by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared on my weekly Game Invader column for the New Indian Express
Predicting future trends in gaming is every videogame boffin's favourite pastime. In the future, we shall have games so realistic, we won't be able to tell them from real life. We'll have AI so advanced, it will behave exactly like humans, making mistakes, acting unpredictable, and sowing emotion. We'll have chips and nanobots embedded in our bodies. Yeah, whatever.
I'm more interested in a rather more believeable, and much more exciting trend. And it's not all that far away, either.
When a little known service called OnLive demonstrated their 'game streaming' service, observers were greatly excited with the possibilities. Basically, OnLive used a combination of a custom set-top box like device and blazing broadband speeds to deliver a service where you could play any game you want, on any platform – so long as it was there in their library.
The technology is charmingly simple – the only signals that need to travel between the server and your receiver are your controller input, and the real-time AV signal from the game. All the processing is done at the server end – and the video and audio output is streamed to your TV set. It's almost like your games are just another TV channel, which you can control.
By centralizing the processing needed for today's heavy-duty games, and depending on broadband to receive controller input and deliver the audio-visual feedback, services such as OnLive can be genuine game-changers, completely redefining the gaming industry landscape.
For one thing, hardware platforms will become irrelevant from a consumer standpoint. It could even eventually see gaming move to one convergent hardware platform – since gamers won't have to choose between platforms anymore, and it just might suit game developers and publishers to break free of the clutches of console manufacturers. The PC has always been the most open and democratic platform, and we may very well see its return, albeit in a more 'server' like avatar.
For another, it will completely eliminate the need for developers to create content for multiple hardware platforms. Whatever the platform, it won't make a difference to consumers anymore – they will be able to play games regardless of platform – since the onus of maintaining the platform will be shifted to the service provider. The console wars will no longer be a roadblock for good quality content to reach the widest possible audience – and situations like single console owners missing out on quality games like Halo, Super Mario Galaxy or Little Big Planet will be a thing of the past. Ultimately, consoles are merely a delivery mechanism – people care about games, not about hardware. If there's another viable delivery mechanism, consoles will die. And good riddance.
Think about it – a future where you will be able to play any game you choose on any internet-enabled device, whenever you want. No more pre-ordering games at exorbitant prices or standing in long queues to get your hands on a copy. No more constantly upgrading your hardware and software just to play new titles. No more missing out on annoying 'platform exclusives' just because you chose the wrong console to buy.
Admittedly, it's still some way away – the broadband speeds required for the service to be viable are way too expensive for end consumers at the moment. But cheaper broadband is something we're bound to see sooner than later.
And then, we'll be able to play Killzone 2 on our mobile phones if we so wish. Brilliant.