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We're Not Ready for Streaming Games
by Robert Levitan on 09/06/11 10:15:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Recent events have drawn a great deal of attention to the fight between GameStop and OnLive. Both companies are clearly willing to take extreme measures to dominate the emerging field of game streaming, and all of us on the sidelines are forced to ask: Who will emerge as the top provider of this new medium? Speaking only for myself though, I would suggest that it’s a moot question; GameStop and OnLive are engaged in a race to see who can jump the gun first. Game streaming, in its current form and in this current environment, is not feasible for the mass market.

This is not to discount the efforts made by companies such as these two and others; I expect that we are going to learn a great deal from these early experiments. Early adopters will help to point out the challenges that game streaming must face as it moves along the road to becoming a reasonable option for the average gamer. Before it can get there, however, it’s going to have to make a number of stops along the way, and learn to overcome hurdles related to technology, business models, and the games themselves.

It’s easy to forget that streaming media is not a one-size-fits-all delivery mechanism. At a time when services like Netflix and Hulu are enjoying tremendous popularity with their streaming options for movies and television, it’s natural to follow a train of thought that envisions an equally successful service for video games. Bear in mind, however, that these services are providing you with a static, fixed product, allowing you to view a video that has already been recorded, converted into a compressed digital format, and is linear by nature. The stream works because, when all is said and done, you’re simply downloading a video file – you just get to start watching it before the download has finished.

An online video game does not have the same features as a pre-recorded movie or television show. The picture and sound are, by definition, interactive, and will need to change in real-time based on a player’s input. The closest analog to this that we’ve seen is IPTV, or live television via internet streaming, and even that is a process that has a long way to go before it can match the quality and consistency of a dedicated broadcast. It doesn’t take more than a small burst of latency or a brief connection hiccup to remind you that you’re watching a program on the Internet, and while this might manifest as a mere annoyance for a television program, for a fast-paced, reflex-based video game, it may spell the difference between life and death.

For that matter, streaming doesn’t just need to master the difference between fixed video and live video games: the technology must be equipped to handle a wide variety of game styles and genres, each with their own demands. Video streams maintain their quality by building up a buffer of data ahead of what’s currently on display, allowing the feed to continue during moments of latency. Some games might allow this, depending on how linear they are. For example, if a game knows that the player will assuredly be playing levels in a fixed order, then Level 2 can start downloading in the background while the player is still progressing through Level 1. What happens, though, when there is an open-world design? In a non-linear game, the player may opt to explore any portion of the game world at any time, preventing the system from predicting which portion of the game to pre-load.

Thus, with the data necessarily needing to be transmitted to the player in an ongoing real-time fashion, the problems of latency become inevitable. How can a streaming medium keep up with the requirements of today’s high-end games? A slower, more ponderous game might be feasible, such as a turn-based strategy or card game. Anything demanding precision, reflexes, or rhythm, however, would be extremely frustrating to play. The system can’t rely on Hulu-style “buffering” pauses during a deathmatch; the first time a player is killed while his game catches up to real-time is likely to be his last time playing.

Another popular method that video streams use to keep up with a fluctuating connection is “scaling,” or “adaptive streaming.” If the stream can’t maintain enough bandwidth to keep the show going in full HD display, the bitrate is dropped to a lower quality for the sake of a smoother, uninterrupted presentation. Decreasing image and sound quality would seem to fly in the face of modern game development, with studios continuing to push the envelope to deliver better graphics, more fluid animations, and rich, cinematic experiences in their triple-A titles. A visual benchmark like Uncharted 3 or Battlefield 3 is the product of years of hard work by incredible artists and incredible programmers. Why should a studio spend months of hard work and millions of dollars to create a pixel-perfect, life-like game world, if the end user is only going to see it as a blurry, stuttering mess? For developers to continue exploring what is possible in games, they need to be assured that they can present the optimal experience to players, and streaming games can’t promise that yet.

As I’ve cited in my previous blog posts, the average speed of broadband internet fluctuates across different regions, even within the United States. Our recent study found that the US average was 5.5 Mbps, but it is crucial to remember that that figure is the average. Much of the country has to deal with speeds less than that, and as we’ve just established, there is not a single “ideal” data rate that will be adequate for games of every type. If a game happens to need an above-average speed, a majority of gamers won’t be able to play at a reasonable quality.

Lastly, a discussion of the streaming business model is in order. With the cloud unready to accommodate the average gamer, publishers may realize that streaming is still a ways off from being profitable. For starters, the entire concept is still in its infancy, so there aren’t any established business models or case studies to demonstrate the expected ROI. While a streaming game service should generate increased game play and subsequently more revenue, what are the added costs to publishers? One can assume that, in order to pay for hosting, infrastructure, etc., a streaming provider would need to charge publishers based on some measure of usage, i.e., a company would be charged more to stream games that are played for longer periods of time.

This throws into question the pricing model for games distributed online. Titles are often lauded for the tremendous amount of entertainment they can provide, where an epic-length RPG or a highly replayable shooter can last a gamer for dozens, even hundreds, of hours. When delivered via a streaming service, however, suddenly that advantage comes at a much heavier cost. Publishers of traditional games may have to attempt to sell in-game goods or charge for previously free content in order to drive up RPU and offset this new expense. While this may sound similar to the business model already employed by other games (such as free-to-play titles), those will also face increased revenue demands as publishers will be paying not only for the infrastructure to connect players to the server, but also the computing power to operate the game clients on their own hardware, rather than the users’.

There’s no doubt in my mind that, as technology and infrastructure continue to improve, we will one day see streaming games as not just a reality, but as one of the default ways we receive our games. Just as we’ve gradually seen the Internet redefine many concepts in gaming, from worldwide multiplayer to purely digital distribution and publishing, things are only going to get more accessible and connected… eventually. For now, however, I wouldn’t fight too hard to be the first cautionary example of what doesn’t work yet.

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Brian Newton
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Wow... I think your article would have been appropriate written 2 years ago, but much of it doesn't have relevance today. You discuss technical limitations like gameplay stuttering killing you and logic along the lines of "streaming won't work for smooth gameplay". OnLive has been running for over a year, and they've proven that at least that is generally a non-issue. And downscaling graphical quality is just as irritating in a game as it is in an HD movie.

Then you go in depth into business concerns that either largely don't necessarily apply or are questions only the management at OnLive can answer. They've stated their ROI is much simpler than retail because of being able to cut out all middle shipping, shelving, retail employees etc. Yes, they have to maintain server farms, but trust me, they've considered the cost of that before going into this venture.

You also leave out some of the biggest barriers to mainstream adoption, like consumer confidence in owning a "virtual" item not stored on their computer. The only point I agree with is that of quality. Currently OnLive supports 720p, and on a computer monitor, it's noticeably more blurry etc. On a TV versus a console? I can't tell the difference. And with them lowering the bandwidth requirement to 2 mbps or even less for tablets etc and bandwidth speed steadily increasing, again, that's an argument that becomes less and less relevant.

You basically took a very potentially interesting topic, OnLive as an established player in a burgeoning market and how it's grown despite concerns exactly like your post, versus Gamestop as a completely new entity, and just did a long version of "It won't work yet", despite OnLive having already discounted many (though not all) of the concerns you've mentioned. Naysaying is one of the least interesting forms of constructive analysis.

Brad Borne
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You make a pretty massive assumption that lag is acceptable...

Duong Nguyen
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Technology marches on, video compression will get better, hardware cheaper, bandwidth will go higher, online centers proliferate, marketing deals worked out.. The biggest reason why cloud gaming will succeed? Piracy is impossible given this model. Given that PC games have a 80-90% piracy rate ( numbers taken from hidden stat collection in multiplayer games ), that alone will drive it. Esp in emerging markets where piracy is rampant, this is the only long term viable PC software model in those markets.

It's kinda hard to argue that were not ready for streaming when there already exist a mass market streaming service.. expanding to Europe and Canada soon..

Inti Einhorn
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There is a HUGE difference between data rates and prices between Europe and North America. Has your cable bill been getting cheaper or more expensive? Has your access to higher speeds increased? So maybe in South Korea this model will work, but forgive my skepticism at the inevitable march of progress, because I'm not seeing it.

Brian Newton
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I can't speak for Europe, but yes in NA prices have gotten cheaper for higher speeds. There are now residential 50Mbps and 100Mbps plans through major cable companies. I'm paying 44 bucks a month with no packaged cable for 20mbps through Comcast. That would be unheard of a few years ago. Heck my cell phone has 8mbps on average at this point. Again, mind boggling 3 years ago.

And I hate to sound harsh, but if the current state of broadband is sad in Europe.... just wait. Fast, cheap, reliable broadband is quickly becoming a right, not a privilege, in many countries, and economies that want to stay competitive know they need to keep up or be left behind.

Fiore Iantosca
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"Fast, cheap, reliable broadband is quickly becoming a right, not a privilege"

What planet are you on?

Inti Einhorn
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Those are theoretical limits. No one is getting 100mbps for real. The average is 3.8

Phil Nolan
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My cable bill has stayed the same and my data speed has increased. (I'm on FiOS)

Rodolfo Rosini
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Strange, you fail to mention probably the biggest issue you have with streaming games and that is that you lose money since your company does p2p downloads.

Ben Parker
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Are you sure you get game streaming right? The following is from your article.

For example, if a game knows that the player will assuredly be playing levels in a fixed order, then Level 2 can start downloading in the background while the player is still progressing through Level 1. What happens, though, when there is an open-world design? In a non-linear game, the player may opt to explore any portion of the game world at any time, preventing the system from predicting which portion of the game to pre-load.

I don't know if you get the fact, that OnLive and in the future GameStop, are streaming a video of the game you are playing from their servers to your display device.

This article is a mess, first you talk about game streaming, then about game pre-loading and then again about streaming.

You seem confused about what game streaming actually is.

Gerald Belman
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Game streaming is not just streaming a video of the game you are playing. It is streaming a video of the game you are playing THAT IS CONSTANTLY CHANGING. This is alot different from just streaming a static video that can take advantage of buffering.

This is the process:

You push buttons on your controller. These button presses get sent to the game streaming company. They are registered in the game. A compressed video file is created. It is then trasmitted back to you.

Now OnLive has recieved some good reviews and it seems like they have lag and latency under control for now. But why have this roundabout way of playing your games? Why send all this video back and forth when you could just be sending button presses?

Why rely on the speed of your internet connection when you could just rely on the speed of your computer. Fast computers are getting cheaper and cheaper. Sony and Microsoft - They really need to update their consoles too because they are falling rediculously far behind in computing power.

Computer processing speeds will advance alot faster than our ability to lay new cable.

And the visual quality will never be anywhere near as good as if you ran the game locally.

Why have this roundabout way of playing your games? I'll tell you: it is all about control.

Ben Parker
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Well, consider this. In the not so distant future it might well happen that OnLive will be running games on their servers that require multiple servers for one game or they might run a MP game with millions of people in one instance because they are on the same data center.

How do you intend to run such games on a home PC?

If you run compute intensive games in data centers you don't have to worry about power, heat and noise. You just need the compute power to decode a video stream and that's it.

You could also think the other way around. When you have a high-speed low latency internet connection that can support a HD video stream you never ever have to think about upgrading anything except your display and input device.

Gerald Belman
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The time it takes for an affordable local computer to calculate HD graphics will (for at least ten years in my prediction) be cheaper and faster than the time it takes for a super fast non-local compter to recieve button commands and trasmit that video back to you in HD.

If you are playing a single player game on your computer there is no lag. If you play a single player game on OnLive, there is going to be lag.

Multiplayer is different because there is lag no matter what. But why trasmit all this video across super expensive internet connections when we could just generate it locally? Why outsource our super cheap computing power?

I also foresee a day(like 2025) when we will all just be using non-local giant supercomputers and just be streaming video. But that time has not come yet. There will be noticable latency into the foreseeable future. And what if your internet goes down - then you are screwed!

The rush to do so now is motivated completely by the desire to maintain control over your purchased games and prevent pirating. So there is really no reason to use it RIGHT NOW.

Inti Einhorn
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Well, their presumption is that people won't continue to upgrade their machines or buy new consoles in an unending loop. It cant be entirely discounted.

Phil Nolan
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I see very little problem with OnLive right now. My home has good WiFi as do more than 50% of the homes in America. Granted you cannot use it everywhere, but most place I hang out offer free wifi. I see the problem going away completely once DIDO wireless is released.

Justin LeGrande
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One issue that no one has mentioned yet is the potential ecological ramifications of a future with hundreds of millions of people streaming all of their content online... establishing too many of these online services could have a sort of "Wal-Mart effect". Cheap and convenient for the consumer, but many "hidden costs" behind the scenes... I don't think we are prepared to handle the international issue of worldwide "no limits" bandwidth building.

Not to mention that there are just too many people on this planet who have not been brought up to speed with generic computing technology. This might not feel like a significant issue to those living in industrialized countries... Even so, I would still agree that the world is not yet ready for streaming everything; not because of technological limits, but physical ones.

Richard Vaught
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Do the math:

If 77.3% (est. 240m) of Americans have internet access, but only est. 70m have broadband, then only less than 25% of Americans have broadband access. So if you market your games strictly via streaming services like Onlive, you have effectively castrated yourself by removing 75% of America from your marketing demographic. Of those that DO have broadband, I suspect there are still quite a large number that, like myself, still want to possess a physical copy of the game for various reasons. I.E. I am not always connected and I still like to play.