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Updated: November 29, 2010 19:52 IST

Console games watch out, cloud gaming is gaining traction

Keith Stuart
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A youth plays a computer game at an Internet cafe in Beijing. Cluster gaming is seen as an alternative to the more expensive console gaming. Photo: AP
AP A youth plays a computer game at an Internet cafe in Beijing. Cluster gaming is seen as an alternative to the more expensive console gaming. Photo: AP

PlayStations, Xboxes, high-spec PCs and computer games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops will be under many Christmas trees this year.

But gaming hardware - and the selling of games in physical format - could be made redundant by “cloud gaming”, the latest innovation quietly gaining a foothold in the market as higher speed internet connections become standard.

Services that allow games to be downloaded are already popular, but cloud gaming takes things further: it works by streaming games without having to buy expensive top-end computers or consoles. The games are run on huge server farms, rather than being rendered on the users’ own PCs and so don’t need powerful machines with fast graphics cards and quad-core processors that are needed to play sophisticated games offline.

In the vanguard are firms such as OnLive, which launched its service in the U.S. in June, giving owners of even the most basic netbooks and ageing computers the chance to play titles such as Batman: Arkham Asylum and Assassin’s Creed II.

Next month OnLive is launching a “micro-console” for $99 that plugs into a television and an internet connection, allowing users to stream games to their HD TVs rather than a computer.

Another U.S. start-up, Gaikai is also offering a streaming games service. Its service allows games publishers to create and distribute playable clips of their latest games, making them available via gaming websites, mobile phones and social networking services. At this year’s E3 game expo in Los Angeles, Gaikai demonstrated the hugely popular multiplayer game World of Warcraft running through Facebook.

Gaikai founder David Perry said: “With one single click you could play Warcraft, which is a 14GB game. I mean, imagine, one minute you’re playing FarmVille and the next you’re playing Call of Duty.” Cloud gaming is still in its infancy. The big console makers are not yet alarmed. Matt Martin, the editor of the games industry news site Gamesindustry.biz, said: “If you talk to the big TV manufacturers like Panasonic, they don’t make any money on selling televisions. The margins are peanuts.

“But everyone else takes advantage of their technology being in the home to make money. So the TV manufacturers are now talking to OnLive and Gaikai about running these services straight through the televisions. This might get PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox sweating a little bit.” However, cloud gaming does require a reliable high speed broadband connection. OnLive requires a persistent connection of about 5mb to allow gamers to play without significant lag. Lag means a gap between pushing a button and an action taking place in the game - no good for shoot ‘em up or racing games requiring fast reactions.

Big publishers such as EA, Activision and Ubisoft are watching the cloud gaming industry with interest but aren’t yet ready to get involved.

“The industry is in a remarkable state of flux right now,” said industry insider Rob Crossley. “We don’t just have cloud gaming, we have social gaming, indie gaming, we have motion control. There’s so much going on that people just aren’t ready to think about another disruptive device.”

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010

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