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Games Everywhere: The Game Industry's Challenge for 2013

If there's one clear trend from CES 2013, it's that hardware companies want to deliver console-quality games everywhere -- either by streaming games, buying new consoles, or buying new controllers.

January 14, 2013

12 Min Read

Author: by Patrick Miller

At CES 2013 last week, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang succinctly laid out the challenge facing the games industry at large in his opening remarks at the Nvidia press conference on Sunday evening: "It isn't possible for you to enjoy the same video game on any device."

Where the iPod, the Kindle, and the cloud have enabled consumers to consume music, books, and movies whenever and however they pleased, Huang said the challenge for the consumer tech companies is to invent the technology to make this happen with video games.

Huang's opening remarks may have been intended to offer context for Nvidia's subsequent product announcements, but they also conveniently framed the way game hardware manufacturers at CES are approaching the next year.

From chipset giants like Nvidia to smaller accessory developers like Mad Catz, everyone is trying to find a way to sell consumers on gadgets that will recreate their preferred game experience on any device they own -- but there are different approaches to making this happen.

Approach #1: Cloud Streaming Game Services

One way to answer this challenge is to build a cloud streaming game service like Gaikai or OnLive, and literally offer players the same game on any device by offloading the heavy processing work to a central server facility and streaming the gameplay to a much lower-power device (a tablet, smartphone, lower-end PC, or smart TV chipset, for example). That way, the client device only needs to be powerful enough to handle an HD streaming video feed and the player's inputs, not the entire game's processing demands.

Cloud streaming game services and infrastructure were scattered all across CES: smart TVs from LG and Vizio with built-in Google TV support, including OnLive clients; budding streaming service Agawi announced a partnership with system-on-a-chip manufacturer Marvell to extend the reach of streaming game services in smart TVs and set-top boxes; and Nvidia announced Grid, a rack-mounted server meant specifically for cloud streaming game service providers.

Though OnLive sells games at near-retail prices (while also offering three- and five-day rentals for some titles) other providers monetize this model by selling access to games as a service, not unlike a premium TV channel. Nvidia sells the hardware to providers like Playcast and Agawi, and the providers negotiate with publishers to build a library of streaming games that end-users can pay a monthly fee to access from a compatible mobile device, set-top box/cable box, or smart TV. It's not yet clear which business model, if any, will win.

This approach certainly has its advantages -- it's relatively cheap for a new customer who owns a compatible device to sign up and start playing without having to buy any dedicated games hardware -- but the quality of the experience itself varies widely depending on the customer's broadband quality, distance from the server, and the stream provider's own configuration.

With this in mind, I asked Nvidia Grid senior project manager Andrew Fear about what they could do on their end to ensure a quality experience.

"We do everything we can to improve the latency by encoding the stream before we send it, but a lot of it will depend on the provider's network arrangement," says Fear. "There's certainly something to be said for having a smartly-distributed set of servers to reduce latency. The other thing is the type of games they're streaming; if one provider is only interested in serving Android casual games, they can serve more users per server. "

"We did change things in the hardware to improve latency, and when we measure it now, a traditional game console takes about 150ms to output to a console, and for Grid we're already at about the same level," Fear says.

"We don't control bandwidth, but we can anticipate trends. For us, when we send out our game streams it's about 5 mb/sec; in Seoul, that's a drop in the bucket. But I live in Texas, and every year my potential bandwidth is increasing. Certainly, there are always hiccups, but the infrastructure is building around Netflix for streaming video on demand, and our bandwidth demands are not that different."

A month or so before CES, I met with Playcast, one of Nvidia's streaming service partners, to try out its service. To be sure, the demo was promising; I tried the service out on both a smart TV and an Android tablet, and the service looked good and played well enough (especially considering that Playcast's US-side server deployment was fairly small at the time.) The system's on-the-fly video compression did appear to keep the game fairly responsive even when the network connection quality fluctuated.

But in order for cloud streaming games services to be a widely compelling product, each step in the delivery chain from streaming center to end-user needs to be up to par, and considering the tremendous variation in nationwide broadband quality in the U.S. alone, it's hard to tell when this kind of service will be able to muster the momentum it needs to succeed.

So while cloud streaming games may be able to deliver the same game on any device for a relatively low sticker price, there's no guarantee that the game experience would be a good one if you're living too far away from a server or your local broadband pipe doesn't have enough bandwidth or low enough latency.

What's more, even if the streaming conditions themselves were perfectly acceptable, playing a game with a touchscreen or average TV remote instead of the dual analog sticks or keyboard/mouse combo the game was designed for rarely makes for a quality game experience -- especially not for the core game audience who would be interested in subscribing to a streaming service in the first place.

Approach #2: Build More Powerful, Versatile Mobile Devices

The cloud streaming games approach is built on the assumption that it's easier to sell people relatively low-power, "dumb" terminal devices and keep the real processing power in the server farms -- essentially adopting the classic mainframe-terminal model of computing. But chipset developers like Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Intel are only continuing to make mobile processors that are smaller, cheaper, more energy-efficient, and more powerful.

At this year's CES in particular, it's easier than ever to imagine a game industry built solely on extraordinarily powerful mobile devices that also serve as home consoles. After all, if you start a game on your tablet during your commute home and finish it on your tablet at home while it's plugged into a dock connecting it to your TV and USB controllers, you're still kind of "enjoying the same game on any device" -- it's just that the device has changed somewhat.

Last year at CES, PC game peripheral manufacturer Razer entered the system business with a premium game laptop, the Razer Blade, and showed off a strange-looking game-focused tablet prototype called Project Fiona.

This year at CES, Project Fiona became a real product called the Razer Edge, which is a Windows 8 tablet built with an Intel Core processor and an Nvidia mobile GPU, and features a series of separate accessories intended to let consumers adapt it to their preferred playing situations.

By itself, it's a relatively high-powered tablet, but if you want to hold it like a rather large portable game console with an analog stick and buttons on each side, or hook it up to a battery-powered mobile keyboard and mouse for a laptop PC experience, or hook it up to a dock that connects to your HDTV via HDMI and has ports for several USB controllers for local multiplayer like a console, you can buy adapters to let you do that.

It's expensive, mind you -- $999 for the base tablet configuration, plus a range from $100 to $250 for each of the adapters -- but for core audiences looking to buy a new tablet, laptop, and/or console that they can use to access their existing Windows PC game library however they like, that price might not be too high.

Nvidia also bet on buffing mobile game devices. Not only did it announce its new mobile processor, the Tegra 4, it also announced a Tegra 4-powered mobile Android console called Project Shield that can locally play Android games via built-in 5" touchscreen or gamepad, output those Android games to an HDMI display for living room play, or even stream Windows games from a GeForce-equipped PC on the owner's local network.

Frankly, Project Shield seems like kind of a strange device that does a little bit of everything, but it's not hard to see how it could suit an enthusiast that wants to play Android games on the go and isn't satisfied with touchscreen controls, or wants more flexibility in how they play their PC library around the house (by hooking the Shield up to the HDTV instead of having to park a gaming PC in the living room, for example, or getting a quick Dishonored nightcap in before bed).

Compared to cloud streaming games, these two mobile devices undoubtedly have an easier time ensuring a quality game experience, but the up-front cost for the consumer is much higher; the Edge is about twice as much as a brand new home console costs on release for just the base configuration with no adapters, and Project Shield's PC-streaming functionality will require a PC with a Nvidia graphics chipset. What about budget-minded audiences?

Approach #3: Solve the Touchscreen Problem in Existing Mobile Devices

If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything else looks like a nail -- and if you manufacture hammers, you probably want everyone else to see nails everywhere, too. It's no surprise that the hardware companies mentioned above are trying to solve the problem of Same Game, Different Device with new, expensive tech (it's their job), but really, there's an easier fix for this: Hardware controls for smartphones and tablets.

Instead of trying to enable consumers to play the same games on all their devices, it would be much more feasible to simply offer them the necessary controls to have a home console-quality experience on-the-go instead, and the limiting factor here is mostly the clumsiness of the touchscreen when it comes to staple core game genres like first person shooters.

It's no secret that there are plenty of games out there for iOS and Android that are unsatisfactory were designed with a gamepad in mind, and in my experience, even the best virtual gamepad simply doesn't cut it.

To be sure, some game devs are doing a great job building games that use the touchscreen in ways that feel splendidly tuned and natural, but until we all live in places with cloud servers and great bandwidth everywhere, or can afford to shell out for a highly-specialized gadget like the Edge or Shield, why not give the people what they want and let us hook up wireless controllers to the smartphones and tablets we already own? Well, that's basically what input device manufacturers Mad Catz, SteelSeries, and Moga (among others) are trying to do.

Mad Catz appears to be the most ambitious of the lot: Shortly before CES 2013, Mad Catz announced the GameSmart Initiative, which is its attempt to champion the development of an open cross-platform Bluetooth controller standard in order to make it easier for peripheral manufacturers to make mobile accessories, developers to support them in their games, and consumers to buy both said accessories and games without worrying about whether X game would support Y controller or not.

Mad Catz senior VP of new product development Andrew Young explains: "We're trying to evangelize a worldwide market standard, a global approach, not just a proprietary MadCatz approach... People have been trying to do Bluetooth, but they've been doing it more proprietary and requiring drivers on different platforms, and we sat back and watched this for about 18 months.

"What we're trying to do is to standardize it, make it as platform-agnostic as possible, so that if a consumer has a MadCatz peripheral they can use it with as many devices as possible. A big part of that, obviously, is Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low-Energy. We want to end up in a situation where most developers should be using the HID over GATT standard protocol, like how most PC developers develop over HID."

Meanwhile, both SteelSeries and Moga have taken a more traditional approach to developing mobile controls; the SteelSeries Free and Moga Pro are both Bluetooth-based game controllers that depend on game developers to specifically include support in their games.

On the even more economical end, SteelSeries announced its Free Touchscreen Gaming Controls in late December -- a $20 set of three buttons and an analog stick that attach to your touchscreen device by suction cups made of conductive rubber; you'd place them on top of a game's touchscreen gamepad overlay to translate your inputs into touch. It certainly sounds somewhat wacky, but it's an interesting attempt to circumvent the lack-of-proper-standards problem with clever hardware design.

None of the above peripherals might be quite the sexy, futuristic vision of Games In The Future that we hope to see at CES every year, but they might be good enough for 2013, especially if you're perfectly happy with your smartphone or tablet except for when it comes to core-oriented titles that demand to be played with a proper gamepad. (I, for one, would love to have a wireless gamepad for my iPad that Just Works.)

Testing the Next Console Generation

While hardware giants like Nvidia and Razer are making ambitious plans for the future by showing neat tech now, the longer it takes for those plans to come to fruition, the more likely that someone else -- maybe Apple, maybe Microsoft, maybe one of their respective competitors -- will disrupt them with something newer still.

But it's clear that, however their methods may differ, each of these hardware manufacturers has identified the same opening in the market -- the Same Game (or game experience), Different Device problem -- and how well or how poorly Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo tackle that issue might just determine whether their dedicated game consoles return to the forefront of the industry or fade a little bit further to the background.

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