starts to lose meaning when the brand’s decoupled from hardware), Sony’s PlayStation Now service is a strong portent of what’s to come next: while, currently, only PS3 titles are on offer, PlayStation Now users have access to over 400 titles at $20 a month. All that’s needed is hardware capable of streaming HD video—anything from a smartphone on up, and this is what’s truly remarkable about the cloud: your laptop becomes a PS3. Your phone becomes a PS3. Could this model work for Microsoft? The Xbox 360 has a great catalogue of exclusives: support for backwards compatibility on the Xbox One goes to show that there is a market for people who want to continue exploring seventh-gen titles. But a cloud-enabled service would mean that any piece of hardware you own–and not just the Xbox One or Scorpio could run a wide selection of titles.
While an Xbox cloud-streaming service is pure speculation, the innovative physics implementation in Crackdown 3, leveraging the power of Microsoft’s Azure servers is a strong signal that Redmond isn’t standing idle. Microsoft’s gambit with the Xbox brand, however, seems to be broader in reach than just game streaming. With Xbox Crossplay, UWP (Universal Windows Apps), and Continuum, Microsoft is already offering a consistent, platform-agnostic Windows experience. With Project Scorpio, Microsoft appears to be taking somewhat of a conservative stance: Based on specs, this is a very powerful local system, built from the ground up to power high-quality local experiences. It’s quite likely to be large and noisy.
Microsoft’s cageyness about cloud gaming, at least as far as the Scorpio is concerned is understandable: Cloud gaming require access to unlimited,high-bandwidth internet connectivity, and even today, that’s somewhat of a rarity. But considering the maturity of their Azure platform, and the exciting partnership between Nvidia and Microsoft to leverage Nvidia GRID graphics tech, a cloud-enabled Xbox streaming service is something Microsoft could make happen whenever it needs to. Although Crackdown 3 is the only game to do so, any Xbox game can take advantage of Azure to offload graphics, physics, AI, and more. Microsoft’s approach, dubbed Kahawai, uses “collaborative rendering” to split the work between the local hardware and the cloud server. Because some of the rendering is being locally, this drastically cuts down on bandwidth requirements.
While Kahawai is currently deployed for mobile, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it in action in Xbox games going ahead. This could have major implications for Xbox titles further down the line. With both Sony and Microsoft moving away from the conventional console cycle, it may well be possible that the Xbox Scorpio is the last or second-to-last Microsoft console. What would a post-Xbox console world look like? We see it as something akin to what Microsoft has done with “Windows as a service.” Windows 10 is iterative, with each build adding or removing features on the basis of feedback.
Based on preliminary specs, the Scorpio is reasonably powerful for a 2017 machine. While there may be a further hardware iteration, we think that gradual cloud integration is the path Xbox will take: Crackdown 3 is the first step in that direction, making up for the Xbox One’s CPU deficit by offloading physics calculations to the cloud. As titles start to push the limits of what the Scorpio can do at 4K, upscaling would definitely be an option, but if developers further tap into Azure–graphics rendering may also be progressively offloaded to the cloud, and at a point where it becomes commercially viable, we’d likely see that fabled Xbox cloud streaming service.
What’s your take on the future of cloud gaming? Let us know!