The gaming industry is booming. There are 211 million people gaming in the U.S., and it’s one of the fastest-growing forms of entertainment on the planet. In the age of Twitch streaming, gaming has even upstaged traditional sports viewership. On average, young gamers between the ages of 18 and 25 spend a full hour more watching online gaming than watching traditional sports.
Gaming has also become a way of connecting with others—65% of players say they play with others online or in person. Some software development teams even encourage gaming in the workplace to increase productivity. For this reason, there has been a massive shift toward online cooperative games, RPGs and sandboxes like Minecraft. Also, games are becoming more cloud-based, with purchases, downloads and game saves occurring in the cloud. Still, many people lack the hardware necessary to run complex games locally. All these factors are harbingers of a coming shift away from PC and console-based processing.
I recently met with Noam Salinger, product manager, Granulate, to learn about the future of gaming and how software teams in the gaming industry can prepare. To Salinger, “cloud gaming is the next step.” The move away from consoles and toward cloud-based, remote processing will have huge ripple effects. Lowering the barrier to gaming could introduce millions of more players into the ecosystem and further balloon the industry. However, cloud gaming presents significant hurdles. The transition will require a substantial reduction in latency, 5G networking and highly efficient computing optimizations.
Roadblocks to Cloud Gaming
“Cloud is an integral part of any gaming company,” says Salinger. More and more functionality associated with gaming is being pushed online. There are already online game marketplaces, cloud-based account management and remote game saves. This is especially prevalent with mobile gaming. But, what about the actual processing for computationally-intensive games—could these workloads also move to the cloud soon?
This kind of cloud-based gaming could soon come to fruition. Yet, Salinger foresees some major roadblocks to cloud gaming:
1. The Software Components
A complete jump to cloud gaming will require having the proper software infrastructure in place and getting vendors on board to support it. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle to cloud gaming in the software industry, said Salinger, “It’s still not mature enough.”
2. The Business Components
Furthermore, gaming platform companies might refrain from cloud gaming due to fears of it cannibalizing their existing hardware sales channels. On the other hand, cloud gaming presents a big opportunity to take on more of a subscription-based model, such as allowing a user to play any game they want from an extensive suite of games. Akin to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu or Peacock, we could see similar platform styles emerging in gaming. “They will have no choice but to participate at some point,” said Salinger.
3. The Network Components
As most gamers can attest, online games can easily suffer from network issues that negatively affect gameplay. Salinger predicts that the ubiquity of 5G networks will be necessary to propel the cloud gaming market forward. 5G could be a universal method to enable real-time connections for a broader base of end-user gamers.
Even if software developers optimize game processing speeds, a poor network could add enough latency to data throughput to cancel out those gains. 5G could expedite this process, but it’s taking a lot longer than expected. Some estimates place 5G finally arriving at full throttle sometime in 2023, after more antennas are constructed and pre-existing physical infrastructure is upgraded.
4. The Latency Components
Another significant roadblock to cloud gaming is figuring out real-time remote computing on the game vendor side. “This is where the latency aspect of things really comes into play,” said Salinger. Since game clients will be making many remote calls, optimizing cloud CPU utilization will be vital to reducing the response time to requests.
Cloud gaming will require parallel running processes that anticipate user action. Similar to the way modern web applications simultaneously trigger multiple backend requests for authentication, geolocation, user databases and so on, real-time cloud games will require many different processes running in parallel. Servers could allocate resources before requests come in, using predictive analysis of usage patterns to trigger components in advance of user behaviors.
To enable intelligent resource allocation, Salinger describes how an OS-agnostic kernel module could be in charge of resource allocation, continuously adapting to changes in the application workload. Low-level resource allocation at the CPU level, the allocation memory, I/O, and the sequence of execution must be optimal for each specific application, he described.
This sort of process is already being applied in production by some ad tech companies to enable real-time ad bidding. For example, by optimizing cloud CPU utilization, Perion is able to perform faster, process more responses and use fewer machines to perform the same task—thereby reducing the roundtrip time for each request. Similar principles could be used to advance cloud gaming.
Rendering sophisticated virtual environments is highly resource-intensive, and high-performance graphics cards are expensive. Video games are set to only increase in complexity with new AR/VR modes. Cloud gaming could help respond to rising computational needs and replace the need for local computing hardware. In the process, this move could bring in more gamers, disrupt the console wars, and nullify age-old PC-versus-Mac compatibility issues.
Moving to a cloud-based approach is also arguably more aligned with today’s fast-paced software release cadences. Pushing more frequent patches can help resolve bugs faster. But it also could aid in retaining engagement by introducing new levels and objectives continually.
The rise of the gaming ecosystem can’t be ignored. But as it stands now, there are still significant challenges to wider penetration of cloud gaming. Cloud computing optimizations to reduce latency, mainstream adoption of 5G and significant re-platforming of software infrastructure are just some of the many issues that will need to be tackled before truly cloud-based gaming experiences advance to the next level.