Alternative Access

Alternative Access
Destroy All Consoles

Ray Huling | 28 Jul 2009 12:30
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Zero Media

Players have two fears to consider with streaming services: that their games will have no permanence, and that they will never be rid of them. "The concept of cloud gaming is that the game is out there somewhere," says Perry, "Everything is out there in space." While charming, this expression is also disturbing. Couldn't you easily lose your game in the Cloud? And how do you sell back or buy a used wisp of Cloud?

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For Perry, consumers have already begun to answer these questions. He points to videos on YouTube, photos on Flickr and music on iTunes. "We're becoming more trusting of the net," he says. "I don't think we really have to educate anyone into that."

He thinks we've made peace with both the absence of material goods and the loss of their re-sale value. "How many of your mp3s have you sold off?" asks Perry. The fine-grained nature of digital purchases - you buy just the songs you want, not necessarily a whole analog record - offsets the loss of a secondary market.

On the other hand, Urbach points out that we can unload old digital goods. "You've got people putting their entire World of Warcraft accounts up on eBay," he says. "There's nothing saying you can't put your entire server-side game collection up."

But the fear is that there will be Terms of Service that will say exactly that, putting an end once and forever to the used game trade. "I think if you try to stop that, if you build that into the technology," says Urbach, "all you're doing is leaving yourself open for more flexible technology to knock you down."

He also assuages the fear that the toppling of a particular streaming service will deny us access to our games. "While it's nice to have that box and to own a disc, that doesn't necessarily guarantee compatibility for the rest of your life," says Urbach. "With server-side rendering, basically, anything that we put up on that system will work forever."

Streams from a Cloud

There's reason for skepticism about these services, but they have an air of inevitability. It seems clear that streaming will happen and that it has a very good chance of becoming the dominant distribution model for games. Arguably, it already is - it's just that the games aren't as immediately impressive as their disc-bound counterparts.

Should OnLive, Gaikai and Otoy succeed, offering lag-free play and high-quality games, then we'll see the biggest shift in the videogame business since home consoles overtook arcades. For all that this represents a revolution in technology, Perry, Urbach and Helgason remain humble about their role.

"I would love to sort of brag that we're changing the world," says Helgason, "but the world is really changing anyhow."

That's the core message in all of their discussions: Yes, developers, manufacturers and players will change the way that they approach gaming, but only by shifting toward what other developers, other players and other manufacturers are already doing. For all its creativity and all its destruction, the movement toward streaming games is merely a part of a larger tectonic shift away from fixed media and into the digital ether.

Ray Huling is a freelance journalist living in Boston.

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