Sony's cloud revolution: Why Gaikai could change PlayStation forever
2nd Jul 2012 | 11:13
In buccaneering terms, Sony has paid $380m for a skeleton key.
A key that unlocks a global network of treasure buried deep in PlayStation's vaults; allowing you to play thousands of classic PSP, PSOne, PS2 and PS3 games - like GTA: Vice City, Gran Turismo and, er, Um Jammer Lammy - plus provide a stunning, playable, glimpse at the potential of PS4.
Sony's long-rumoured acquisition of cloud streaming service Gaikai is a technical shortcut that allows Sony to harness its true strengths, its incredible back catalogue of games. In short, Sony might be about to do for videogames, what Spotify does for music - at least, that's the ambition.
The 'magic' is that you won't only be able to play these games on PS3, or PS Vita, but potentially any electronic device with a screen and a controller, including phones, TVs, laptops and tablets. Well, provided it works, but we'll get to that...
The death of PlayStation 4
The implications for Sony's next console,
Rumours have long suggested that Sony will attempt to assemble an 'off the shelf' PS4, comprised of almost-cutting-edge PC tech, rather than engage in another elaborate, expensive, folly, like the Cell-chip architecture of PS3.
From a business perspective, the Gaikai deal allows Sony to radically disrupt the current, troubled, console model: Manufacturers sell you a subsidised console for £400 and offset the long term cost by selling you £40 boxed games.
The Apple iOS market has shifted people's buying habits and expectations, with £0.69 and 'free' now the new barriers to participation. Streaming allows Sony to unlock the financial barrier of taking a risk on a £40 game, only playable on a bespoke console.
Sony, effectively, could become Sky TV, with a radical shake up in its pricing. You might pay, say, £12 a month for the standard PlayStation streaming service, then £3 for the 'shooters' or 'sports' or 'retro' channel.
Complex bundling and service contracts might give Sony access to secure revenue streams they never previously believed possible - and this security could feed back to game developers, now able to take greater creative risks.
Backwards compatibility is another winner in the Gaikai deal; previously the only way Sony could make PS2 titles work on PS3 was to include PS2 components in the hardware - at even more expense. Gaikai's tech will allow PS4 to access Sony's entire back catalogue, in theory at least, without the need to integrate expensive PS3 chips, necessary for backward compatibility.
It also, potentially, spells the death for 'HD Collections', like God of War. While desired, they're still produced on - relatively expensive - Blu-rays, plus all the associated shipping and distribution costs. Sony is skipping the 'physical' barrier entirely, like the move from shop bought CDs, to music streamed from the cloud.
In the broader AAA-or-bust games market, with 'mid tier' or risky, innovative games failing to sell, a cloud service provides a convenient sampling solution. Rather than download a demo on PSN over several hours, provided you can find it in the first place, you could, say, tap an advert on your phone to launch a cloud-streaming demo immediately.
It also raises the prospect of PS4 not just being a physical box, like a traditional console, but also a technology embedded in your TV - or rather, making your TV a 'PS4 lite' trialling tool. You could be watching an advert for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 on your Sony Bravia, then press the equivalent of Sky's 'red button' to activate the streaming demo as you watch.
It seems unlikely Sony will abandon the 'traditional' physical console for PS4 - us hardcore will demand premium frame rates and responses that broadband won't allow (yet) - but you'll be able to trial its games across a variety of platforms.
Will it work?
The Gaikai deal makes sense in light of Sony's wider 'one Sony' strategy implemented by new boss Kaz Hirai. Finally, Sony can create a unified entertainment service, allowing you to stream its vast back catalogue of music, movies *and* games.
It all sounds like moon pie, but Gaikai already works. The latest Samsung TVs are Gaikai powered, allowing early adopters access to the first live beta trial of THQ's upcoming
Technical issues abide. The UK's net infrastructure may not be sufficiently fast to allow lag-free, streamed, games; especially for 'twitch' games like Street Fighter IV or Call of Duty, where every frame matters. However, as fibre optic broadband grows, and Sony increases the volume of cloud-streaming servers - so you're not, say, streaming GTAV in Inverness from the London server - this becomes less of an issue.
We met Dave Perry at E3, who was quick to point out that the mobile 4G network may beat fibre optic in terms of providing homes with fast network connections. It might not be today, but within a few years, net latency might not be an issue.
Since cloud streamed games run on remote servers, Sony won't even need to build PS4, to allow you to trial it - the game runs remotely on a mega-PC, and you just stream it.
Rather than watch Sony play Killzone 4 live on PS4 at E3, we might be invited to play it and join in via our Bravia TVs and DualShock's. Well, that's the dream, but the importance of this move can't be understated.
No doubt, tech naysayers will be quick to point all the reasons why Gaikai won't be all these things, but at very least it signifies an important shift at the heart of Sony. For all its console successes, the firm's key strength is its brand, and its rich back catalogue of IP.
At one stage, it seemed unthinkable that Sega wouldn't produce consoles, but cloud streaming allows Sony to move away from shifting expensive closed boxes, to selling itself as a service, like the 'PlayStation channel' on your Bravia TV.
Agonisingly, Dave Perry, boss of cloud gaming service Gaikai, tried to alert us to this deal during our very first appointment of E3. "Rumours? They were rumours?" he laughed, when asked about pre-E3 speculation linking his firm to a deal with PS3.
He was telling us, but we weren't listening - and while much still needs to be resolved to see this deal's true significance, we suspect everyone will now be paying notice.