Gaikai: Delivering instant MMOs to your browser

Imagine that you're reading up on an MMO on a site such as Massively (far-fetched, but stay with us on this). The words intrigue you and you think it might be worth checking out. You make a mental note to do so in the future -- to head over to the game's site, see if there's a trial, download it, set up an account, and give it a whirl -- but time gets away from you and none of that actually happens.

Now imagine that right after you read that article there was a single button or link. Clicking on it, a Java window opens up on top of your screen and tells you that you're now playing a trial of the game. There's no wait, no download, no lengthy form to fill out -- just click and play, right away. You go from interested to inside the game within mere seconds, your computer specs (mostly) aren't an issue, and your curiosity is immediately sated.

This isn't a far-fetched dream but the here-and-now reality. This is cloud-streaming MMOs brought to you by Gaikai. And it just might be the future of MMOs as we know it.

Predicting the future, over and over again

We sat down with Gaikai's CO, Dave Perry, to walk us through this entire concept. Perry is an experienced vet in the game industry whose resume includes titles like Earthworm Jim, The Darkness, and Age of Conan.

While he's worked in both the console and PC market, Perry says he's always had a soft spot for MMOs. In 2006, he was so interested in what the Asian market was doing with MMO business models that he went to China and Korea to meet with dev teams and learn more about free-to-play. What he found pleased him: "It's very pro-gamer to say to a gamer 'only pay for the stuff you love'," he told us.

Perry became so convinced that this was the future of the industry that, upon his return, he attempted to evangelize this concept in his own company. It was a hard sell to the Western market, which was firmly entrenched in subscription-based finances, but a few years down the road would bear him out on this score.

Perry began to dabble in MMOs, porting titles like 2Moons over from Asia, and he admits that it was a big learning experience. More than anything else, he told us, the truth that MMO success was based on how many people you could get to try your product was drilled into his head. It was a truth he learned from the failure of Chronicles of Spellborn, a title in which he was involved. He saw too many gamers turn away from the title's then-prohibitive 3.5 gigabyte download. "It was causing pain and suffering for gamers even before touching the game they read about," he said.

It was then that he made another prediction: Success of future video games would be won or lost in the trial phase, and if studios could get players into the game with "minimal friction," there was a better chance at retention.

Betting the farm

It was then that Perry left his position at Acclaim to start a new company to accomplish this goal. Gaikai was to be a high-risk, high-reward venture: "We bet the farm on this idea -- can we get games to everyone?"

Gaikai started investing in technology that would host games in the cloud and stream the entire experience right to the user's browser without the middleman of a client download. Gaikai wasn't the only company pursuing such tech, and in its rush to get the best possible service out to publishers, it had to learn... fast. Missteps were made, such as reducing games to Flash-like equivalents, but eventually the technology was mastered in a way that some thought was impossible.

Gaikai wasn't a publisher or a developer, but as Perry put it, a facilitator between these companies and the players. The concept was to provide a service to allow players to jump right into the studio's games and get the instant gratification of seeing it for themselves. It was as easy as clicking play on a YouTube video, except that players could then interact with what was happening on the screen.

Concerned with making it look and feel just right, Perry's team worked hard to make Gaikai's service better than the competition. In an early side-by-side test, players found Gaikai's streaming had the feel and responsiveness of actually playing the game on their own computer. This was partially due to the fact that Gaikai has an enormous network, with 24 data centers set up worldwide servicing 84 countries. Most major cities and urban areas are now near enough to a Gaikai data center that latency is unnoticable.

With the tech under its belt, Gaikai began to sell its services near and far. Walmart, EA's Origin service, YouTube, and Best Buy are just some of the companies that have inked a deal -- and more are forthcoming.

A gateway to MMOs

While Gaikai didn't have its fingers in MMOs during its startup process, Perry says that now its at the point where online gaming is becoming a major focus for the company. During early demonstrations, he would often show World of Warcraft streaming right to an iPad, teasing the possibilities of such a union.

His current objective may be almost as impossible as the service he set out to create: Perry ultimately wants every MMO to be instantly playable via Gaikai's service. The first step in that goal was forming a partnership with WB and Turbine to use Gaikai technology to stream Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online to prospective players.

Perry says that it's up to the publishers how they want to utilize Gaikai's services. Some, like Turbine, might want to retain more control over who gets it (right now, Turbine is choosing interested candidates to test the service), while others will simply put it up on their website as a try-before-you-download trial. "Currently we're just a discovery service," he said.

In studying the MMO field, Gaikai's team discovered that a whopping 31% players will bounce away from an MMO before even trying it, and an additional 34% of people who fill forms out give garbage info. There was an obvious hesitancy on the part of the player to commit information and time up front, which is why Gaikai offers a one-step option into games.

The way Perry envisions the product being used in MMOs is as follows: If you read an article on a website about this game or visit the game's website and become interested in giving it a whirl, you just have to click on a "try it now!" button. Gaikai streams the game right to a player's browser through a Java applet -- no download necessary -- and a trial version that doesn't require any prior user information will start running. After a set amount of time or progress, the game will ask the player if he or she is interested in saving their progress and signing up to play more.

Another branch of technology Gaikai is refining is a better way to offer progressive downloading through what Perry calls "cloud delivery." Players might know progressive downloading in titles such as Wizard101, where the bare-bones client is saved, a player heads into the game, and the rest of the data continues to download in the background. Gaikai's version of this will eliminate the need for a saved .EXE file to offer the fastest speeds possible for publishers interested in this approach.

Gaikai is in talks with many publishers about streaming their MMOs, and while Perry couldn't tell us who they were, he did say that forming these relationships was a priority of the team's time at GDC last week. For now, he urges interested players to sign up for Gaikai's newsletter, as any new MMO partnerships will be announced that way.
This article was originally published on Massively.