ECGC 2011: Goodbye Physical, and Hello Cloud!
Famed developer David Perry offers his thought of the future, indicating that games will eventually be cloud-based.
Wednesday during ECGC 2011, famed game developer David Perry conducted a remote Q&A discussion with the audience over Skype. But first he offered his perspective in regards to the history of gaming and where he expects it to go in the near future. His view is based on an extensive portfolio of popular titles spanning across 30 years including Earthworm Jim, The Terminator, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, MDK, Messiah, Sacrifice and numerous others. Now he's CEO and co-founder of Gaikai.com, a company that's developed video game streaming technology.
That said, Perry's vision of the future should be obvious. He told the audience that he believes the industry is on a very "clear" path, moving from cassette/floppies to optical media to physical hard drives and ultimately into the cloud. But that's not just limited to storing the titles and saved games in the virtual space (like Steam), but actually moving the entire digital entity and rendering process off the local device (like his Gaikai service and OnLive).
"Whenever you play something on Facebook, you actually don't own that game anymore," he told the audience. "You don't even have a copy of it, you don't have anything installed, you don't even have a copy of your save game. You have nothing. You just have access everywhere you go. And that actually is something that is very compatible with people these days."
He said that on the computing front, the hardware industry will "bolt" GPUs into the CPUs, offering one processor that does everything (aka SoC). These will be installed in cloud servers to offer as much computing power as you need for "whatever it is you're doing at the time." This will eliminate a lot of the limitations game developers are currently facing today in regards to content creation and really pushing the envelope.
During the expo, I was forced to deal with the Harsh Truth: that we're living in a market focused on consoles. Mark Cerny made this obvious during his keynote the next day, but others told me directly that there are salaries to pay, mouths to feed, lights to keep on and the console sector pays for it all. Why? Because that's where the gaming audience primarily resides, and from a developer's point of view, there's only one hardware set. I didn't even hear the word "piracy" one time. But I was still compelled asked this: if you develop on the PC anyway, then why not make the PC version the primary focus? It only makes sense to me, but again, the Harsh Truth slapped me in the face-- because of time, money, the seemingly infinite number of different hardware configurations and the fact that certain console makers demand that their versions come first.
But moving to the cloud may change all that. Maybe the next stage in the gaming industry timeline isn't returning to PC or focusing on socialization in general. Maybe The Cloud will be the Focus of the Universe in gaming. Look at OnLive-- it streams top-notch graphics to low-level notebooks and desktops. It it also streams games to a special $99 console-like device. There are no discs, no need to install anything-- the games are just there, on your HDTV or LCD screen, whether you're hooked up using the OnLive console or a notebook or desktop. Nobody seemed sure that there will be a next generation of consoles. For all we know, Sony and Microsoft may be planning their own cloud-based services and "receivers."
On a side note, Nvidia's Tony Tamasi wants to see something a little different: take all the "amazing" technological advances primarily manifested on the PC (as it tends to advance a level every year), the content developed for the consoles, and cram it all into a mobile form factor you can take with you wherever you go (as in stick it in your pocket). Naturally that seemingly defines the future of Tegra, but what if said device streamed content from the cloud on the go? Again, no installation or hardware issues to deal with.
Getting back to Perry's forecast, he predicts vibrant colors as one of the next steps after moving from Black/white, to color, to HD, then to 4K-- we've also gone from 2D to 3D and now we're entering the stereoscopic 3D phase. He noted that the parallax barrier technology is a step in the right direction in eliminating the annoying glasses, but as I've personally complained about on more than on one occasion since the launch of Nintendo's 3DS, it isn't perfect-- the 3D effect is lost when you're not viewing the screen at one of the nine focal points. "We have to solve that problem," he told the audience. "Especially on mobile devices when you're sitting on top and jolting it around."
He said he's also a believer in mobile broadcasting. "The concept here is that you walk into the house with your cellphone, it creates a channel on the television in the room that you're in. It basically means that whenever you enter someone's house, and you have really cool content on your phone, you're going to be incredibly loved in that house. Basically the entertainment goes with you, and people will be excited to have you around with all your cools games, movies and everything else."
He moved on to point out that the genres are maturing (backing up what I previously said about the FPS being less gamey and more like a simulator now), and that people will be spending more time reading about what a specific title contains because there are dozens like it available on the market-- meaning, it's bad now, but expect it to get worse. Developers aren't ashamed of making clones and sequels anymore, he said. bringing up FarmVille and the numerous copy-cat games that have tried to ride the coattails of its success. He even poked fun at the Mortal Kombat series (#9?), asking if the brand will ever come to a stop. "This is a trend in the industry that's really not going to go away," he said.
Perry also poked fun at GameStop's prediction that full game downloads (via digital distribution) wouldn't really happen until 2020 to 2025, but then later purchased two online companies once Steam, Gamer's Gate and other platforms proved otherwise. "People keep forgetting about where the support technologies will go-- predictive downloading, progressive downloading, file compression-- all that kind of stuff. That's all going to continue to help make these kind of things happen quicker than what people are expecting. Broadcast and mobile broadcast [advancement] are moving very quickly."
He also noted that as games move completely online in terms of content and on a physical sense, the selection will become even broader. Gone are the days of creating a game that will sit on the shelf for three months and then be replaced by something newer-- everything will simply be "there" and not shoved aside. This will allow consumers to "discover" titles they previously didn't have access to. He also said demos are important-- the try before you buy method-- to get as many consumers hooked into the product as possible. The drawback to all this content is that consumers are faced with countless titles-- pages and pages to sort through-- and thus brings us back to the point of consumers spending loads of time trying to decipher which soccer game is the best for the buck.
At one point in his presentation, Perry said that for a time the PC was a "dying platform" because the industry was primarily focused on consoles (aka the industry's Center of the Universe as Mark Cerny described it). "You would be crazy to make a PC game," he admitted. But then Zynga swooped in with FarmVille and captured "80-some million players" and CityVille captured a hundred million players. He said people began to look back at the PC and say "hmm, the PC is still an important platform." He warned potential developers in the audience to keep the PC in mind when creating their next title.
During his presentation Perry also brought up the Pirate Bay and game piracy as a whole, pointing out that piracy nearly destroyed China's gaming market until the free-to-play model was introduced. China figured out that the more these games were shared the better, and thanks to in-game purchases of additional content (virtual items, additional areas, etc), the games bring in tons of revenue. But his big concern in regards to the industry here in the States is the escalating prices of games, now reaching nearly $70. What if the AAA titles were actually free, requiring gamers to purchase additional content? Like China, the more the free game is shared on BitTorrent or P2P networks, the better. Look at FarmVille-- it doesn't even need to be shared or pirated, and it's not even installed locally on the PC. It's free to play, and yet it brings in millions upon millions of revenue.
He eventually brought up a screen showing World of Warcraft running inside Facebook. As previously mentioned, his vision of the industry's future is to remove the download and installation process by moving the entire game onto the Internet. In addition to that, he thinks the best way to market said games is to have them readily available on websites-- to put any game "everywhere on every website" no matter how complex the title is. This should obviously kill off the pirating networks while expanding the audience at the same time.
Naturally he went into the technology behind his new cloud-based service, Gaikai, saying that servers have been established all across the country. Gamers actually connect to the server closest to their connection, and even provides nearly zero latency to those streaming the same title and connected to the same server. Currently Gaikai is serving up the Mass Effect 2 demo to show off Gaikai's capabilities, running the game in HD not only in a window, but within a browser. Unfortunately, the full game is still limited as a digital download from EA rather than a Full Pass to a streaming version.
Nevertheless, the point Perry was trying to make here is that Zynga has gotten so successful because the company made their games easily accessible to anyone. While hardcore gamers will tolerate downloading, installing, and dealing with hardware vs. software issues, the mass market isn't quite as forgiving. Thus, the "friction" needs to be removed so that the high-quality AAA titles can reach a larger market. Naturally, the bigger the audience, the bigger the revenue pot. Think Mass Effect 2, available for demoing on every website, nearly playable on any notebook or desktop.
Perry said that one way to make games more "viral" is to add a little humor. He pointed to Angry Birds, saying that it wouldn’t have sold well had it been designed merely as a catapult game. Instead, the developer added the birds, pigs, and silly sounds that really made the game shine. Although he didn't specify, even first-person shooters and role-playing games need a little comic relief every now and then to keep the building tension from killing off the player's attention before the eventual payoff. But on the gaming app or social side, make it "as funny as you possibly can," he said.
Later after the presentation, Perry was asked to explain the difference between his service and OnLive. He said that OnLive is like Steam, a closed service that keeps players locked on OnLive servers. Anyone who's played OnLive's library knows this to be true, as the list of multiplayer servers is extremely limited when compared to playing the same game outside the OnLive service. Gaikai on the other hand, is an open platform established nationwide, available for all to use. Anyone can have their games placed on the service and played anywhere from around the web.
"We're more of a YouTube strategy whereas they're more of a Stream strategy," he said, adding that there's enough room for both steaming platforms to exist on the Internet.