Friday, February 22, 2013

The PlayStation 4's Secret Weapon

So in spite of what I thought would be the intelligent thing to do, Sony has gone ahead and announced the PlayStation 4, which shall be released early Q4 in anticipation of Black Friday and the holiday season.

At first, my reaction to all the news coming out of the press conference involved a lot of groaning. None of what I heard really got me excited. It all sounded safe. Predictable.

But after giving it some time, I think that Sony has the potential to do something great, they need only realize it.

If you've ever seen "2001: A Space Odyssey", you'd know that towards the beginning you witness the first moment where an organism on Earth discovered tools. If you haven't seen "2001: A Space Odyssey", you'd still know about that moment because it's been referenced and parodied in our popular culture over and over again.

One thing people rarely say about "2001: A Space Odyssey" is that it is a very slow movie. Everything happens at a snail's pace, and to be honest, it's a bit hard for me to watch for that reason. But one part where this deliberate pace really works is during this scene.

You see the ape idling away, unconsciously touching the bone. He fiddles with it. Moves it. Picks it up. Drops it. Picks it back up again.

If you know what's going to happen, it can be pretty frustrating. You generally want to just scream, "IT'S A TOOL, YOU DAMN DIRTY APE! IT WILL REVOLUTIONIZE MODERN SOCIETY! NOW HIT SOMETHING WITH IT FOR FUCK'S SAKE!"

That's kind of how I feel with Sony right now after giving it some thought.

The PS4 has a lot of interesting potential. Sony has (intentionally or otherwise) put itself in a position where it could conceivably destroy its competition and seize the throne once more.

It need only realize that the bone it's playing with can be used as a powerful weapon.

That bone is cloud gaming.

Looking Forward

One of the most interesting aspects of the PS4 is how it moved to the x86 architecture. Generally, people have made the comparison that modern video game consoles are essentially PCs with very specific hardware/firmware/OS configurations geared towards playing proprietary software, but the fact is that most modern gaming consoles would make very poor PCs. Anyone who installed Linux on their PS3 can attest to this firsthand. The PS3 can pull off some pretty impressive things, but it has less RAM than my phone and about the same processor as a 6-year-old Apple PowerBook.

The PS4, on the other hand, would make a fine PC. I know this because I coincidentally just recently helped a friend build a PC with an eight-core AMD processor and a mid-range graphics card and it's pretty damn excellent for a pretty decent price. It won't be setting the world on fire, but it does its job very well.

The problem, however, is that moving away from the PowerPC architecture means that the old games for the PS3 are not compatible. They can be made compatible, either through some kind of emulation or through individual porting, but certain games that were designed to maximize the PS3's hardware will probably need to be redesigned from the ground up.

The news of the PS4 lacking backwards compatibility upset many people, myself included. However, Sony's response regarding the possibility of making older games available through a new cloud-streaming service got a few raised eyebrows.

When Sony acquired Gaikai in October, it didn't exactly make that many waves. Sure, cloud gaming is an interesting concept, but it hasn't really gotten anywhere just yet and probably won't get there anytime soon.

People just sort of instinctively dismiss Sony's casual mention of a cloud gaming service because we all sort of just assume that it will be underwhelming.

But why do we so easily dismiss the prospect of cloud gaming?

The Perceived Problems of Cloud Gaming

I've talked a bit about this before, but the biggest perceived hurdle involved in cloud services is bandwidth/spectrum crunch. We don't have a lot of bandwidth and we are basically running out. In terms of wired bandwidth, the solution is generally to just lay down more cables, which costs money, but it is doable and cost-effective (and frankly, we've needed more fiber for a long time). Wireless bandwidth, on the other hand, is limited by the laws of physics, but that's not really an issue here. No one in the next 10 years is going to reasonably expect to be able to play a streaming video game on a mobile device with no lag or connectivity issues. It's just not a reasonable expectation. We barely expect to watch movies on our mobile devices with any amount of consistency.

But even though wired bandwidth doesn't have as many limitations, the fact remains that the few services that have successfully transitioned to the cloud have had a serious impact on our network infrastructure. Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu make up more than half of our total network bandwidth. If cloud gaming became a thing as popular as Netflix (which it absolutely has the potential to become) then we'd have to lay down a lot of new fiber to keep things running smooth. After all...

Additionally, anyone who has ever played a game with a networking component knows that lag is pretty much inevitable. Even in the best of situations, if networks are involved, something is going to slow down or get disconnected or misbehave in some other way.

So when we hear that Sony is looking into the possibility of offering some games streaming through the cloud, I think very few of us are taking them seriously. We roll our eyes and say, "You expect me to play an entire game on the cloud when the PlayStation Network can barely keep up with me playing CoD? Get real."

But here's the thing. Cloud gaming is not quite the same concept as playing an MMO or even playing online multiplayer. See, online multiplayer's biggest hurdle is not you connecting to the central server. It's you connecting with some other random schmo on the other side of the continent. The lag comes into play most often because it's hard for the central server to keep everybody connected and communicating with as much up-to-date information as possible. Not only does it have to keep track of where everybody is, it has to tell everybody else that's connected to it. So the limitations of your connection are augmented by the limitations of other peoples' connections.

With cloud gaming, it's actually not as complicated. It's just you talking to a server. The server doesn't have to coordinate with other random people, it just has to worry about you.

"OK," you might respond, "But modern games are huge. They take up like 10-20GB. How can you stream that much data?"

Well, you don't. That's not how cloud gaming works. The games themselves are actually running on dedicated hardware connected to the server. This way the games aren't limited by your hardware. Your local machine might be pulling some of the weight. It might have to store some local assets to minimize the amount of data that the server needs to send you, but ultimately, all you are sending the server is command inputs, and all you are getting back are graphical images of the game you are playing. In essence, it's not actually all that different from video streaming, other than the fact that the audio/video you see is rendered in real-time based on commands you send to it. Yes, that's still very complicated and even the slightest bit of lag can seriously impact certain types of games, but these are problems we've been working on solving. They're not quite as insurmountable as one might think.

So really, the concept of cloud gaming is not only fairly reasonable, it's potentially awesome. If it becomes the new standard, we would potentially no longer have to buy a new console ever again. All the hardware updates would happen on the server side and so long as our machines could keep up with displaying the graphical data, we wouldn't need to change a thing. How cool would that be?

However, even though the initial misconceptions about cloud gaming are fairly easy to dismiss, there are actually some serious hurdles that are preventing this from becoming a reality.

After all, OnLive and Gaikai aren't brand new. They've been around for a few years. And they work pretty well (or so I'm told). So why haven't they caught on?

The Actual Problems of Cloud Gaming

People forget this, but it took Netflix a really long time to develop a decent cloud service. I mean, they were already gaining ground on Blockbuster and Hollywood Video with their mail-delivery disc rental, but they weren't some monumental powerhouse. Then in 2008, they partnered up with Starz to stream some of the movies that Starz had the publishing rights to. Then they expanded a couple years later. Then they started making their services available to Xbox Live customers. Then they made it available to the PS3 and Wii. Then iOS and Android. During this transition, Netflix spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire the publishing rights to all of this content, as well as to invest in the necessary infrastructure to keep up with increasing demand.

OnLive and Gaikai (and any other game streaming service I'm not aware of) are small companies with a very small market. Their products might work well, but the video game industry is a tough nut to crack. To succeed, you need good marketing, solid and affordable hardware, and a good game library. 

OnLive, in my opinion, has terrible marketing. Every ad or commercial or press I've seen for it makes it sound like a scam. They clearly understand that people have misgivings about the concept of cloud gaming, but rather than address those concerns, they pretend they don't exist and that they've solved all of the problems. This makes them seem dishonest, and generally they never live up to their own hype. 

Gaikai I literally had never heard about before they were acquired by Sony a few months ago.

The hardware that supports OnLive is varied and inconsistent. They supposedly support tons of devices, but one instinctively knows that this is problematic, especially when they supposedly support mobile devices. Gaikai was in a similar boat before they were acquired by Sony, but more on that later.

As for games? This is probably where cloud services really shit the bed. OnLive, which is presently the most successful service out there, only has about 300 games to offer, and each has to be bought individually for essentially the same price as the disc version.

It's no surprise that OnLive hasn't gotten any substantial success. Why would I invest in hardware to play a potentially inferior version of a game I could just as easily buy for the same price and play without depending on an Internet connection or suffering glitches and poor video quality? The simple answer is, I wouldn't. And neither would you.

Imagine if Netflix had started out by only offering about 300 movies and you had to buy each one individually. Do you think they would have ever exploded in popularity the way they did?

But the limited selection and pricing schemes make sense. Game developers are notorious for demanding inflated prices for their hardware and being very protective of their publishing rights. OnLive couldn't offer a subscription service if they wanted to, simply because the only way they can get newer games is if they sell them for the standard price that everyone else has to. They have no special relationship with publishers and the publishers see no value in offering their games as part of a subscription package, and OnLive probably couldn't afford it anyway.

Still, that's not the only problem. The other big problem OnLive has is that they're not willing to commit to a serious infrastructure. The sad truth is that if they did somehow become an instant overnight success, their servers probably couldn't handle it and they'd drown in demand they couldn't supply.

So those are the real problems facing cloud gaming. A lacking infrastructure, dishonest marketing, wary publishers, skeptical consumers, disparate hardware requirements, and limited funding.

How Sony Could Make It Work

Despite these problems, I came to the realization that Sony is probably the best-equipped company to handle this problem head-on. They already have the tools at their disposal. They have the marketing. They're already a big name in the industry. People will listen to them. They have the standardized hardware. The PS4 sounds like a really solid machine and every single one will be functionally identical. With a stable broadband connection, decent servers, and well-written protocols, it could probably manage streaming games from previous generations with pretty decent quality. They have the infrastructure... sort of. They own Gaikai and they have a pretty decent PlayStation Network service that's not all that great, but they have the money to make it better if they care enough to. They don't have very many financial limitations. If nothing else, they've at least made it clear that they intend to do something along the lines of cloud gaming.

Most importantly, Sony has games. Games that people love. Games that they have the publishing rights to. And even more importantly, Sony has been previously willing to give their games away for free to PlayStation Plus subscribers. In measured amounts, certainly, but it's still something they've tried out, and maybe it's actually got some of them thinking.

So imagine this possible future, if you will.

It's June 11. The first day of E3. Microsoft goes up and announces the new Xbox. It's everything we expected it to be. They talk about better hardware, better graphics, better social aspects, better Live, better Kinect, better Windows 8 integration, and better pricing. They leave the stage confident that Sony is demolished.

Then Sony takes the stage. They unveil the PS4. It looks basically like what we expected it to look like. The hardware is about what we thought it would be. The gameplay demos are what we expected. Sony is about to be written off.

Then someone takes the stage to talk about the new PlayStation Cloud service. Everyone gets comfortable and zones out, idly tweeting about some other aspect of the coverage. Then the speaker drops a bombshell.

"On launch, we'll have all of the previous-generation games published by Sony Computer Entertainment available on PlayStation Cloud. This includes the Uncharted series, the Jak series, the Infamous series, the Ratchet and Clank series, the God of War series, the Sly Cooper series, the Spyro series, the Resistance series, just to name a handful."

The press gives a decent round of applause, then the speaker continues.

"These games, of course, will all be purchasable digitally through the PlayStation Store, but PlayStation Plus subscribers will be able to play all of these games through the PlayStation Cloud service for no additional cost."

And then everybody completely loses their shit. The PS4 has gone from just another PlayStation to the motherfucking monolith

Sure, Sony doesn't have the publishing rights to that many games. I haven't stopped and counted, but it's probably not much more than around 100 or so titles. But most of those titles are big, important titles. Titles that cover every genre. Brands that Sony has tried very hard to embellish. Some that we just haven't seen in quite a long time.

Think about it. You buy the console and pay a $50 one-year subscription (maybe the price will go up, but even if it does, the point stands) and you can suddenly play every old Sony game ever made. No need to worry about storage space. You just flip through the catalog and start playing. Look me in the eye and tell me that you wouldn't get excited over that prospect. That you wouldn't want a PS4.

Even if the selection was just limited to older titles owned by Sony, that alone would basically shake up the console world in a way it hasn't been impacted since the introduction of the Nintendo 64.

Then all Sony would have to do is keep their word. The service wouldn't have to be perfect. We're talking about older games, here. Older games you're playing essentially for free. Sometimes Netflix is slow or glitchy, but we still love it. So long as the service worked pretty well most of the time, we'd all adore it.

Of course, they'd also offer new games through the new service, but you'd probably have to pay for them. Maybe not full price, but enough to offset the additional cost of processing the enhanced graphics in the cloud. And if it was good enough, we'd probably be OK with it. A lot of us would still generally buy physical copies of our games at full price on launch day, but those of us with less disposable income and less interest in keeping games for more than an initial play-through would probably be willing to buy the discounted cloud version.

With the financial success of the console and the influx of new subscriptions, Sony would have the money and confidence to bolster their infrastructure, acquire more publishing deals, take more risks, and really make the service the new industry standard.

Meanwhile, Microsoft would probably be scrambling to acquire OnLive and set up a similar service, though they probably would keep the pricing scheme rather than give away games to subscribers. Their service would fail. Nintendo would just keep doing what they do and enjoying their niche market.

Over time, cloud gaming would basically be the new normal. Games would no longer have to worry as much about selling X number of copies in order to succeed. They could spend less on spectacle and smaller games would be easier to try with minimal investment. Eventually Microsoft (or someone else) will catch up and offer a decent competing service.

Sony could literally change the face of the industry.

Too Bad Sony Probably Won't

That being said, the problem is that Sony probably doesn't want to go all in on something this potentially risky. They've never been much of a risk-taking company. They might make their games available for their new Cloud service, and they might make some of the games free for PlayStation Plus subscribers, but it would be similar to their current offerings. Certain games will be free for a brief period of time, others will be discounted, you can only access them so long as you maintain the subscription. Their selection would probably be small to start with and grow slowly over time, but it will never take the world by storm simply because the alternative of buying a full physical or digital copy has more to offer than the cloud version.

Meanwhile, the new Xbox will kick their asses because even if it will be technically inferior, it will almost definitely be backwards compatible, it will probably be cheaper, and it will probably have much better marketing. 

Let me make this clear. I'm a pretty big Sony fan. I didn't used to be. I never owned a PS2, I didn't buy a PS3 until I had already bought a Wii and an Xbox 360. But the PS3 is what I consider to be the best console currently available. Sony has proven that when they're pointed in the right direction, they can really work some magic. But Sony has a bad habit of doing something just because it worked well in the past. "So what if the PS3 is expensive? The PS2 was more expensive than the GameCube but we won because we had better graphics and DVD support. The PS3 has the best graphics and supports the new Blu-Ray. The PSP has the best graphics and UMD support. Surely, they will be major successes." Almost all of their major failures can be attributed to them trying to repeat history. Sixaxis, Move, Home, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and possibly also the PS4.

Just saying, they're not big on trying new things, and that's usually their biggest downfall. They'd rather react than set the terms themselves.

The PS4 will probably do just fine, but it will never dominate unless Sony stops fiddling with the bone and starts cracking skulls.