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Streaming entertainment content from the cloud – particularly films, TV shows or music – has become a normal part of everyday life over the course of the past decade, with entities such as Netflix, Amazon, Spotify and SoundCloud all rising to prominence in that time.
Where the streaming of computer games is concerned, though, the concept has taken a little longer to establish itself, but is now a verifiable success story, with figures from analyst house Valuates suggesting the global cloud gaming market is on course to grow by 42% between 2019-2025 to be worth $740m.
With numerous plans by several large cloud service providers (CSPs) and telecommunication companies to either enter the cloud gaming space themselves, or releasing services and offerings designed specifically to cater to this major players within this market, it seems cloud gaming’s time has come.
The concept surfaced from the idea to allow users to be able to stream high-end games on devices, such as laptops, tablets, TVs and mobile phones with the only necessary component being a good internet connection.
The idea being this would free gamers from having to regularly upgrade their PC hardware or consoles in order to play premium-titled games.
The ability to stream games in this way also has its benefits to game developers as well as, as it has the potential to increase the reach of the games they work on to audiences beyond just PC and console users, as their titles can be access from anywhere, from any device, as well as allowing the developer to update games without the worry of the end-users device capabilities.
This significant rise in audience size, which is increasing due to eSports, makes it a lucrative market and a substantial opportunity for companies that are trying to break into this space.
Connectivity is key to good cloud gaming
Though cloud gaming as a concept is not new, it relies heavily on the cloud and connectivity, which has advanced and improved significantly over the past decade, but there are still some technology barriers that need to be overcome.
The biggest challenge for cloud gaming, and the main reason, it hasn’t yet fully taken off is due to the required technology to support the service.
When playing on a PC or console, for example, all the data processing, graphics and video rendering is all done locally, making any latency issues unnoticeable. Game streaming services, however, operate on a centralised cloud which creates lag for gamers as they are geographically dispersed and often located far away from the datacentres hosting the titles they want to play.
This is a big issue in gaming, particularly with multiplayer games and eSports, as the further the user is from the datacentre, the higher the latency, meaning those who are closer-by may get an unfair advantage when competing against other players.
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Latency and responsiveness are the chief obstacles which challenge the full-scale rise to cloud gaming, for both the cloud gaming community and game developers, but it’s a challenge the public cloud giants are apparently rushing to help them out with.
In June 2018, Google announced it’s making a substantive effort towards working closely with the media and entertainment industries by opening up cloud region in Los Angeles, near Hollywood, to provide low-latency connections to its cloud servers to the visual effects and animation firms located there.
Similarly, Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced in December 2019 its plan to augment its massive datacentre regions with smaller cloud data processing hubs, known as Local Zones, in major cities to support businesses that require low-latency connections to its compute and storage resources.
The first of these Local Zones will be sited in Los Angeles, with the cloud giant directly citing the plight of game developers, and their requirements for milli-second latency connections to the cloud, as a use case during the unveiling of the initiative at its Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas.
The technology underpinning cloud gaming
As the variety of gaming devices grow along with demand, it will inevitably charge the implementation of cloud gaming, in turn, driving market growth within the sector.
Additionally, in the last few years, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) devices have become increasingly popular in enhancing the gaming experience. This, in turn, has put further pressure on the cloud infrastructure underpinning these games.
Both AR and VR are, after all, highly sensitive to latency and demanding on computational power that even high-end CPUs cannot handle for next-generation games, making cloud services even more popular.
Streaming graphically intensive games in close to real-time demands significant amounts of bandwidth and a stable internet connection. To handle such a demand on hardware capabilities, cloud gaming services have adopted GPU-as-a-Service (GPUaaS), which is also proving popular in the delivery of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) workloads, as well as cloud gaming too .
One of the key benefits of using GPUaaS is that it enables hundreds of graphically-intensive games to stream concurrently at high frame rates, reducing latency.
The cloud gaming environment today
The attraction of being able to have an interactive gaming experience from anywhere, at any time, on any device has game developers and technology companies investing big in cloud technologies.
Currently, Google is on the forefront with its much-anticipated Google Stadia setup, but Microsoft also went public in 2018 with plans to provide a device-agnostic gaming experience of its own that would be underpinned by its own global Azure datacentre footprint.
While they have the cloud expertise, along Amazon, and the necessary tools, research and development teams, infrastructure know-how, they also have the “status” to build and grow the hype-cycle that has, in turn, drawn in gamers to their platforms.
However, despite the advances in cloud technology, many challenges remain before the desired player experience can be delivered on a responsive and consistent manner.
Online gaming experiences are interactive in nature with many games, including multiplayer functionality. Multiplayer demands real-time response rates which the cloud cannot provide on its own, primarily due to the geographical location of cloud datacentres. Which is where edge computing comes into its own.
As centralised cloud computing requires companies to keep content in a single place, edge computing enables the distribution of application processes at the edge of the network and as near to the user as possible.
In the case of cloud gaming, the edge can enable new platforms to emulate the gains of having a console or high-end PC, while improving the convenience and availability by removing the need for dedicated devices, and helping solve the latency issues in transferring data and the rendering of graphically intensive video from the cloud to the user.
This allows for the creation of a more flexible platform with the ability to scale, while also giving gamers the prerogative to move easily between different locations and games on a variety of different devices.
For example, a player can start playing a game on their PC at home but can pick up where they left off on their smartphone on their commute to work.
Edge computing ensures users across the globe can enjoy a high-quality gaming experience, no matter where or how they’re playing.
So, while the future of gaming lies in cloud streaming, the centralised cloud on its own is not ready to bring these platforms to life.
As technology companies develop and launch next-generation cloud gaming service platforms, they will need to move the processing power to the edge to ensure real-time, interactive gameplay. If not, performance issues like service disruptions and latency could have gamers depending on their consoles and PCs that much longer.