A few of you may remember a single episode of “The Other NGB Podcast” earlier this year in which myself and a friend, Andrew, discussed the subjects of the time. Andrew’s taken the time to put together his thoughts on the Cloud, and what it could mean for gaming going forward, we’d love for you to give it a read!
Cloud copmputing systems have permeated our lives so much in the three years since I last wrote about them (http://andrewbeeken.co.uk/2011/04/26/faith-in-the-cloud-4-back-it-up/). I look at my devices and I’m getting films streamed over the cloud (via Netflix and Amazon Prime), I can access my photos that I’ve been diligently uploading to Google from any device connected to my Google account, I can (on a whole) buy a new device and get access to all my stuff without a complicated copying exercise.
The cloud is good – it’s changing our lives in ways I don’t think many people had contemplated in the early days of the internet. This article is going to focus on cloud impact on video games. I’m starting to see a big change in the way online is being used in games and, while it has the potential for good, application so far has been sketchy and has left a bad taste in the mouths of many gamers.
Let’s look back in recent history to May 2013 and the announcement of Microsofts highly anticipated next gen machine, the Xbox One. One of the major points of the announcement presentation was regarding how the machine would handle ownership of games. Users are used to digitally bought games being tied to their user account, however Microsofts proposal was that physical games would need to be installed and registered via a one use authentication to the same user account before they would work. This form of Digital Rights Managment (DRM) would effectively mean that Xbox One games would not be loanable or sellable, removing the second hand market for the machine. Fans were understandably up in arms about this method of content, an opportunity taken by Microsoft’s closest competitor, Sony, to undermine the idea of removing ownership when they later announced their PlayStation 4 console, leading to cheap shots aplenty.
Microsoft later rescinded their plans and adopted a more standard buy and play approach for disc games, but the damage was done and the idea was out there – the cloud will forever remove our conceptualised ideas of ownership. While that is largely true given the nature of digital purchases (something we’ll look at in more detail later), it’s doing the idea of cloud computing for video games a massive disservice and seriously glossing over some of the benefits it can bring. Make no mistake, however; cloud based ventures are still very much in their infancy and we have a long way to go before the general public willingly instead of begrudgingly accept their existence.
Take, for example, the concept of games driven entirely by the cloud – we refer to them as “always online”. The mind immediately conjures up images of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games such as World of Warcraft or Eve Online, but it’s not just these intrinsically multiplayer experiences that require the user to be constantly connected online to get the most out of them. In the last two years we’ve seen big releases such as SimCity, Diablo 3 and Sony’s DriveClub require constant internet connections to operate (although in the case of DriveClub a basic version of the game does function offline) – the common thread connecting those three games, however, is that they caused massive controversies on release with users being unable to connect to servers, being unable to experience the full game and even having promised launch features patched out of the games. Add to this the fact that broadband penetration across the world is still significantly patchy, especially in rural areas, expecting dedicated gamers to be able to guarantee that their game will always be connected on a low latency stream to servers seems very presumptuous. To say that these things have shown the dark side of the always online experience is an understatement; David Braben of Frontier Developments recently announced that their hotly anticipated game Elite: Dangerous would follow a similar route and remove a promised offline mode – an announcement which had copious amounts of scorn poured on it by the internet.
But surely there is something positive to the move to try and get games running with cloud features, otherwise game developers wouldn’t be making the push? Absolutely; there have been releases that have proved that the cloud can be used in positive ways however they seem to be limited to the aforementioned MMO’s. Recently released Destiny has proved, however, with a smooth launch that a single player/multiplayer experience can be pulled off seamlessly and the forthcoming space flight game No Man’s Sky is using cloud computing to “grow” its universe, providing billions of unique planets for players to visit. The ideas of using cloud servers to deliver game content certainly is sound – the concept that heavy duty computing and world building can be taken away from the lower specced hardware of the user to provide a unique game experience is a compelling one and hopefully something that Elite: Dangerous can realise, but there is no getting away from the fact that users have been burned before.
Taking a look outside of the nitty gritty of gameplay, however, cloud computing has provided the videogame community with some significant advancements in terms of content delivery and curation. Unified accounts on Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN) and Microsoft’s Xbox Live (XBL) have provided us with services that many users now seem to be taking for granted. Indeed, the fact that Nintendo’s Network ID (NNID) system is still not cross platform is a sticking point for many when PSN, for example, can be used across PlayStation 3, 4 and Vita systems with seamless integration and, in many cases, shared saves. Subscription style services are also being explored with Sony’s PlayStation Plus leading the pack, providing monthly free titles (for as long as you’re subscribed) for a nominal annual fee.
There are still caveats, however, with services relying on users being online to play and, in some cases, renew licenses. There is also a dangerous precedent being set with content lost due to expired licenses – following their sale to Disney, Marvel pulled all of their games off digital distribution services last year, including the months old Deadpool; a recent update to the PC version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has removed a number of music tracks from the game and downloadable songs are disappearing from the online libraries of the Rock Band games. In the cases of the Marvel and Rock Band games, anyone owning the content can still download it again, but in the case of Grand Theft Auto this begs the question – if publishers can remove content from games remotely, can they go as far as taking away games that users have paid for wholesale?
The small print will tell you yes, they can – this is the unfortunate reality of cloud services. They are just that; services. EULA’s have, for a long time, informed us that we do not own the game in our possession and are merely licensing it. In the case of physical content such as CD’s and DVD’s this is a statement largely made for anti-piracy measures. Publishers can’t stop users from selling on their games and loaning them to friends but they’d really prefer it if they didn’t copy them, thank you very much. With digital EULA’s, however, this statement becomes far more explicit. You may have paid for this content, but you don’t own it and, should we deem it necessary, we will reach across the void of the internet and remove it from your hard drive, never to be seen again. This is, understandably, a distressing concept for many gamers and hangs over the idea of digital distribution like a dark cloud.
Again, though, there are services trying to make a difference. Good Old Games (GOG), a PC digital distribution service, provide 100% DRM free copies of their catalogue to users so that the installation files can be downloaded and archived for future use. Steam, another PC distribution service, have also vowed that they will provide users with access to physical downloads of their content should their service have to be turned off.
But, despite cloud computing having matured significantly over the past five years, the idea of gaming in the cloud still seems very much in it’s infancy and, while the future is bright, the threat of lost content, seemingly high price points, unplayable games and the loss of legacy and archive copies of certain titles when servers are inevitably turned off means that developers and publishers still have a long way to go before they win over the hearts of curmudgeonly gamers to move to put their faith in the cloud.
Many thanks to Andrew for the piece. Andy’s site can be found at http://andrewbeeken.co.uk