Whoever has installed the game “Planet Coaster” on an average computer and has placed a self-built roller coaster next to the other one in his amusement park, will get jerked at some point. The otherwise fast ride stops every two seconds, the sound stops, and you have no choice but to either shut down the graphics, tear down the ride or upgrade your computer. The problem with this game in particular is that you can accommodate more and more details and animations in a very small space. For passionate gamers, upgrading is only a short-term solution – it usually saves you two to three years until the next game paralyses your computer or a better console comes out.
These problems may soon be a thing of the past. At this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, the future of video games was primarily known as streaming. The core idea behind it is that an average computer, a browser and a stable network connection are enough to play almost anything – the servers in the cloud take over the computing power. This vision is not new, but so far the technology was still immature. Video games are a technical challenge because they are not as easy to stream as music and videos due to the amount of data and the dynamics of the game. The industry has therefore so far concentrated on improving the devices.
Google, of all companies, put an end to this. Google presented a YouTube trailer for the game “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey”, which needs much more computing power than “Planet Coaster”. The button “Play now” appears on the screen in the browser. When a player clicks on it, the game runs within five seconds. Waiting for download and installation – that all belongs in the past.
That the research laboratories of the big IT companies – Google, Microsoft, Nvidia – were working on this idea was known, but the fact that Google is already opening its service Stadia for developers shows that streaming is now getting serious. Project boss Majd Dakar says that they’ve been working on it for years, but it’s only in the last few months that they’ve made great progress: in 2018 they’ve achieved a resolution of 1080p with 60 FPS and stereo sound, in the meantime it’s 4k, 60 FPS HDR and surround sound – which puts Stadia at the level of current game consoles, and in the future it’s even supposed to be 8k.
Google has two further trumps over the competition: Streaming runs over the more than 7,500 world-wide nodes, thus over the world-wide data centers, over which also the search machine is completed. Stadia thus has 10.7 TeraFLOPs of GPU performance at its disposal. In addition, Stadia is cross-device from the outset – the platform works with PC, Smartphone, Tablet, or even with Chromecast. In the course of 2019, Stadia will still be opened for gamers, but Google has not yet quoted a price for a subscription. Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive of Google, just said: “We are absolutely serious about making the technology accessible to everyone”.
Lewis Ward, an analyst who tracks the video games industry, said in the New York Times that Stadia’s success depends on many factors. In addition to the price, it is unclear how revenues will be shared with game developers. Even more important is the question of which big titles Google can win for the platform. “If the catalog consists mainly of PC titles and Android titles, this will be a big disappointment,” Ward said. The “Candy Crush saga” would not increase data traffic in the Google data center.
Always: One day after Google’s announcement, Ubisoft sent a statement from CEO Yves Guillemot, who said he was proud to be working with Google on Stadia and building on what he learned from the test phase with “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey”: “This is just the beginning and we can’t wait to see what comes next for Stadia.” Ubisoft said it’s a great success. On the other hand, the big gaming platforms often live from a manageable number of popular games or game series, which they are unlikely to share with the competition.
Google presented a WLAN controller at the GDC, which looks similar to the one of Xbox One. It is directly connected to Google’s data centers, which is why it works across devices without drivers. One button is used to trigger the voice functions of the Google Assistant, another to record the gameplay, which can then be published in high quality on YouTube. While playing, a GAmer can also call up a tutorial or walkthrough at the touch of a button if it can’t get any further. He can also watch a Let’s Play video and enter the game directly by pressing a button. All these are attempts to reposition YouTube in relation to Twitch.
His parent company Amazon, however, is also very active. With Amazon Web Services, the company has long since established itself as a cloud provider and thus also has a good infrastructure for advanced streaming services – and, incidentally, Twitch. At the GDC, Amazon organized a real panel and workshop marathon to win over the developers, especially for the Lumberyard game engine and the various customer analysis tools that Amazon has always been strong with – AI-powered tools that make it easier to understand players. They should be concerned with the question of what these developments mean for the protection of their data – because the companies will collect as many as possible to influence gaming and consumer behaviour.
Like Google, Amazon also sees the possibility of linking Assistant Alexa to video games. The connection to “Call of Duty” showed how this could look like. Alexa gives there personalisierte instructions and summarizes the happened. “We are moving towards a world of spatial technology, and we think that spoken language is an important part of it,” said Cami Williams, developer at Alexa Games in an interview.
Microsoft’s counterpart to Stadia is “Project xCloud”. This is not yet as far advanced as it seems, but Microsoft has another target group in mind anyway. For Google Stadia an internet speed of 25 Mbit/s is assumed. Microsoft is aiming for between five and six Mbit/s for its platform. With this, the company apparently wants to address mobile devices where high stable streaming rates are not yet standard, especially on the move.
At the GDC it also became clear that the trend towards streaming could actually make new types of graphics possible. Raytracing in particular is a promising technique that can be used to create convincing lighting effects. An algorithm calculates where and how the light hits an object, which interactions occur between light, shadow and reflections and how the colors change as a result. So far, developers have used artificially working screening methods for graphics. However, raytracing is not only interesting for streaming. The Unreal Engine 4 and Unity are already working on raytracing support.
This article was published in changed form in Computer Bild Spiele