PlayStation Streaming? On a Summer’s Day?

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It’s amazing how a single, off hand comment in an E3 preview article can give birth to such a great deal of anticipation and speculation. I have to believe VG24/7 knew exactly what they were doing when they inserted a throwaway comment about Sony announcing a partnership with a major player in cloud gaming at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo like a bomb into a boilerplate preview. It wasn’t until the rumor was already burning up NeoGAF and other gaming forums that the kernel was published as a stand alone rumor.

Despite having so little to go on, gamers across the internet went into overdrive hoping to make sense of the cryptic statement. Most focused on the two established streaming gaming service companies, Gaikai and OnLive.

Both use similar technology to stream live video of a PC game being run on server across the internet to a player controlling the game with their PC, Mac, tablet, smart TV or microconsole. In either case the internet acts like an extremely long extension cord carrying the control input signals from the player to the server and returning the video output as an h.264 stream to the player’s display.

The benefits include the ability to play instantly without downloading or installing large amounts of game files, and very low hardware requirements for whatever system the player has. If a computer is fast enough to stream Hulu or Netflix, it’s fast enough to play The Witcher 2 or Metro: 2033. Both have the same drawbacks involving added latency that decreases a game’s responsiveness, and a degradation of visual quality due to the video compression.

Right now Gaikai primarily works with retailers and publishers to use their technology for game demos that can be embedded in websites. Right now you can visit a game’s product page on Walmart.com and try it before you buy it thanks to Gaikai. OnLive has focused more directly on consumers, offering both a subscription service to allow customers to play 200+ legacy titles as much as they want, similar to a Netflix streaming subscription, and sales of individual game “Play Passes” that are more like an outright purchase of newer title for unlimited access going forward. OnLive also offers rental passes at a reduced price that will let you play as much of a game as you want for a 3 or 5 day period.

Perhaps a PS3 will soon operate like this OnLive Microconsole.

In either case it’s hard to imagine how these existing service would work with the PlayStation brand. They might simply be allowing OnLive to deploy their client on the PS3 and/or Vita so users can access their OnLive library from those devices. It’s not hard to see how that would be in OnLive’s interest, massively expanding their potential market, but it would be strange for Sony to allow essentially a competing game delivery mechanism on their hardware that undermines their entire royalty structure for games.

While the existing business models make little sense, that’s not to say there isn’t a place for either Gaikai or OnLive’s technology under the PlayStation umbrella. One nagging issue on the PS3, for example, has been the incomplete nature of PS2 backwards compatibility since the hardware solution was eliminated to bring down the cost of the system. The PS3 manages to emulate a small number of PS2 games sold exclusively through the PlayStation Store, it’s a far cry from the library of thousands that system enjoyed.

While the PS3’s hardware limitations stand in the way of comprehensive software emulation, modern gaming PCs, like those used as gaming servers by Gaikai and OnLive are actually far more capable of emulating PS2 software. Perhaps Sony has decided that if a game can’t be emulated by the PS3 and isn’t popular enough to warrant an HD upgrade, maybe streaming from the cloud is a viable option. As an added benefit, there’s no reason to limit streamed PS2 games to the PS3. They could work just as well on the Vita, or even on Sony Tablets and Phones, Smart TVs or PCs.

Streaming also provides another potential solution involving backwards compatibility. Rumors have been swirling this year about both Sony and Microsoft’s next generation hardware. The general consensus seems to point towards Sony abandoning the Cell CPU architecture used by the PS3 in favor of a more developer friendly, and perhaps cost effective x86 processor designed by AMD. While the switch may be incredibly beneficial in many aspects, it does pose a problem for anyone hoping to play their PS3 games on a PS4. The Cell’s exotic design is extremely fast in certain situations, far too fast to be emulated at full speed in software by an AMD CPU. This is disconcerting for anyone hopeful their library of PSN titles might carry over to the next generation of hardware.

With cloud gaming that may actually be possible. Instead of streaming games from a PC to a PS3 as described above, similar technology could be used to stream games being run on PS3 servers to PS4s, Vitas and potentially other devices. Naturally, your PSN account would have a record of all the downloadable games you own unlocking access to those, and even disc based games could work. Pop your Uncharted 3 blu-ray into a PS4, the console confirms the presence of the retail disc to the service and your game starts streaming.

Possibilities don’t end there. For example, cloud streaming could potentially let PS3 owners who haven’t yet upgraded to a PS4 try demos of games for the new system. Even more radical, Sony could forgo new consumer hardware altogether. Perhaps the next PlayStation won’t be a console at all, but a server platform for the PlayStation cloud.

One of the things that has thus far held back both OnLive and Gaikai from achieving their true potential is a reliance on PC versions of all their games. Titles that have been developed to target a broad spectrum of hardware capabilities don’t really use the game servers to the full extent they could. But if Sony were to acquire one of these streaming platforms straight up that could change. Sony could establish whatever hardware baseline they choose and create exclusive software built for that platform.

Without the kind of limitations on price and form factor that is dictated by the current home console business model, that hardware could be far more powerful than any traditional PS4 we might predict today. The hardware platform could even be malleable enough to be customized for specific games. We’re talking huge amounts of RAM, SSDs, no load times, the fastest GPUs available and heavy duty multi-core processors. It would be like a return to the exiotic world of specialized arcade hardware, only instead of paying for that expensive cabinet one quarter at a time, the cost can be amortized across a large number of paying subscribers and game buyers.

Crysis 2 running in a webpage.

Of course, that’s all a bit pie in the sky right now. It’s easy to see why publishers and platform holders are eyeing cloud gaming with great interest. Cloud games cut out retail. They eliminate used sales. They literally cannot be pirated. But their biggest drawback is the current state of broadband infrastructure around the world. It is just too soon to take that leap when so many of your existing users live in parts of the world where fast, reliable, affordable broadband internet service is hard to come by.

But it’s never too soon to start laying the groundwork and conditioning the user-base to understand and appreciate the advantages of the cloud. Starting with something like a retro game service, perhaps as a benefit for PlayStation Plus members seems like a good place to start. The PS3 may not be the last generation of console hardware, but don’t be surprised if the PS4 is…

Oh, as an addendum. If you’re wondering which cloud platform Sony is actually working with, and how VG24/7 came across this rumor in the first place, take a look at this screenshot from Gaikai’s webpage. You’ll notice VG24/7 is themselves listed as one of Gaikai’s business partners, and it’s not hard to imagine that they may have learned of an imminent announcement through that relationship. Gaikai are themselves teasing a major announcement at E3.

I spy, with my little eye, the VG24/7 logo!