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MMObility: Developments in Gaikai, OnLive shine light on streaming future


Video game streaming software and systems is a hot topic. I've mentioned more than once that I think browser-based gaming (specifically MMOs) will be the main way we get our MMO fix within five years. Browser-based gaming is already responsible for a massive chunk of our MMO gaming. All it takes is one look at the number of players of games like RuneScape, Club Penguin, Travian, Spacetime Studio's collection, War of Dragons, Glitch, Evony (and its "nearly 30 million customers worldwide"), Grepolis, Bigpoint's stable, and many, many others to see that the number of us who play MMOs through our browsers is pretty staggering.

Streaming content is next. TERA recently invited players to try out the game using a streaming client that is hosted by Gaikai, a streaming service that was recently bought out by Sony for a cool $380 million. While it does not yet stream MMOs, OnLive has been adding games to its collection for quite a while, embedding itself into televisions, tablets, and PCs and now offering a mobile desktop that gives iPad users access to a virtual PC desktop. I have successfully played many browser-based MMOs through that virtual desktop's browser. Big Fish games, a non-MMO developer that produces "a new game ever day," announced that it too will offer a streaming service this summer. I squealed out loud when I heard that one.

Does this mean streaming content is closer to mainstream than I previously thought?

Alienware PC screenshot
As I've had this discussion with fellow gamers before, I have struggled to convince many of them that streaming services will one day be the main way we get our content. I'm not sure why anyone would not already be convinced; simply look at the popularity of Netflix streaming services, recall the outcry from HBO fans to gain access only to HBO GO (a streaming service that comes with a full cable subscription), or consider how YouTube has changed everything. Next we need to take into account streaming clients like the ones EverQuest II, Free Realms, and RIFT use. Even though they are technically downloading the game to our hard drives, the streaming clients speak to the convenience of instant access. I've even found that many players are unaware that Free Realms is a client-based game!

This does not mean I think large desktop boxes will go away. For every advance in technology, we will have the need for devices to run those larger programs. Yes, PCs can grow smaller and smaller and smaller, but there will always be hobbyists who look forward to physically getting into the guts of their machines and changing things around. Today's large desktop gaming machine is tomorrow's large, 3-D, holographic device.

We're not talking about the minority here, though. Technically, desktop MMO players are a minority within a minority, at least when you look at the numbers of gamers in general and especially compared to mobile gamers. Mobile gaming is responsible for a massive chunk of the market, with more games waiting in the wings. It's been estimated that millions more Chinese gamers will soon join the mobile market, thanks to cheaper and cheaper smartphones. Screens will grow larger but stay portable, phones will become more powerful, and faster internet will be able to stream content to those devices. Fifteen years ago, about 5% of the world's population was mobile; now it's closer to 87%. In 2011, there were over 900 million mobile users, and more than half of those new users chose 3G devices. No one should attempt to argue against mobile as the future of gaming.

But is it the future of MMO gaming? Will we give up our large monitors and spacious desk chairs for a 10-inch touchscreen and streamed games? It's already happening in standard gaming thanks in large part to the iPad and other tablets. Why haven't we seen MMOs erupt in that market?

Well, we sort of have.

"I'm not claiming that mobile MMOs number in the hundreds (yet), but I can easily name 20 or 30."

If you tried to list MMOs off of the top of your head, how many could you come up with? Ten? Twenty? I could easily name probably 50 and have nearly 200 bookmarked on my PC, most of them being browser-based or indie MMOs. (And readers wonder where I find those odd little indie games I always talk about!) I'm not claiming that mobile MMOs number in the hundreds (yet), but I can easily name 20 or 30. In other words, there are probably just as many mobile MMOs as there are standard, client-based MMOs that many of my readers could name. Don't trust me on that; try it yourself. Heck, Spacetime Studios and PerBlue have put out a total of eight titles alone, and we haven't even touched on the fact that the Eastern market has been releasing mobile MMOs pretty steadily for the past few years and will only continue to do so.

What does all of this have to do with streaming services? Simple: In my opinion, downloads won't become obsolete but also won't be as critical as they are now. If we can sign in to our bank from a website and feel secure, then surely we will feel secure enough to play a game that is streamed to our devices. Security will not be the issue, or at least it will be met with merely the same urgency it is now... meaning that if you are reading this now, you probably feel pretty secure doing all sorts of things while being mobile and streaming.

"Ask yourself whether massive downloads and the huge desktop boxes that are needed to process the graphics for our MMOs will always be what they are now."

Ask yourself whether massive downloads and the huge desktop boxes that are needed to process the graphics for our MMOs will always be what they are now. Remember when we were thrilled to have access to a burnable CD to contain, what, 700MB of information? Then we got DVDs to burn, and those can hold somewhere around 4GB? You can pick up a portable hard drive that is the size of your pinky toe for a few dollars. Isn't the natural order of technology to go from big and bulky to sleek and tiny? One of the main stepping blocks to that sleeker future is the big machines we need to make our pretty MMOs run. We are already seeing how streaming can work for standalone games and now MMOs, so is it that hard to imagine its becoming the standard in a near future? Yes, data caps and slower internet will be an issue for many of us, but I pay for good television and 50/35 Mbps internet and can now move up to 300/65 Mbps. This is through Verizon, a very large service that is available throughout the US. Prices will drop, and access will become more widespread.

If I am proven wrong someday, I will be the first to admit it. I would probably quit gaming, however, considering that I have officially quit paying to upgrade my desktop. I refuse to put any more money into a machine when I can simply stream content without the need for much power -- or log into an entire world on my tablet.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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