The Future of Game Content Delivery

I recently had the pleasure of trying out both of the new cloud-based gaming services, OnLive and Gaikai. My expectations for their functionality were really quite low. Horrible input lag. Awful video and audio quality. Those are the sorts of issues I expected would be bothering me to no end, solidifying my preconception that cloud-based services were a good fit for web backends but had no place in gaming.

After using the services, I changed my tune. OnLive and Gaikai are a clear vision of the future of game content delivery. Take a moment to give one of them a try if you haven’t already. OnLive is the more mature of the two services.

For those of you who don’t know what these systems are all about, both services essentially run games on their server farms and then send you a live stream of the video/audio that their computers are generating. The input you provide on your computer is sent to their server, the game updates, and it sends you back the next frame of video. It’s a throw back to computing in the 60s and 70s; a mainframe computer does the heavy lifting and your dumb terminal simply deals with input and output.

Input latency for most types of games was negligible. This is what I thought was going to be most painful element of cloud gaming but both systems in their current state feel great. There is no doubt that competitive games like first person shooters or fighting games are still best played off the cloud. On the other hand, I was surprised that all third person action games felt just fine even with the added latency of an Internet round-trip. For most types of games, input latency isn’t a problem.

Video and audio quality were much better than I expected, though not perfect. Depending on your connection to the cloud servers, video quality ranges from just ok to abysmal. On a good connection the compression artifacts were ignorable, though video quality zealots will not be happy. If your Internet connection is slow or flaky you will get a much worse experience in comparison to playing locally. That said, my modest home connection, an AT&T DSL connection that runs at less than 5 Mbps downstream, had little problem with the load. As Internet connectivity speeds increase, I’m confident video and audio quality will improve.

Switching from a consumer’s perspective to a developer’s, there is a lot to like. I won’t pretend to know all the technical details of OnLive or Gaikai but I can extrapolate a bit and imagine what they could end up looking like in the future. There are four areas that have me particularly excited.

1. Console-like fixed hardware platform

Let’s assume all the games are running on cloud-based virtual machines (VMs). When you ship your game, you define what hardware you want it to run on, ensuring that the level of quality is high for every player of your game. Just as if you had shipped it on the consoles of today.

2. Hardware platforms can be incrementally improved at any time without bothering players

If a great new CPU or GPU is released, the cloud service provider can incorporate it into their server farm. Players don’t need to buy PC upgrades or new consoles.

3. PC as target platform

Instead of building games for console platforms that start out with an immature set of tools and APIs, a new learning curve for hardware specific quirks, and other assorted growing pains, developers would only need to target the PC. The PC is a highly mature platform with a lot of fantastic development tools. Now that the pain of trying to ship on an extensive list of hardware configurations is eliminated, the classic PC pain area, it feels like a no-brainer to switch off of consoles and back onto PCs.

4. With no extra work, ship on any platform that has an Internet connection and supports your input controls

PC, Mac, Linux, iPhone, iPad, Android, set-top boxes like the Roku or iTV, hell, your TV via embedded software. All of these devices have Internet connections. As long as they have an input mechanism that supports your game, you can ship on these platforms. This is fantastic for getting your games in the hands of as many potential fans as possible.

If the cloud technology continues to improve in the direction I think it will these changes will change the way games are built.

Consider the upcoming PlayStation Vita, a complex piece of mobile hardware that will be released soon. It looks great for gaming, with an ideal control layout and powerful hardware. Now imagine it as a cloud-gaming dumb terminal instead. The challenge of pushing CPU/GPU performance while fighting against heat and battery life with highly complex hardware would be eliminated, making the device extremely cheap to manufacture. Players could purchase one for perhaps $50 or less. You would be able to play super high-end games at any time on the go. Imagine playing Uncharted 3 or the latest Call of Duty at full quality on your little piece of mobile hardware. Incredible.

If I was a platform provider like Sony or Microsoft I would be seriously considering what this shift could mean for business. Instead of shipping hardware platforms to consumers and developers, imagine instead a PlayStation service, where Sony’s best games are hosted. As a gamer you can access it from a multitude of devices at any time, from any Internet connection in the world. That is a fantastic value proposition for the consumer.

I think it’s obvious that Internet streaming is already taking over as the predominant method of delivery for music and video. Services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes offer a plethora of on-demand streaming content. I don’t see any reason why games won’t be next and I’m very excited about the possibilities.

SimplePath – Pathfinding for Unity

A colleague of mine, Alex Kring, has just released an AI pathfinding solution for Unity that is easy to use, performs well, and is inexpensive.

If you are building games in Unity and want to easily get an AI agent moving around in your world you should definitely check out SimplePath.

More information about the project can be found on the Unity forum.

Here’s a video outlining the high level features:

 

 

The Paradox of Choice

I just finished reading a book recently called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz that has some interesting psychological statistics that I thought might have some relevance to what we do in the game industry.

The basic thesis of the book is that too much choice leads to unhappiness. The author states that choice gives freedom, a core American value, but as the number of choices build freedom decreases as the amount of analysis required to make a choice increases. Especially for people with a psychological profile focused on maximizing the benefit out of every decision.

The book then references a number of different psychological studies that analyze the effect of making decisions. One simple one was presented to people as “choose one of the options below:”

  1. Receive $100 in cash right now
  2. Flip a coin (just representing an exact 50-50 random chance), if it is heads you get $200, if it is tails you get $0

The large majority of people take the $100. The author postulates that this is due people reacting more harshly to loss than gain. The negative delta change of happiness caused by getting nothing in the coin flip, thinking “I could have had $100”, is greater than the happiness gained by winning the flip, “woot, I got $200 instead of $100”.

When I think about that in terms of game design it is a reminder that taking things away from a player has more psychologically impact than giving them new toys. Taking away has its place but requires great care to not put off players to quit your game. It also makes me put my salesmanship cap on and think of features that could help sell games when someone is playing the demo version of a game with achievements. For example, “hey buddy, you would have just gotten an achievement right now if you had the full version (click here to buy), if you don’t buy now you will lose this achievement and have to earn it again if you buy later.”

The book goes on to analyze a number of other factors that go into decision making and the results of choices such as regret, opportunity cost, psychological effect of comparisons, and counterfactual thought to name a few. I found it pretty interesting.

Zombified

As part of the promotion for the recent release of Zombie Apocalypse on XBLA and PSN a few coworkers and I wrote a story about a zombie outbreak within the office of Nihilistic Software. As the last remaining survivor I was overrun by a horde of zombies:

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Gross, right? Nihilistic’s lead artist Ron Kee did a great job on all the photo paint-overs. You can see all the posts by going to the beginning of this category filter on NSI Blog.

game mod

I really enjoyed the visual mayhem of the video below. What is it? I’ll let the author describe:

Game Mod was a six hour long workshop with the objective of showing the participants that it is not required to understand code to experiment and play with it.

Although they had no experience in coding, the task of each participant was to make a mod of a breakout clone built in Processing.

Frameranger

I haven’t followed the demo scene in a long time but saw that the annual Assembly conference recently took place where many new demos are presented. What’s a “demo”? Typically it’s a non-interactive piece of software that displays something beautiful and/or technically impressive. The important thing to remember is that everything is running in real-time, like games do. Demos are not Pixar-like movies that are entirely pre-rendered ahead of time. You could run an executable file on your own PC to produce the same results, assuming it has hardware powerful enough.

Check out the winner, Frameranger, below. You can download the demo itself at the previous link if you’d prefer to run it on your Windows PC instead of watching it in video form. If your PC is powerful enough this is definitely recommended.

The demo is not perfect – the robot fighting animation in particular is a bit cheesy -  but overall the aesthetic is very well done. Enjoy.

Nintendo DS piracy is getting out of hand

In Japan, among my non-game industry friends, I’d say about 90% are using the R4 piracy device for their DS to steal all their games. These are people who are a typical average consumer, perhaps buying one game title every one or two months. Not the type of people you would expect to see pirating but here they are.

On an international flight from Tokyo to San Francisco I witnessed a four year old girl playing the DS version of Mario 64. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary there until I saw her change the game she was playing to something new. Not by changing cartridges but instead by firing up the menu for her R4 that was loaded with games. Clearly a parent set this up but it was still a bit of a shock.

Now Ubisoft have just announced that their DS sales for the year are down 67% and blamed that in large part on DS ROM piracy.

Surely, it is more convenient to have many games on a single cartridge and the R4 (and its friends) does provide that. In this day and age this can be fixed easily with local storage on the device. The new DSi model is starting to address this. Nintendo is always slow with these things but they would likely satisfy the customer’s desire for convenience by moving to a fully downloadable game model with no cartridges, where many games could be stored on the system at one time and be purchased directly from the device.

Nintendo must do something to secure their system better. High levels of piracy directly leads to less financial incentives for developers to build for that platform and thus dropping revenues for Nintendo themselves. Not just directly by having their own games pirated but also because third parties no longer look to release software on their system.

Zombie Apocalypse nominated for best downloadable game at E3

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Zombie Apocalypse, a game by Nihilistic Software and soon to be published by Konami that I contributed a lot of gameplay code to, was nominated for Game Trailers’ Best of E3 Awards. Woot! Unfortunately it did not win but it is great seeing the game receive positive coverage in the lead up to its release.

Thanks for the heads up on this Jean.

“Heaven”

Here’s another creative video. This time it is an apocalyptic skateboarding music video. It’s nice to see explosions being used for something that looks cool and was (hopefully) harmless.

The explosions start raining down around 3:30.

“Deadline”

Great video: