Are the days of traditional video game consoles and gaming PCs numbered? Microchip meterologist Rik Myslewski sees game-filled clouds on the horizon.
Today, the best gaming experiences are found on big-screen TVs hooked up to gaming consoles from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, or on the displays of PCs tricked out with the latest and greatest graphics cards. That’s about to change, say the graphics gurus at Nvidia, who have announced a new server-based platform that will handle all the game-graphics heavy lifting up in the cloud, then send gaming goodness over the internet to your smart TV, Mac, iPad, iPhone, or whatever device your little heart desires, irrespective or what operating system that game was originally designed for.
This cloud-based gaming, also known as “gaming as a service”—which abbreviates quite wonderfully to GaaS—isn’t exactly new. One GaaS company, OnLive, was launched in the US in 2010; another, Gaikai, had its US debut in early 2011. The benefits of GaaS—well, maybe not to bleeding-edge enthusiasts, but to 95-plus percent of gamers—are obvious. For one, there’s no need to constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest game console or graphics card: the graphics power of your gaming device is relatively meaningless. There’s also no need to fork over big bucks each time a new game is released. When Diablo 3 suffered through its fits-and-starts debut on May 15, for example, you had to fork out $59.99 to join the orc-offing fun. Multiply that 60 bucks by the number of games you want to play, and the advantages are obvious.
In addition, if GaaS providers can cut deals with major publishers—admittedly a big “if”—they could offer far more top-notch games than could ever fit on your shelf or hard drive. The benefits to publishers would include a vastly expanded target user base, hit-or-miss game sales transformed into a predictable subscription-based cash flow, and the end of piracy. Publishers could even become GaaS providers themselves—Microsoft, for example, is already a rather cloudy outfit.
To usher in this brave new world, Nvidia will begin shipping a PCIe card called the GeForce GRID Processor later this year, targeted at data-center servers. On that PCIe card will be two of Nvidia’s new high-performance “Kepler” GPUs, each with 1,536 graphics cores and the ability to offload all the video processing from the server’s CPUs. Relieved of that chore, the CPUs will be able to run more games per server, and more GPUs can then be packed into the same server. Nvidia claims that GRID-equipped servers will be able to contain four times as many GPUs as today’s GaaS systems, slashing the cost of each game stream while consuming half as much power per stream.
Will new technology like Nvidia’s high-performance “Kepler” GPU kick consoles to the curb by taking high-end gaming to the cloud?
Of course, if you’ve used one of the current GaaS systems, you know that one of their greatest drawbacks is latency—the time lag incurred when you click something on your display, then wait for that command to travel over the internet, trigger something on the server, then travel all the way back to your system and behead an orc. Or whatever. Nvidia insists that it has conquered this problem by endowing the GeForce GRID Processor with exceptionally low-latency performance. They are also working with smart TV manufacturers to squeeze every millisecond of latency out of their devices, with the goal of a GRID system matching the low latency of today’s offline game consoles.
If Nvidia can pull all this off, you may not need to replace your current game console when it inevitably gets long in the tooth. And thanks to the magic of server-level operating system virtualization, we lovers of Apple hardware may get access to games not offered in Mac OS X or iOS versions, such as the Xbox 360’s Halo: Reach and the PlayStation 3’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots—or, for that matter, a Windows copy of Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust.
Rik Myslewski was editor-in-chief of MacAddict from 2001 until it transformed into Mac|Life in 2007, and now writes for The Register, which is “biting the hand that feeds IT” daily atwww.theregister.co.uk.