Developers already know about the most prominent examples and uses of cloud computing in games. From streaming services like OnLive and the upcoming PlayStation Now to the use of offloaded AI in Titanfall and Forza 5, it’s already clear that the technology opens up new possibilities for games.
But this is just an overview, according to Microsoft’s CTO of cloud services Rob Fraser, who doesn’t think the development community fully understands the potential and specific practical uses of cloud computing in the games they make.
“First off, the cloud is still misunderstood, probably because of the way in which the tech industry initially positioned the concept,” he tells Develop. “The traditional view is one of a stack – infrastructure-as-a-service, software-as-a-service – and some basic characteristics like elasticity from pooled/shared resources, accessed over the internet and paid for by usage. Some companies think the primary audience for cloud is IT looking to reduce costs.
“But if we look at gaming specifically, we believe that there are narrow and broad views of what ‘cloud gaming’ means. The narrow view was established by companies like Gaikai and OnLive, focusing on the video-streamed games on-demand scenario.
“The irony is that this ‘cloud gaming v1’ doesn’t have much of what we’d call ‘cloud’ behind it. It’s still a compelling proposition but the issue is that by restricting ‘cloud gaming’ to the narrow game streaming scenario, we are missing the broader applicability of cloud to gaming. We need to think beyond ‘cloud gaming’ and look at the cloud and gaming.”
The broader view that Fraser alludes to can be summed up as two key concepts: using the cloud as a platform to power games-as-a-service titles, and using it to enable larger and more enhanced game experiences.
These two premises lend themselves to a myriad of new technical solutions. Perhaps the most obvious is the ability to store save data and sync across multiple devices. Many mobile and Facebook titles already do this in a general way, keeping track of a player’s overall progress through the game, but there’s still room for more ambitious applications of this technique in games.
UK start-up Gateway Interactive, for example, has built the Nomad cloud service, which enables players of its mobile racer Spectra to pause mid-session and pick up from the exact same point on a different device.
Cloud computing also offers new possibilities for both synchronous and asynchronous gameplay. In the case of the former, multiple screens and apps can be used to display maps and tactical displays while the main action takes place on the primary screen.
Fraser says, for asynchronous gameplay, devs can create different gameplay scenarios that interact with the main PC or console game. This is perhaps best demonstrated by companion apps for titles like Watch Dogs and Tom Clancy’s The Division, where tablet players can help or hinder console gamers through a completely different userbase.
One of the most promising and ambitious uses of the cloud is utilising its increased computing power to generate larger, richer game worlds. By offloading the calculations required for systems like weather, AI, physics and more, studios can attempt things that regular consoles, PCs or smart devices couldn’t dream of.
This has been touched upon by Xbox One titles Titanfall and Forza 5, which use cloud computing to simulate more sophisticated, realistic AI characters. Fraser believes this could eventually evolve from artificial intelligence to artificial life: NPCs that are capable of self-organisation and complex, emergent behaviours.
But, he warns, such techniques will only achieve their potential if developers push the boundaries of how this can be used: “It would be an easy trap to fall into – assuming that cloud’s benefit to gaming is just around the offload of AI and physics. That’s another kind of narrow view of cloud gaming: if v1 of cloud gaming was streaming, the v2 mustn’t be pigeonholed as ‘offload to the cloud’.
“The real benefit to gamers will be the enablement of creativity that cloud gives studios. It will allow creative game designers to define new experiences. That may be richer world modelling, better physics, complex AI and ‘real worlds’, it could be something entirely different. That’s the exciting part – it’s a blank canvas.”
John Bruno, principle lead program manager for Xbox Live, says that many devs are already embracing this line of thinking.
“Studios are eager to see what they can do to enhance their games using this tech,” he says. “We’ve seen a variety of cloud-driven game enhancements across our portfolio, with the best known examples being things like dedicated servers and cloud-driven AI and physics. As we continue to expand and add datacenters across the globe, we improve player connectivity to game servers. Obviously, the better latency gets, the more that can be offloaded to the cloud, which gives the developer more options.”
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
Cloud computing may sound like the sort of technology that’s only accessible to platform holders such as Microsoft and other electronics giants, but Lift London software director Mark Stanley vehemently disputes this.
“A common misconception is that developing for the cloud is hard,” he says. “The best thing to do is get out there and talk to other cloud developers. It’s not as hard as you think and today’s tools are moving forward at a very fast pace. A key thing to be aware of is that using cloud is like using electricity, so bear compute cost in mind.”
Mediatonic’s server-side engineering director Adam Fletcher agrees, adding: “For smaller indies or developers looking to get started with the cloud, there’s a huge range of software-as-a-service providers allowing cloud-enabled services such as analytics, cross-device syncing and social features to be added with very little overhead.
“Cloud doesn’t necessarily mean always-online, or players being locked out of the game if servers go down – it can be used to benefit all genres of games.”
Microsoft plans to continue investing in the cloud, not only in how its own studios use it but also in educating other developers how the technology can unlock new possibilities for their games. The Xbox One will be a major player in this, but even Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Phone platforms will give studios the chance to experiment with how cloud computing can enable them to make larger and richer games.
As more companies discover the benefits of the cloud – and the various ways in which it can be harnessed – Xbox’s Bruno believes we’ll see many more video games utilising its power.
“As the platform and Xbox Live evolves, and the game creators find new ways to exploit its capabilities, I expect to see a shift toward more cloud-centric games and a more expanded use of computing resources in the cloud,” he says.
“Most developers I speak with see the value of cloud computing – and the benefits they get from easy access to server resources. We live in a world where developers can sign up online and immediately start using as much computing power as they want. Certainly, there should be a practical need and approach to doing so, but the availability of resources today is amazing.
“And the rate at which our computing power in the cloud is growing is exciting – and that all points to an interesting and bright future for developers and gamers who embrace it.”