Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ruby 2009 and the future of games

This presentation from Jules Urbach shows what the next Ruby demo could look like:
However, OTOY CEO, Jules Urbach, is optimistic: "We can put any game on the cloud. Eventually, we can virtualise everything, including consoles, hardware and even Grand Theft Auto games. In three to five years, consoles will look different. Perhaps, consoles would be based on data on a cloud."

Meanwhile, consumers across the US will test the prototype in the latter half of this year. Marketing plans, purchase points and so on would be developed later, depending on their verdict.
The idea of server side rendering or cloud computing of games as proposed by OTOY, OnLive and others is really starting to grow on me. At first it didn't really seem that interesting or practical, but the more I think about it, the more I can see its potential. Some random thoughts:

- No more console cycles: Gamers don't need to upgrade their hardware every 4-6 years and game developers don't have to frustratingly wait for the next round of consoles to be able to use new features such as DX11 compute shaders or tesselation
- Game developers can use the latest and greatest GPU's and algorithms instantly, without worrying about developing for a "common lowest denominator" (like Valve did with Half-life 2)
- Piracy that killed PC game development would be much harder (as it is now with Steam)
- Performance problems would be a thing of the past: just add a few hundred extra GPU's to the cloud and the framerate is buttersmooth again. There's no limit to the complexity and visual fidelity of a game: all depends on the willingness of the developer to invest in the server hardware
- no more costly multi-platform ports: the cloud harware is the only platform that needs to be targetted
- the cloud can be upgraded whenever newer CPU/GPU hardware becomes available, memory and SSD's can be added at any time
- It would also mean the end of the chicken and egg problem: small console install bases during the launch window scare developers away, but with server side rendering, everyone with a reasonably fast internet connection and a screen is a potential customer
- Most importantly: no more console wars (at least not of the hardware kind), no need to steal exclusives like Microsoft loves doing,
- Games will no longer be tied to one specific platform and will as a result be reviewed by press and gamers with less bias and have a better chance to sell
- no more hardware problems, red rings, repairs and warranty refunds on the client side
- very cheap, almost free "microconsoles", set top boxes, ... instead of $600 launch price which of course stiffles growth of install base
- the install base for cloud games already exists and is huge: all owners of Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mac, set-top box with broadband access
- Games don't have to be bought in stores or downloaded and installed any more, but can be played from the moment the game is running in the cloud
- bigger potential for episodic game content (like Half-life 2 episodes on Steam)
- no more DVD royalties from developers to console makers (multiple DVD's for Rage on 360)
- no more limit on the size of the game content (if you want to make a 500GB game and the server has enough memory, go ahead)
- no more "console makers" in the classical sense: MS, Sony, Nintendo will not be making high-tech fully featured consoles anymore, but just simple set-top box like consoles or none at all. Their main focus will become online services instead of hardware. Of course Sony will still sell boatloads of TV's and Blu-ray players. Every electronics manufacturer that can make set-top boxes will be able to make a "next-gen" console.
- GPU makers nVidia and ATI will sell more GPUs to businesses (the render cloud owners, i.e. game publishers) and GPU sales to consumers will drastically decrease. This trend is already taking place: with the rapid death of the PC games market, less GPU's are sold to consumers directly and more to console manufacturers. On top of that, they will not be stuck with selling the same GPU for 6 years in a row.

In short, there are much less restrictions on game development if the cloud server is big enough.

The question that everyone seems to ask with respect to cloud rendering: what about lag? OTOY and OnLive seem to have the answer: new and vastly improved compression algorithms. Latency is reduced to a few milliseconds, not perceivable by the human eye. So I think that problem is solved. An unsolved question is how to make money of cloud games.

Obviously, if cloud rendering becomes mainstream, it will completely transform the current game console landscape. Every game publisher will be able to run its own game cloud (think about Valve and Steam but on a global scale) and offer their own online service with an online store, without having to pay royalties to console makers (just as it was in the Good Ol' PC days).