Will Sony's PS4 Be The 'Netflix' For Video Games?

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Early last year Sony announced that it was acquiring the game streaming company Gaikai for a reported $380 Million. Many speculated what this meant for the Playstation brand in the future; would the streaming service somehow be a a part of the PS4? Some even speculated that the PS4 may be streaming only, getting rid of physical media altogether. In Friday's edition of the Wall Street Journal it was reported that the Playstation 4 will stream Playstation 3 games as a way to provide backwards compatibility. 

Back To The Future

Backwards compatibility has always been an issue for console makers every generation cycle. Gamers have come to expect to play their last generation games on their next generation hardware. While not every console has had the ability to play older games, this has increasingly become a highly requested feature for a lot of gamers for a number of reasons. As users invest more money in games every year, they expect to be able to still play them even when they upgrade their hardware. Being able to play last generation and current generation games on one console is very convenient. Mainly because gamers don't have to keep their old console hooked up to their TV's for those occasional times they want to play their old games. In fact, most usually sale their old console to help offset the cost of the new one. Backwards compatibility became a huge topic of discussion in the Playstation community during the PS2 - PS3 transition.

Original Playstation 3 with backwards compatibility.

Original Playstation 3 with backwards compatibility.

The original PS3's had PS2 hardware inside of them that enabled PS2 games to be played. In an attempt to lower cost of production, Sony took out the PS2 hardware and substituted it with software emulation of PS2 games. However this wasn't a perfect remedy as many games had problems running or didn't run at all. Eventually Sony pulled software emulation from the PS3 as well, leaving subsequent PS3's in production without backwards compatibility. Older PS3's with backwards compatibility became a hot commodity in the resale market. Sony soon began re-releasing PS2 games upscaled to high definition and selling them in retail stores and on their Playstation Network. This move was viewed cynically by some as Sony just cashing in on old titles instead of allowing users to play the games they already owned.

According to multiple sources with access to development kits, the PS4 will move to a totally different CPU architecture than the PS3, using more traditional PC components, making backwards compatibility pretty much impossible. A logical work around would be to forget trying to process the games locally, and just do the heavy lifting off site, streaming the games to the players system. Hence the speculated reasoning for Sony's purchase of Gaikai.

PS4 Prototype Controller

PS4 Prototype Controller

The Short History of Streaming Games

Online streaming games have only been around for a few years now. OnLive was the first company to make inroads as an actual service. While their server technology was impressive and delivered better results than most imagined possible, it never gained any traction with the larger gaming audience. OnLive continued to struggle to find a market with either hardcore or casual gamers, forcing them to eventually lay off all of its employees and was put up for sale in late 2012. 

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While slightly different in approach, Gaikai and OnLive in theory worked similarly. They both allow playing of high-end 3D games in real-time without running the software locally. The data and processing power is handled almost entirely from a remote server that then streams the game to a device connected to the internet. This allows users to play games that demand high levels of graphical and processing power to be ran on lower power PC's and mobile devices. The website "How It Works" explains OnLive's technology like this:

OnLive works, in essence, like a Virtual Network Computing (VNC) system. VNCs are graphical sharing systems that utilize an RFB (remote frame-buffer) protocol to remotely control another computer. This allows the actions of the remote computer to be dictated through the local machine, with all keyboard, mouse and gamepad actions transmitted along with the graphical screen. So, in OnLive’s system, a thin client (the service’s interactive menu) is used by the user to select, stream and control content that is stored and processed in large remote data centers on their own devices.

Digital Foundry did some independent test of both technologies in early 2012 and found that Gaikai's method displayed the games on higher settings and fidelity, although Onlive's frame rates were higher, hovering around 60 frames per second while Gaikai averaged about 30 FPS. Gaikai averaged lower latency, the time between pushing a button and the game reacting, which is extremely critical when playing games from a remote server. Overall, Gaikai's technology seemed to offer the better experience for most games. In theory Sony should be able to not only replicate this process, but possibly enhance it given their resources but there are some important differences that have to be addressed.

Technical Difficulties

Since PS3 games are written for Sony's Cell microprocessor architecture the games will have to be emulated by modern day CPU's in order to be ran on servers and streamed to PS4's. This isn't a trivial task and some doubt it can even be done with todays processors. If anyone is able to reverse engineer PS3 games to run on PC chips it would be Sony, but it's definitely not a given. Another theory on how to get PS3 games streamed to PS4's without complicated emulation involves making servers out of PS3's. While this process technically should work, it could be very expensive as it would require a Cell chip for every instance of a user playing a PS3 game. Cell servers have been created before to host online games but each chip acted as a host to 32 clients which is obviously more cost effective. Another alternative would be to use PC versions of 3rd party games that already exist and only emulate PS3/console exclusive games. This could create less risk of introducing new bugs with emulation but still doesn't actually solve the emulation problem. Whatever way Sony has decided to address this problem, it would be a huge advantage going into the next-generation if they have it figured out.

A server rack made out of PS3's for the game Warhawk in 2007.

A server rack made out of PS3's for the game Warhawk in 2007.

All You Can Eat?

Another potential roadblock would be if Sony had to license 3rd party games to run on their streaming platform. Negotiating deals and revenue splits could prevent certain games from appearing on the service. Admittedly it's hard to speculate just how big of an issue this could be without knowing the specifics. Speaking of service, nobody knows exactly how Sony will implement this streaming service. Will they require a disk to be inserted into the PS4 or some type of trade in program to prove ownership of PS3 games? Will they require users to re-purchase the games in order to play them? My hope is Sony gets a clue and do for catalog games what Netflix has done for catalog movies.

Allow an all you can eat (play) service that gives access to a vast library of PS3 games (or possibly games from other older platforms) for a monthly or yearly fee. Sony already has a membership program called Playstation Plus that offers free downloadable games, discounts and exclusive features to subscribers. If they integrated their streaming service into Playstation Plus or offered it as an add-on package for $5-$10 a month I think millions of users would be more than willing to sign up. Theoretically they could even extend the service to Playstation Vita's on Wifi, though probably would never happen as it could impact sales of current Vita games. Depending on the licensing deals with 3rd parties, Sony and publishers could give new life and consistently earn a nice return on software that has already run it's course in retail. It also could act as a promotional tool for franchise titles. It would allow gamers to go back and play certain franchises they never bought and potentially create new fans that will purchase the latest installments released on the PS4.

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A monthly streaming service with hundreds if not eventually thousands of games could be a huge advantage over the competition. It would provide a much needed constant revenue stream for Sony and quell the almost guaranteed community anger over the lack of backwards compatibility. Implementing a clunky solution to allow only games you've already purchased or forcing users to re-purchase those games could easily turn a huge opportunity into a PR nightmare for Sony if handled incorrectly. While they haven't had the best track record this generation with services or product launches, their Playstation Plus subscription plan has increasingly become popular among Playstation loyalist. If Sony fully commits with this and doesn't settle for a half measured approach, it could be the killer feature needed to turn the struggling company around this generation. Hopefully we find out a lot more of what Sony plans to do in a couple of days at the press conference scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 20th at 6PM EST.