When Sony bought Gaikai 18 months ago for $ 380 million, it was clear that the entertainment titan had big plans for the cloud service. Now, Sony is hinting that we’ll start seeing products based on those plans within a year. A developer beta will supposedly begin early in 2014, with a full North American rollout before the end of the calendar year. Sounds good, but what does Sony actually plan to do with its game streaming service?
Eurogamer caught up with Andrew House, President and Group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, and got him to go on the record regarding Gaikai’s purpose. “Our goal is to be able to have a new form of game distribution streamed from the server side, initially to PS4 consoles then gradually moving that out to Vita,” House told Eurogamer. “But eventually, the endgame is to have this available on a multitude of network-connected devices, essentially delivering a console-quality gaming experience on devices which are not innately capable of doing that.”
So where’s Microsoft?
In late September, at the Microsoft Company Meeting, Microsoft demoed Halo 4 streaming to both Windows PCs and Windows Phone devices. In early November, however, the company backed off the technology, telling Polygon that while the technology was impressive in certain circumstances, “It’s really cool and really problematic, all at the same time.” Put more simply, Microsoft isn’t sure consumer broadband is up to the challenge of streaming that much information, and it’s leery of committing to a service that it can’t deliver at a consistently high quality.
Asked specifically about Halo 4, Microsoft’s Albert Penello stated that the demo in late September was a “grand experiment” that would be on hold until consumer networking improved to the point where such a service was viable.
Microsoft is clearly playing its cards more conservatively than Sony on this point, which makes some sense — Sony, having spent $ 380 million to acquire Gaikai at a time when its own finances are less-than stellar, is undoubtedly under pressure to justify the investment. It’s also fair to ask what percentage of customers will have a good experience with a streaming technology — it makes no sense to put a major push behind a premium feature if only 10-20% of the install base can take advantage of it — especially if it’s a feature you hope to monetize rather than making free to existing Xbox Live and PSN subscribers.
At the same time, however, Microsoft feels like it’s missing the boat on this one. I’ve already covered my own reasons for wanting to see a strong streaming option on the Xbox One, and Microsoft seems better positioned to deliver such a cross-platform experience, given that it already owns the Windows 8 kernel used PCs, Windows Phones, and the Xbox itself.
Streaming solves backwards compatibility problems
One of the advantages PCs have over consoles is that PCs remain backwards compatible — mostly. The truth is, for how good Windows is about playing old games, if you step back far enough, you run into an increasing number of titles that either won’t play nice with a modern operating system, or can’t run on modern video card drivers due to rendering errors or audio engine problems.
Sometimes ingenious tweaks and patches are able to fix these problems, particularly if a game is updated and put out for sale on a platform like Steam or GOG. Oftentimes, they aren’t. If the last set of fully compatible drivers for a 2002 game shipped in 2008 and your video card wasn’t built until 2011, getting a functional video solution is going to be an adventure. Streaming could offer a seamless way to solve this problem. Older titles with lower bandwidth needs, meanwhile, would be an ideal test-case.
I still think Microsoft is better positioned to catch this wave, but if Sony is moving to launch Gaikai in 2014 and MS has no equivalent on the burner, the PS4 could be the early streaming leader.