Cloud Based Gaming – This Decade?

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For kicks and giggles, let’s say that the “Xbox 365” (my predicted name for the next Xbox console) gets released next year. The advent of the Wii U begins the “next” generation of consoles. Let’s say that generation falls short of the ‘ten year lifecycle’ for consoles. I say that with a little wink and a nod, you see, because only Sony attempted to promote that this time around – and the desire to be “first” out with a “next” generation console is usually a big deal in this industry. Even though consoles may be sold at a loss for a while, it doesn’t take long for the companies to see the benefits of being the leading console manufacturer of that generation.

So with the next round of hardware coming soon, I anticipate we’ll all be talking about the “Xbox 4” and the “Nintendo GROUP HUG” (or whatever crazy name the come up with next) by 2019. But will that generation of consoles be the ‘cloud based’ console? Seven years separate now from then, and in the technology industry as a whole, that is multiple lifetimes of countless startups. But in the timeline of rolling out new technologies on a nationwide scale to the public, it’s “just another decade.”

It’s no secret that everyone is looking to the cloud, and that no doubt includes the video game industry. Ahead of their time, many startups fall flat on their face, only to be overtaken by a better and more mature product of similar design later in their life cycle. Although OnLive is still kicking, many accounts say they’re on life support, trying to find their niche. While I expect OnLive’s Microconsole to become a thing of the past, and for OnLive to find a home on tablets, their technology is no doubt catching the eyes of companies like Microsoft. They’re already dreaming of the money that could be stuffing the mattresses of execs who sell you a $200 device (and what a deal for consumers that is compared to the $700 launch price of the PlayStation 3), which is designed to do little more than stream a video feed, and allow some button press feedback to be sent to a server. The profit margins are too attractive to ignore, and the infrastructure is already there, at least in Microsoft’s camp.

Do I think it’ll happen this decade, tough? In the “next, next” generation, the early 2020’s? No. And here’s why. Broadband is still not as ubiquitous as people think. While “target markets” make a lot of decisions, corporate execs are smart enough to not turn a blind eye to the large swath of the country which still does not have good broadband options. A good chunk of the country is mountainous, rocky, and spattered with deep valleys. In places like these, even things like wireless communication will be difficult to get good coverage, as line of site connections can be hard to establish in such terrain, and it’s nearly as difficult to run cable.

If there is any way to reduce the latency of satellite internet access, that would be about the only savior of several of these places which are still reliant, literally, on dial up internet. I know because I grew up in one of those valleys. I moved away in 2002, which was the year, for the first time, that we could get DSL internet access. Since then, Time Warner Cable has come in and provided cable internet access at a blazing fast 6 Mbps (maximum). And if you take a ten minute (or less) drive from my parents’ house, deeper into the valley, you’ll arrive in an internet wasteland, where customers are restricted to their only choice of dialup internet access, and even then you’ll be lucky to connect over 36Kbps.

Many people playing games on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network right now don’t even recall those days. They don’t know the joy of hearing that modem dial your friend’s computer directly so you and a friend can play DooM over DWANGO. But we do. Because that wasn’t so long ago for us. It may have been last week. Because we can’t do much better than that.

I may have moved away since then, but I still know how hard it is to run a business on low bandwidth, and believe me I remember all of the problems I had trying to get connected to Xbox Live. Small towns make America great, any politician running for office will tell you. But they’re losing the broadband race, and companies like Verizon, Comcast (or whatever they’re calling themselves this year), and Time Warner couldn’t care less – unless perhaps a government grant comes their way to expand. But without the telco’s finding a way to bring broadband to the disenfranchised middle-American masses, I don’t expect “cloud gaming” to take over, for fear of alienating a large chunk of their audience.

I don’t anticipate cloud gaming to become a reality outside of the niche it already has any time soon. Console developers are too concerned about telling the American citizens of the year 2020 that they won’t be playing the latest video games, because somebody hasn’t run any new wires to them since the phone companies of the mid-1900’s. And considering the speeds back home have peaked at about 6 Mbps, I do not anticipate anybody to want to play the future’s 4K resolution games on a streaming connection that barely handles YouTube in 2012. I think we can count on a few more generations of amped up hardware and mini super computers hanging out on, under, around, or even in our TVs.

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