The PlayStation of the future may be little more than a channel to display and control games running on powerful remote servers. At least that’s a potential endgame now that Sony Computer Entertainment has announced its $380 million acquisition of streaming gaming specialist Gaikai, which it will use to build “a new cloud service.”
Founded in 2008 by founders including Dave Perry of Shiny Entertainment, Gaikai differs from other cloud gaming services like OnLive in a few key ways. First, the service works directly in a Java-based web browser, rather than through a separate downloadable program. This allows fully streamed games to be embedded on various websites. On the other hand, Gaikai mainly focuses on providing free demo access to PC games from third-party publishers (including EA, Ubisoft, Warner Bros, and THQ), rather than giving players access to full games. This service makes money from advertisements and referrals to retail purchases with partners such as Walmart.
Sony and Gaikai have been rumored to have been in talks for months, with some reports taking a leap of faith in predicting an E3 announcement for the acquisition. And while Sony isn’t discussing details about what it will do with Gaikai’s streaming technology, today’s announcement mentions plans to “stream content ranging from immersive core games with rich graphics to casual content anytime, anywhere on a variety of internet-connected devices.”
On the PS3 itself, a Gaikai-like service would make sense to provide instant access to game demos, without requiring several gigabytes of downloads to space-constrained hard drives. But the service’s real potential could be getting PS3 content onto other devices without the need for expensive hardware. Imagine streaming Gaikai-powered PS3 games to the controller-equipped Xperia Play phone, a cheap TV micro-console that’s much cheaper than a full PS3, or even straight to Sony Smart TVs. (Gaikai has already been integrated into TVs from Sony competitors Samsung and LG, though those partnerships are unlikely to last much longer).
However, high-end gaming via the cloud is still not completely indistinguishable from a powerful console in your living room. Even with a relatively fast connection speed, there can be a noticeable loss in visual quality and controller lag if your input is sent to a data server hundreds of miles away. We noticed such incidents when reviewing the OnLive Microconsole in 2010. While some games will be “fully playable” even on slow connections, cloud gaming may never provide the precise frame-level response times needed for fighting games. (Digital Foundry has a good and in-depth overview of the technical issues with playing games over the cloud, now and in the future).
Still, it may become increasingly important for Sony to have a cloud gaming option in the future. It’s extremely unlikely that the PlayStation 4 will be used exclusively for game streaming – Sony reportedly considered and rejected the idea of an online-only console for the next generation of hardware. But if the PlayStation 4 has a new hardware architecture that makes local emulation of older PlayStation titles more difficult, as rumor has it, a cloud service could be an easier method for running classic titles.
And while PS4 hardware is stuck at initial hardware power for years after release, cloud gaming servers can continually upgrade for better performance. NVIDIA is already targeting an entire product line at 3,000+ core GPUs optimized for cloud gaming. And don’t forget, this high-quality content can be streamed to almost any hardware that can handle a high-speed internet connection and HD video.
Sony isn’t alone in recognizing the importance of game streaming for the future. According to an alleged product roadmap leaked earlier last month, Microsoft sees a cloud gaming microconsole as an important part of its hardware strategy by 2015. The Xbox 360 maker reportedly plans to close the acquisition of Gaikai competitor OnLive at some point. consider, the document said. With that company valued at $1.8 billion, Sony’s $380 million purchase seems downright cheap.
All in all, Gaikai’s integration into the Sony family isn’t likely to revolutionize the PlayStation ecosystem any time soon, but it gives Sony a major foothold in cloud gaming. The timing may be perfect as cloud gaming looks to become a more integral part of how we access and play games in the future.