What is cloud gaming, and what does Gaikai mean for PS3, 4 and beyond?

The recent announcement that Sony has bought cloud-based gaming service Gaikai for £242 million has been met with a predictably mixed response. While many are hailing Sony’s forward-thinking business savvy, there remains a sizeable chunk of gamers worried that all this streaming malarkey will render home consoles – even the still-to-be-announced PS4 – completely redundant.

WHAT IS GAIKAI, ANYWAY?

Stream any game, any where, at any time

Well hold your horses for just a sec – first of all let’s take a look at what Sony has actually bought with its precious dollar. Gaikai was initially set up in 2008 as a service that allowed streaming of high-end PC and console games to any video-enabled device with a broadband connection. So basically you could play Mass Effect 2 on your tablet or smart phone, said devices being able to handle it because all the beefy processing is being done somewhere in America by a server the size of a small moon. Essentially, Gaikai does for games what Netflix does for film and television – lets you consume media by streaming it over the net without ever having to own the product or download it locally.

For those of you worried that cloud gaming is about to oust PS3, ask yourself this; does having Netflix stop you buying blu-rays or going to the cinema? We’d hazard a guess that many of you still prefer the crisp, reliable playback of an optical disc or the sensory thrill of your local multiplex over the occasionally stuttery experience that comes with streaming stuff over UK broadband. With games, there’s a lot more to process – your controller input for instance has to travel to wherever the server is and back again – so lag is currently a massive issue with cloud-based gaming.

IS THE UK READY FOR CLOUD GAMING?

Jesse Divnich, game analyst with Electronic Entertainment Design and Research said in a recent interview with MSN, ‘when I fire up Mass Effect 3 in my browser via Gaikai, the game looks choppy if not downright ugly thanks to wavering internet speeds here at my house. Just because you can play a high-end, triple-A game in your browser, doesn’t mean you’ll want to.’

Thanks to UK broadband, Mass Effect 3 currently looks balls on Gaikai

With average UK broadband speeds currently fluttering around the 8.8Mbit/s mark for urban areas and a paltry 3.3Mbit/s for those out in the sticks, Gaikai’s recommended connection speed of at least 5Mbit/s means a considerable portion of UK gamers will experience cloud-based gaming that is nigh-on unplayable. Simply put, an environment for purely cloud-based videogame distribution just doesn’t exist in the UK. Yet.

Media regulator Ofcom reports that leading broadband providers like Virgin and BT are looking to double the speeds of their fibre-to-the-cabinet services in the next few years as the government lays out plans for Britain to have the best broadband in Eurpoe by 2015, but uSwitch.com’s technology expert Ernest Doku is still skeptical. “Although internet providers are investing millions of pounds in bringing the UK’s broadband infrastructure into the 21st Century,” says Doku, “the reality is that many parts of Britain, and especially rural areas, are still operating in the broadband dark ages and are digitally isolated due to sluggish speeds and patchy coverage.”