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There are some technologies that sound amazing and never quite reach their potential. Flying cars for the masses, affordable 100MB/s broadband for everyone, augmented reality using ultra thin transparent glasses, autonomous robots; the list frankly goes on forever. Today I'd like to discuss one that seems to be a hot topic now but, like many crazy science fiction ideas, is probably jumping the gun a little.
I am purposely using the term "cloud" in a vague sense here. I am referring to Cloud as it stands for interactive media, not distributed computing or web storage. Cloud for many suits in gaming is becoming the solution to piracy, but at the cost of crippling an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Cloud gaming is taking two steps back and bring old words like "mainframe" back into the picture. Many of you reading this article are probably too young to even know or care what a mainframe and terminal are but it's important to know your roots as we come full circle into the future.
It's not unfair to make a direct correlation of mainframe workstations to the idea of a server-client architecture used in many first-person shooter games today. Though much older shooters like Quake 3 and Tribes used very light weight clients, more similar to that of a terminal, modern shooters are opting for less players (generally 4-8 player) with more heavy-weight clients. The reasons for this are to help simplify physics simulations across machines and reduce a significant amount of prediction code required for machines to remain synchronized. Though the server is still working just as hard as it ever did, clients are no longer simply interpolating fixed states given to them by the server, they are now running the actual simulation and verifying their states with the server.
The different approaches are an important distinction. Old mainframes would quite literally do all the work, while the terminals (clients) would be nothing more than a way to generate the display; an empty rendering shell. It sounds absurd today but this was actually a cost savings in a time when the processing unit (in the mainframe) was so expensive that it was cheaper to simply buy an array of displays and keyboards than giving each employee their own PC. To be honest, the idea of a Personal Computer didn't even exist at the start of mainframe computing.
Here we are, in the future and it seems that progress has taken us back to the primordial era of computing. Games like Diablo III and the latest Sim City have attempted to bypass the hackers by controlling the system, controlling the distribution of their product. There is one fundamental problem to this design that was resolved by the invention of Personal Computing; there are a lot more of us than there are of them. There are over a billion PCs in use worldwide and the expectation is that this number will nearly double by 2014. No single entity can possibly manage this. There is a reason why large companies have tiers of management and governments have branches and tiers and departments that all split into a massive hierarchy of people looking after other people. There is efficiency to be had, by letting individuals think for themselves.
As a side effect of games like Diablo and Sim City trying to control the flow of data they have crippled their games. Most reviews are summed up with, "It plays great! ... When it works," following up with a laundry list of issues from stuttering gameplay to long pauses from connection issues. I have no doubt that PC gaming as we know it and even console gaming will eventually disappear and games as a service will be in full effect. We as gamers will slowly give up our freedoms in the way we want to play games as publishers push toward total control. It will happen because mass consumers will allow it.
We will all settle for pixelated adaptively sampled video streams and intermittent unresponsive controls as we stumble our way to better broadband over the next 20+ years. We will all be sitting in queues and browsing the web, waiting to play the experience that we actually sat down on our couch or in front of our PC to play. We will do it, and we will tell ourselves that it's okay because of insignificant perks like our saved game files will reside on a server that does not belong to us and can be taken from us. We will agree to the EULA that forfeits our rights to raise concern and seek reparation when those servers are finally gone and that game no longer exists. We will settle, we will submit, we will obey. It's only a matter of time.