Gaikai beta, hands-on
Gaikai's very much in beta at the moment, and that extends all the way to its presentation. Right now the service is a dedicated website that inspects your internet connection, checks for Java and Flash, then lets you play... but Perry explained that couldn't be further from the way it'll look when complete. The idea is that Gaikai will let video game publishers secretly test your latency and bandwidth while you're browsing a website, and if it detects that you're on the cusp of a gaming purchase, it will act -- attracting your attention with a pop-up or animation that offers you a free trial of the software. Perry says you'll need about a 5Mbps connection to stream at 720p, but the latency requirements can be a bit more stringent. Publishers get to decide what latency makes for an acceptable session on a per-game basis, so you may need a server in the same neighborhood for fast-paced first-person-shooters.
Over an up-to-18 megabit AT&T U-Verse internet connection aimed at Gaikai beta servers roughly fifteen miles away, we generally got 10-15 megabits of download bandwidth, and a latency of between 25 and 35 milliseconds. That got us performance just about equal to the 720p video above, both in terms of visual quality and speed, and yet a noticeable amount of input lag -- not too much to make the game unplayable, but not nearly as enjoyable as on a dedicated console or gaming PC. There's a bit of video compression artifacting, especially around floating text, but it still made for a fairly pretty game -- imagine looking at a beautiful picture through a slight haze. If we were to compare against what we've played of OnLive (which also presently delivers 720p images over a variable-bandwidth stream) we'd say the visuals were roughly the same, but OnLive seemed to perform more antialiasing to soften sharp edges and had slightly more responsive controls. Controlling our protagonist through a few firefights, we found it difficult to reliably score headshots on the robot armies as our targeting reticle didn't move quite as precisely as our mouse, but we still got through the opening level without too much trouble.
However, that doesn't mean that Gaikai isn't planning to improve the service to the point where it can support full game sessions later on -- Perry said he'd like to offer that as an option to publishers alongside 1080p streaming and stereoscopic 3D when more servers roll out, and both processing power and bandwidth increase. For now, however, he's focused on improving latency and fixing last-minute bugs before a tentative mid-December launch, and sorting through the games to figure out which ones are worth hosting.
Obviously Gaikai wants to make a splash with quality titles, but the reasoning goes further than that -- if gamers play a demo through the service and decide the title's not for them, that game's publisher ends up paying for a negative outcome. Perry wants to steer individuals towards games that are guaranteed buys when and if tried, making the one-cent-per-minute flat rate Gaikai charges completely worthwhile. If you quit playing immediately publishers don't pay a dime, but if you get engrossed in the title, then you're likely to buy it, right? Perry says he's sitting on about 20 high profile titles right now, but won't launch all of them at once, and that we shouldn't necessarily expect them to all be games. The instant demo model also makes sense for big budget commercial software -- imagine if you could try a new video editing suite online, for instance. Perry wouldn't tell us which programs we could expect, but that Gaikai had access to all the "key franchises" of Electronic Arts, and intends to unveil one brand each week after the service is launched. That's slated to happen December 15th, though Perry didn't make any promises. We'll be waiting, watching and hoping our bandwidth is adequate in the days and possibly weeks to come.