On Monday, Sony was showing off PlayStation Now, its anticipated cloud-based online gaming service, acquired from Gaikai 18 months ago, at the company's February Showcase event in Santa Monica, CA. Sony is saying that the service will be ready this summer.
We spent some hands-on time with the games Sony was demonstrating, but came away with practically no new answers to our questions about the service. Currently, we know that PlayStation Now will only play PlayStation 3 games, that the company is beta testing the service with developers, that the service will be delivered via subscription or on a game rental basis, and that Sony has visions of bringing the service to its smartphones, tablets and Sony Bravia TVs. Nothing new there.
The list of what we don't know is much longer, like when we'll get an early look at the service (beyond a controlled demo at a showcase event), which games will be available when the service launches, or even how many are running in the beta test now.
At CES, Sony demonstrated Santa Monica Studio's God Of War. During the showcase event in Santa Monica proper, it also demonstrated God of War; SCE Japan Studio's Puppeteer; Naughty Dog's Last Of Us, launched last summer; and Quantic Dream's Beyond Two Souls, launched last fall. Beyond Two Souls shows off some realistic characters based on a teenage Ellen Page and a young William Dafoe. Sony's selection was designed to demonstrate a range of game types, from action-adventure to rich story telling to the colorful fantasy-adventure Puppeteer.
We did not have the option of playing remote players online elsewhere, nor any real shoot-em-ups. We did play the games from the cloud through both a PS Vita (but not the Vita Slim) and a Sony Bravia TV with a DualShock 3 controller, the latter being a clear reflection of where Sony aims to push the service; and, in all honesty, I didn't even realize this until I asked.
With all of those caveats aside, the games performed remarkably well, with no real visible lag or latency. Even the rumble feedback of the DualShock 3 controller felt spot on with the action, and the audio synced up just fine. In other words, it felt like playing a game on a local console.
But the caveats, and others, matter. Sony wouldn't reveal where the server hosting the games (in the cloud) was located. For all we know it could have been in the same room, but Sony officials assured me it was running in the cloud, and that was all they could say. When I asked how the company would ensure low latency, or provide a cloud footprint large enough to support performance gaming, a company spokesman would only say that the plan is to cover the U.S., and provide realistic, low-latency gaming experiences. He also said that Sony recommends 5 Mbps broadband connectivity in the home.
Home or neighborhood connectivity is only one aspect of the problem. There's also the rest of the Internet to worry about. The Sony spokesman said that PlayStation Now responds similarly to Netflix, which makes constant dynamic adjustments for changes in bandwidth. One major difference or advantage that content services like video have is the use of distributed global caching systems (content delivery networks). Live, real time online gaming is largely immune to caching by its nature. With video you're not interacting with a movie, let alone others watching that movie; you're just taking in the stream passively.
And like any company whose content service could be impacted by the federal appeals court's recent ruling to overturn the FCC's net neutrality rules, Sony could face some customer uncertainty as the Playstation Now launches. Online gaming promises to be one of those services the carriers look to control, or charge more money for.
Nevertheless, we are probably years away from seeing the cloud deliver the type of performance we expect from local PC gaming systems and consoles, although some games will translate just fine, and many game players will adjust to fluctuations in the quality of immersive game experiences, just as Netflix watchers often tolerate lower quality movies.
But the promise of technology like PlayStation Now is still pretty exciting. Stay tuned for more.