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Games Everywhere: The Game Industry's Challenge for 2013

January 14, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

At CES 2013 last week, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang succinctly laid out the challenge facing the games industry at large in his opening remarks at the Nvidia press conference on Sunday evening: "It isn't possible for you to enjoy the same video game on any device."

Where the iPod, the Kindle, and the cloud have enabled consumers to consume music, books, and movies whenever and however they pleased, Huang said the challenge for the consumer tech companies is to invent the technology to make this happen with video games.

Huang's opening remarks may have been intended to offer context for Nvidia's subsequent product announcements, but they also conveniently framed the way game hardware manufacturers at CES are approaching the next year.

From chipset giants like Nvidia to smaller accessory developers like Mad Catz, everyone is trying to find a way to sell consumers on gadgets that will recreate their preferred game experience on any device they own -- but there are different approaches to making this happen.

Approach #1: Cloud Streaming Game Services

One way to answer this challenge is to build a cloud streaming game service like Gaikai or OnLive, and literally offer players the same game on any device by offloading the heavy processing work to a central server facility and streaming the gameplay to a much lower-power device (a tablet, smartphone, lower-end PC, or smart TV chipset, for example). That way, the client device only needs to be powerful enough to handle an HD streaming video feed and the player's inputs, not the entire game's processing demands.

Cloud streaming game services and infrastructure were scattered all across CES: smart TVs from LG and Vizio with built-in Google TV support, including OnLive clients; budding streaming service Agawi announced a partnership with system-on-a-chip manufacturer Marvell to extend the reach of streaming game services in smart TVs and set-top boxes; and Nvidia announced Grid, a rack-mounted server meant specifically for cloud streaming game service providers.

Though OnLive sells games at near-retail prices (while also offering three- and five-day rentals for some titles) other providers monetize this model by selling access to games as a service, not unlike a premium TV channel. Nvidia sells the hardware to providers like Playcast and Agawi, and the providers negotiate with publishers to build a library of streaming games that end-users can pay a monthly fee to access from a compatible mobile device, set-top box/cable box, or smart TV. It's not yet clear which business model, if any, will win.

This approach certainly has its advantages -- it's relatively cheap for a new customer who owns a compatible device to sign up and start playing without having to buy any dedicated games hardware -- but the quality of the experience itself varies widely depending on the customer's broadband quality, distance from the server, and the stream provider's own configuration.

With this in mind, I asked Nvidia Grid senior project manager Andrew Fear about what they could do on their end to ensure a quality experience.

"We do everything we can to improve the latency by encoding the stream before we send it, but a lot of it will depend on the provider's network arrangement," says Fear. "There's certainly something to be said for having a smartly-distributed set of servers to reduce latency. The other thing is the type of games they're streaming; if one provider is only interested in serving Android casual games, they can serve more users per server. "

"We did change things in the hardware to improve latency, and when we measure it now, a traditional game console takes about 150ms to output to a console, and for Grid we're already at about the same level," Fear says.

"We don't control bandwidth, but we can anticipate trends. For us, when we send out our game streams it's about 5 mb/sec; in Seoul, that's a drop in the bucket. But I live in Texas, and every year my potential bandwidth is increasing. Certainly, there are always hiccups, but the infrastructure is building around Netflix for streaming video on demand, and our bandwidth demands are not that different."

A month or so before CES, I met with Playcast, one of Nvidia's streaming service partners, to try out its service. To be sure, the demo was promising; I tried the service out on both a smart TV and an Android tablet, and the service looked good and played well enough (especially considering that Playcast's US-side server deployment was fairly small at the time.) The system's on-the-fly video compression did appear to keep the game fairly responsive even when the network connection quality fluctuated.

But in order for cloud streaming games services to be a widely compelling product, each step in the delivery chain from streaming center to end-user needs to be up to par, and considering the tremendous variation in nationwide broadband quality in the U.S. alone, it's hard to tell when this kind of service will be able to muster the momentum it needs to succeed.

So while cloud streaming games may be able to deliver the same game on any device for a relatively low sticker price, there's no guarantee that the game experience would be a good one if you're living too far away from a server or your local broadband pipe doesn't have enough bandwidth or low enough latency.

What's more, even if the streaming conditions themselves were perfectly acceptable, playing a game with a touchscreen or average TV remote instead of the dual analog sticks or keyboard/mouse combo the game was designed for rarely makes for a quality game experience -- especially not for the core game audience who would be interested in subscribing to a streaming service in the first place.

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Bob Johnson
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I don't hold out hope for any of the three.

I tried the cloud stuff with OnLive. Lag. Tis interesting but the proof is in the pudding. Talk is cheap. I would have to experience no lag in my home to believe it.

Expensive mobile devices won't cut it either. The economics of a dock and a controller aren't great. Those things have traditionally been expensive. And many households will be annoyed if one member goes to play a game on the tv and the tablet is not in the dock. Last mobile tech is great but it lags traditional CPU/gPu tech. There are no current gen AAA 360 games on the iPad even though the 360 hardware is 7 years old. What happens late this year when the next 360 may be out? And it is 6-10x more powerful?

Do consumers want to reset the game clock? And have a lost generation where mobile tech catches up? The promise there I guess is cheap games and less restrictions means smaller guys can more easily make console games which will unleash a huge popular wave of creativity. I don't see it because I think a MS could easily make $300 console with the power for for fancy production values etc and then also have a digital store ala iOS for independent games. It would seem like this is very possible since Windows 8 has such a store. This would be more attractive to gamers than an OUYA.

The BT controllers aren't looking like big winners either. I did finally see a decent controller at this CES courtesy of Engadget. It is a case/ controller. Still the cost was $80 I think. And then have to carry 2 devices or carry a bulkier iPhone. Compare this to some of the discounts on the 3ds which were hitting $129 with a big 1st party game. This makes these devices less attractive. Then of course how many are going to develop for these controllers - the old accessory catch-22. I can only imagine that similar decent solutions for Android will be more expensive since the hardware choice is much more varied. Or the controller solutions will be one size fits all and be clumsy bulkier solutions as a result.

The problem with games on every platform is games are programs. And there is a cost to rewrite these programs for any piece for hardware. Very different from books and tv which have to be be re-encoded at worst which is relatively no expense.

Also working against games on every platform is the fact that the method of interacting with them is inherently part of the experience. This is just not the case with books, movies or tv.

And the problem with trying too hard to overcome this (or my fear) is it will tend to work against what makes a great game experience. Now you start to design with all platforms in mind. There is less innovation in hardware and controls because you want everything the same on all platforms. The experience gets watered down as a result.

Simon Ludgate
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I think you mean "the proof of the pudding is in the eating"

Sean Monica
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People also said the same thing about the NES and Atari.

Bob Johnson
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And the same thing about the Lynx and Jungle and .....

Not to say there aren't arguments for these devices. But I have a hard time seeing it. Maybe developers can make $1 CoD knockoffs that are good enough?

Jason Drysdale
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Great article--thanks!

The physical interaction with games seems to be the biggest barrier to 'games everywhere'--streaming services would be great perk, but before I will be interested in non-proprietary, cross-hardware play, mobile gaming will need to come up with a more viable way play games on the go. I am talking specifically about phones and tablets here--obviously Nintendo has things down pretty well. But if we're talking about touchscreen interfaces, then I guess I'm not convinced we're at a stage in which we should be more interested in cross-hardware play than we are with delivering and designing quality mobile gaming experiences.

This is a big issue for games-based learning as well, since accessibility makes learning with games a much easier sell for schools, universities, and instructors. However, if the games aren't up to snuff, it won't make much of a difference.

I'm not sure which side of the coin this task should fall to: game designers or hardware creators. What do you think?

Thanks again for the thought-provoking piece!

Scot White
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the game industry is trying too hard. the depth of a game is defined by the controls. WoW on smartphones and angry birds on PCs make sense does it?

there is NO 1 fit all solution and NEVER will be. this is the year when people will realize hybrid of different things are bad

Robert Green
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Two excerpts that sum up this piece:
"At CES 2013 last week, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang succinctly laid out the challenge facing the games industry at large in his opening remarks at the Nvidia press conference on Sunday evening: "It isn't possible for you to enjoy the same video game on any device.""
"If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything else looks like a nail -- and if you manufacture hammers, you probably want everyone else to see nails everywhere, too."

The games industry has far greater challenges to face this year, like the start of a new console generation that many are predicting will be the last, and the increasing number of gamers who see even $1 as too much to pay up-front for a game. By comparison, I'm not sure I'd say that having to play different games on my TV and my phone even qualifies as a real problem, and certainly not one I'm going to pay a lot of money to solve.

Nick Ehrlich
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Well written article that outlines three of the main approaches nVidia is thinking about however, it seems like a major question is being overlooked: "Do gamers really want to play the same game on all devices?"

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, we use devices based on where we are. Riding home on the train or bus is much different than sitting at home in your living room and I don't believe the complexity of the games we choose to play in these different situations is solely dependent on the technology we have at our disposal.

The real challenge for the industry may be accepting that the next current and next generation gamer wants access to a wide variety of game types that satisfy different needs at different times.

GameViewPoint Developer
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by the end of 2013 everyone will look back (probably) and see 2013 as the year of the new Xbox/Playstation and possible something Apple might do with Apple TV. Those things will overshadow everything else.

I do think we are in interesting times though, the face of the gaming world is going to change drastically over the next few years.