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August 24, 2022
7 Min Read
Cloud streaming technology is having a creeping impact on the world of game development. Thanks to platforms like Xbox Cloud Gaming, Amazon Luna, Google Stadia, and Nvidia GeForce Now, players are spending more time connecting to remote servers to play their favorite games, using everything from old iPhones to new laptops to access their preferred titles.
Elsewhere, Amazon and Microsoft have begun offering virtual workstations to game developers, thanks in part to technology partner Parsec. The cloud streaming service (which was acquired by Unity in 2021) has been using its service to help users access remote computers in several different fields.
Game journalists used the platform in the COVID-19 pandemic to preview upcoming titles, and game studios use it to get external development partners onboarded and up to speed. But Parsec was first launched as a service for players to access their favorite games via the cloud, and general manager Benjy Boxer is still watching how players are interacting with the service.
Despite recent strides, player adoption of cloud technology still faces certain obstacles. However, the solution isn't out of reach. In a recent conversation with Game Developer, Boxer stressed the need for developers to begin making games from the ground up for cloud platforms if these services are going to see any success. Here's why.
Latency can be killer
While chatting with us, Boxer described cloud computing technology as being "pretty close to making everybody's dreams possible." The dreams he was talking about were partly those of your humble writer, who struggled to play high-end PC games on a MacBook Pro in college.
In a perfect world, anyone on any device would be able to purchase a game (or access it via subscription) and play it on the computer of their choice. Technical requirements and bandwidth restrictions made this dream a fool's hope until the last couple of years. From Boxer's perspective, the raw requirements are already in place.
So why don't we live in a cloud-hosted utopia? "It costs a lot of money to run [software] in the cloud," Boxer explained. As such, the questions he and other cloud computing believers are currently contemplating include "what is the business model?" and "can you make the business model work?"
"When game developers design around the medium[...]that's when you get the magic."
Companies like Parsec need to wrangle with logistical realities like if enough users are using the service to justify bandwidth costs, or if internet providers can even spin up enough bandwidth. But Boxer threw a question right back at us, which was "should games be played this way?"
His thinking was this: Though cloud computing would work perfectly for every game in a perfect world, in reality there are tight limitations. Shooting games that rely on twitch reflexes struggle in cloud environments because any input lag can muddle the experience. And the environments are so dynamic that rollback networking is an uncomfortable fix.
"I think games need to be designed around the idea that people are playing it from the cloud," he mused. "When game developers design around the medium [...] that's when you get the magic."
The precedent for his thinking lies in games like Candy Crush and other games designed first for mobile devices. A more nuanced example would be The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, which showcased the Nintendo Switch's capabilities as both a portable device and TV-ready console.
Candy Crush is a clear example of making games for devices with vertical screens and touch-based inputs, but Breath of the Wild showcased a subtle range of engineering and design decisions that made the game work well on the Switch.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild protagonist Link and a Moblin face off in a horse-riding duel on the plains.
A cloud-first title would be built from the ground up to handle the challenges of latency, and could provide a smooth experience no matter what latency the user was experiencing.
If cloud game platforms are going to go mainstream, Boxer's thinking is that they'll need their own Breath of the Wild.
"Nothing is as good as playing on your computer or on your TV"
It's nice to daydream about cloud-first game design, but the business reality is that the current use case for cloud game platforms is to play the library of available games. Whether it's Destiny 2 on Stadia or Forza Horizon 5 on Xbox Cloud Gaming, cloud game platforms are working with titles designed first and foremost for games that use a CPU in the same room as the player.
Boxer argued that any company that "comes out and says they are better" are making false promises. "It's not possible. It's just not. You can do some forward-error correction stuff, but it's not possible."
At Parsec, Boxer said his team has focused on delivering "the best that's possible," which can be "really good" when the user is close to the machine. In his case, that means using peer-to-peer technology, having users connect to a cloud PC or dev station within "commuting distance" of their location.
Overwatch character Sigma raises a shield to deflect enemy shots.
He noted that among developers using Parsec for playtesting sessions (which can help control access to builds), there are some clients who have managed to get shooters working through cloud systems despite the realities of input lag. One of them is Blizzard Entertainment with Overwatch "It's a first-person shooter, but it's built to work on consoles, so it has a little bit of latency tolerance," he explained.
Parsec's process for developers
Though Parsec started as a cloud game platform, it's also a remote workstation solution for developers and a key partner for Microsoft and Amazon's cloud development offerings. According to Boxer, developers using Parsec are using it for an average of eight hours a day, 27 hours per week. He noted that those numbers support the "hybrid" workstyle where people work three days at home and two days in the office.
Developers may be curious about what Parsec is doing under the hood to get its service working reliably enough to support those numbers. Boxer said that at the beginning of Parsec's operations, he and his colleagues examined what would happen if you expected everyone to have an ASIC encoder and an ASIC decoder on consumer hardware, as well as generally good bandwidth.
He recalled the team asking "what would you build?" if those facts were true. He said that the Parsec team has prioritized "the delivery of smooth frames."
"A lot of times when people complain about lag in [cloud] products [...] it has to do with the fact that frames are mistimed," he said. "One might come in at 16.67 milliseconds, one might come in at 14.4. [...] As a human you perceive that difference."
The human brain can see as fast as 13 milliseconds, according to MIT. But anything that clocks in under the average human capacity may not be seen, but Boxer says that people see "differences" in video delivery when it's off. Parsec's protocol encoder and decoder were "built" to optimize for smoothness of frames, keeping latency as low as possible, and then video quality.
So if there are any bandwidth issues, the software throttles back on video quality, then latency, then smoothness, the reverse order of how video is delivered. "The networking protocol tells the encoder what to do, and the encoder tells the networking protocol and the decoder and the renderer what to do," he said.
A cloudy future is a good thing here
Boxer and his colleagues became employees of Unity in 2021, and he says that Parsec is helping improve the "accessibility" of game tools by helping developers step around the high cost of good computing hardware. In the vision he pitches, developers don't need to worry as much about maintaining their physical CPUs and servers if they can just access that computing power from somewhere else.
That said, our conversation came just days after Unity announced its impending $4.4 billion merger with IronSource. Developers weren't pleased about the news. Boxer says that Unity is still a good "partner" for his business, because the company's mission is still to "democratize access to game development tools for real-time 3D content."
"I feel really great about how we're a part of that mission," he said. "I feel like they're investing heavily in our business and our growth."
Boxer's insights do shine a light on where the future of game making and game playing might be headed. But the entanglements of its parent company may still highlight the challenges to come.
Accessing games or development software from a machine with any desired level of processing power has a lot of advantages. But the trade-off will be handing device ownership and maintenance over to larger companies.
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About the Author(s)
Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com
Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.
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