We're no stranger to cloud gaming services 'round these parts -- we covered OnLive's brush with death and subsequent rebirth and Sony's acquisition of Gaikai. Meanwhile, Playcast has been growing on its own, working on deals with US content distributors, and now the company is set to roll out its gaming platform Stateside early next year. We got a chance to see Playcast's service and chat with VP of Corporate Development, Meir Freidlander and VP of R&D Yuval Noimark about their business, so join us after the break to see what the company has in store for us in 2013.
In case you're unfamiliar with Playcast, let us give you a quick rundown of the company's technology and business model. Playcast is a white label cloud gaming platform for pay TV (cable and satellite), IPTV (AT&T Uverse) and over-the-top TV providers (Google TV, Roku, Boxee, etc.) -- meaning those providers slap their own branding on Playcast's services. For the end user, the system operates like VOD or an app, while remote servers actually run the games and stream a video feed of the gameplay in real-time. On the back end, one server shelf can serve up to 15 players an HD (read: 720p) feed simultaneously, and graphical artefacting is kept to a minimum because it streams over the operator's managed network.
Playcast takes the PC versions of games and tweaks them at the binary level (no source code required) to optimize them for streaming. Minimum hardware requirements on the front end are meager -- real-time MPEG2/H.264 decoding, a return channel and a USB port for hooking up a controller -- which means it works on the vast majority (upwards of 90 percent) of existing set-top-boxes. As for mobile devices, PlayCast runs on any Android phone or tablet running version 4.0 or higher, so big-screen gaming is only a mini or micro-HDMI or MHL connection away.
PlayCast works on the vast majority (upwards of 90 percent) of existing set-top-boxes
Unlike OnLive, Playcast can tailor its front-end interface with specific branding according to its customers' desires, and it works on your TV without the need for special hardware. Unlike Gaikai, Playcast isn't geared towards getting you to buy games, nor is it selling its services to device manufacturers. Instead it offers various packages of games users can subscribe to through their TV provider. It's currently available to about four million folks in Portugal, France and South Korea, and offers about 60 AAA titles and 200 indie games.
For its US debut in Q3 of next year, the plan is to offer 10-15 packages containing 20 games each for around 10-15 dollars a month. At launch, Playcast expects to have around 100 AAA games like Batman Arkham Asylum, Dirt 3, and Sonic Generations in its library, with a ten percent title churn in each package every month to keep things fresh. Freidlander informed us that the technology is ready to go now, but business terms are still being hammered out and there are QA hurdles left to clear -- which is why he wouldn't tell us which providers will offer Playcast's service.
That said, we did see the service in action along with the company's controller app. As you can see in the video above, games load fairly quickly and run with intermittent pixelation -- which we were assured was caused by the hotel's meager WiFi connection. While playing, there's minimal, though noticeable lag between input on the controller and action on the screen. However, with Playcast's network resolution technology prioritizing gamepad inputs, you won't lose in-game controls even if you lose graphical clarity in the middle of an intense road race or fragging session.
The company's remote app is also a nice addition to the system, as it's available for any Android phone or tablet and can provide both screen-based and accelerometer-based controls. Plus, it's contextually aware, meaning that controls change automatically depending upon the game or whether you are navigating the main UI. There's also a standard control skin, so game-specific controls aren't required, but a plan for a community portal to allow users to build their own, customized skins is in the works. Playing with the app is pretty much what you'd expect -- touch controls are less than optimal, and the experience is like playing a ported console game on your phone or tablet.
Of course, the app's only meant to provide an easy way for multiple people to play without buying additional hardware controllers and as a stopgap until users get the dedicated gamepad provided with the service shipped to them. And, should you have any spare USB, Xbox 360 or PS3 controllers laying around you'll be able to put them to work cloud gaming, too.
It appears that Playcast will provide casual gamers an intriguing option for getting their gaming fix next year. But we're reserving judgment until we see how well the games run on a managed network, what titles are offered, and just how much it'll cost.