One of the big buzzwords permeating the game industry, especially when talking about the next generation of consoles, is cloud technology. Microsoft in particular has been eager to tell us how “the power of the cloud” can be harnessed to make the Xbox One more powerful than its specs would suggest it is. Just what is the cloud, and is it actually a technology that is poised to revolutionize gaming? Let's take a no-bull look and see what cloud technology can actually do for the gamers who will be using the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
A lot of companies like to talk about the cloud like it's a magical realm of data that floats above us in the sky. The reality of the cloud is difficult to suss out because the term is a buzzword that is used to describe a number of different online setups. Sometimes companies use it to talk about online storage and services, the same types of things we've been using on our computers for years. Webmail, social networking, online leaderboards, and online game-save storage are examples of things that have been dubbed part of “the cloud,” seemingly to make them sound newer and more impressive than they actually are.
Sometimes cloud technology describes streaming services, in which programs are run on a distant server and streamed online to devices that might not be able to run them on their own. Streaming technology has been used for practical purposes, such as streaming games to devices that don't have the technology to run them on their own, or for DRM purposes, such as movie streaming services that allow customers to watch movies, but not to download and store them on their own devices.
Finally, cloud computing often refers to distributed computing, in which a company uses a large number of networked servers to dynamically switch between many tasks that used to be run by single, specialized servers. The advantage of this kind of cloud computing is mostly for the company itself, allowing that company to save on overhead costs, perform powerful computations, and rent its server power out to others. If we're lucky, companies use the money they save via cloud networks to offer cheaper online services to consumers. For instance, it's unlikely that Google could operate in the way it does without its massive distributed-computing power.
That's all super, but what does it mean for gamers who are looking to purchase the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4? Both Microsoft and Sony claim to be making use of cloud technology for a variety of online services. They also both claim that the “power of the cloud” will allow for game performance that exceeds the capabilities of the actual consoles. How well do these claims hold up?
One of the big cloud-based services that Microsoft is promoting is dedicated servers for multiplayer matches. Microsoft will be renting portions of its Azure cloud network to Xbox One developers at a lower cost than they have been seeing from third-party hosts. This will allow more companies to be able to afford to use dedicated servers instead of relying on peer-to-peer, player-hosted matches. This should make for a far smoother online experience and eliminate so-called “host advantage,” which is a big deal for dedicated, competitive multiplayer gamers.
Sony, on the other hand, has bought out Gaikai, a gaming-focused cloud technology company. Gaikai's resources will be assisting Sony with its gaming and entertainment cloud plans. Sony has stated that at some point after the launch of the PlayStation 4, cloud-based streaming technology will be used to allow players to experience games from previous generations. This allows for backwards compatibility while keeping the price of the PlayStation 4 console down, since the previous system architecture doesn't have to be built-in.
How about claims that cloud technology can allow developers to surpass the power of the physical Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles? It will be more difficult to deliver on those claims for one important reason: bandwidth. No matter how powerful a distant server is, the speed with which it can deliver data to the user is limited by that user's overall Internet speed and distance from a data center. As was successfully argued during the debate over always-online consoles, much of the United States still lives with sub-par Internet. Because of this, any data processing that is done in the cloud will have to take potentially low user-bandwidth speed into account.
Cloud technology can probably be used for background data processing, such as keeping track of changes at a distance in a large game world, but it won't be as useful for moment-to-moment calculations. Don't expect the cloud to allow companies to render tons of things on-screen at once, for example, because (as PC MMORPG players are all too aware) that will simply cause a game to stutter if a player's 'Net connection can't handle the incoming data.
Some of the touted cloud features of the next generation aren't a big deal, but others have the potential to greatly enhance our gaming experiences. It will take some time to sort out who is using the cloud as a mere buzzword and who is actually making solid use of this potentially powerful server technology. Things like dedicated servers and backwards compatibility via streaming are concrete examples of what the cloud can make possible. Claims that the cloud will, in effect, make the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 more powerful than they are on their own, however, may not quite pan out the way that Microsoft and Sony want us to believe they will.
Senior Contributing Writer