When looking to the future of gaming, few concepts get people as excited as the mythical “Netflix for gaming.” It’s a concept that we’ve seen in multiple forms, from OnLive’s early efforts to Sony’s new PlayStation Now service.
Serving up games from giant clusters of servers has several advantages over the traditional model of running a game on your own console or PC. It allows any device that can play streaming video to play high-def games; graphics can improve at a steady rate because improvements to a cloud architecture are easier to roll out than new console hardware; and games can be played instantly rather than waiting for ~20GB game downloads.
While Microsoft hasn’t gone as far as Sony in releasing its own streaming game platform, it’s shown interest in the concept before. Just this April, Microsoft showed off how developers of big-budget Xbox blockbusters like Titanfall are taking advantage of the Azure cloud platform to include better AI and physics without reducing performance overall.
Yesterday, Microsoft Research published a report that signals that the company is looking for ways that it could use its cloud expertise to create a unique cloud gaming platform at some point in the future. It discusses DeLorean, a “speculative execution engine” that makes it possible to delivery seemingly lag-free gameplay from the cloud despite the myriad sources of network latency between Microsoft’s Azure servers and a player’s device.
The report concludes that most users involved in the study couldn’t tell the difference between playing Doom 3 and Fable 3, two relatively action-heavy games, on a local system or from the cloud using DeLorean with 250 milliseconds of latency. That’s a game-changer — most gamers experiencing that kind of lag would throw their controllers in frustration.
How did Microsoft Research pull off such a feat? The key to DeLorean is the “speculative” descriptor. Video games generally can’t be buffered like a video from YouTube or Netflix because player actions affect what happens on screen — if I shoot my gun in Titanfall and the game showed me jumping, I’d be annoyed. But by looking at previous player input and sampling the most likely player actions, Microsoft found a way to predict the few actions you’re probably going to take and sends the video of each of them over ahead of time, letting it show players the most accurate guess as the game catches up.
The biggest problem with that solution is that it’s very bandwidth heavy: Microsoft notes that the bitrate for its predictive engine is 1.5-4.5 times higher than simply sending just the frames that a game knows to be accurate based on actual player input. That means you’d need a faster connection in order to play games through a theoretical Xbox streaming service than you would for PlayStation Now or Nvidia’s Grid, but you wouldn’t experience the stuttering that happens for gamers that don’t live close to the physical servers hosting those services.