The Brave New(ish) World of Playstation 4

I absolutely love the idea of streaming games, and am excited but not surprised to see that the new Playstation 4 will have the ability to stream games over the internet.  This was widely surmised to be behind Sony’s purchase of cloud gaming company Gaikai last year.  Streaming games, for those who don’t know, is just like Netflix – your machine is hooked up to a server which is actually processing the game, your controls are pushed to the server, which executes the commands, and what you’re watching is actually streamed video.  The downside, as with most hyper-ambitious streaming projects, is simply bandwidth.

Streaming is a great idea, but even a solid connection can’t really keep up.  Eurogamer testing found a relatively playable lag of around 150 milliseconds…using a solid 25 MBPS (megabits per second) direct fiber connection.  Now, if you have a direct fiber connection in your home that reliably delivers 25 MBPs, bully to you.  I sure don’t, and neither do virtually any Americans.  The average “high-speed” internet connection in the United States is around 5 MBPS.  With that sort of connection, you’re talking about lags in the 300+ millisecond range. This makes streaming pretty unpleasant and janky, but also just completely screws up the ability to play any game that requires precise timing.  Also, the video that can be streamed is lower-resolution than the normal output of the console itself.

Halo 4 as streamed from the cloud (artist’s impression)

So while hypothetically you can play higher-fidelity games in the cloud, the lag and resolution issues mean the end product looks poor and play worse.  It’s most useful when the user has terrible hardware but incredible broadband – that’s a pretty unusual edge case.  Plus one obviously avoided when the hardware in question is the brand-new super-fancy Playstation.

As I’ve said before, I think cloud gaming will always be the technology of the future.  It does solve the backwards-compatibility issue, i.e., that an internet-connected PS4 will be able to play the entire PS3 library.  In that situation the lower fidelity matters less (since it will be expected to be worse than current-generation games).  The lag issue will still be a considerable one to deal with, and will help keep this feature of limited use for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, this comes down to a question of “how much is this worth to a customer”?  And I’d be surprised if the answer is more than “not very much”.  It’s a product useful in some edge cases with some major, major drawbacks.  It seems particularly strange as a product bundled with an expensive, high-end gaming system that can play every single featured game better by downloading and running it locally.  So while it’s pretty cool that this is a real thing, I’m a little confused by the execution.

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