article on Gaikai

July 20, 2009 — Leave a comment

I’m back from England now, the Develop conference speech went well. Had a pretty fantastic meeting with one of the 1st Party companies, and overall it’s really fuelled our team. just ran an interview on Gaikai.

Here’s the text:
David Perry isn’t the kind of guy to work on just one project at a time, and at this year’s GDC in San Francisco, following the reveal of the OnLive streaming games technology, he outlined some plans of his own in that area.
Called GaiKai, the service is intended to be a way for publishers to put games in front of large audiences for set periods in the hope they’ll then like what they see and buy it – here, Perry explains more.
Q: Shortly after the announcement of OnLive at GDC this year there was a bit of a backlash of scepticism – a lot of people seem to feel that if technology such as that, and GaiKai, works it’ll be a big deal for the internet, not just games… so why isn’t Google doing it?
David Perry: Well first of all, does it interest people like Google? The answer is yes, and they were among the very first people to contact me. They’re very aware of this kind of technology and its potential impact.
But the question I get all the time is: “Is it possible?” The answer is yes. There’s no grey area to it. It’s possible. There are two factors – lag, or latency, the speed of light travelling through wires, switchers, routers, how many hops… there are many different ways to talk about it, but basically the question is how quickly can I get my controls to the server, and how quickly can I get my video back?
My personal experience in the US – we have a server where it will finally be in the US – that isn’t close to my house, but close enough, and I get a 10ms round trip, so 5ms there, 5ms back. That is so fast, it’s not even worth discussing.
If I ping San Jose, which is the length of England, from my house I can do that in 20ms – which is also not worth discussing. You could not feel 20ms. You could argue you can, but really you can’t. I spoke to the Guitar Hero guys at E3 and asked them what an acceptable latency for Guitar Hero and they told me 55ms – so that gives you an idea.
Now, we’re not intending to run such twitch-heavy games as Guitar Hero, so our goal has been to stay sub-100ms, but we’d like to be 55ms if we can – but we’ll use that as a way to work out where to put the servers. So every time we see somebody that’s more than that, where they get a crazy ping time, we’re going to put servers in that area – and we’re going to do that continuously.
And when we think we’ve got them all, then we’ll look at what the highest is then and take it down another layer, and another layer. It’s very simple, and that’s how the issue with lag works.
If someone, for some reason, had a really bad lag – and you get that if you try to play through a cell phone modem, we’ll remove the service. Don’t play through a cell phone modem – that’s not going to work.
Q: So basically the consumer gets a great experience, or none – it’s all or nothing?
David Perry: Yeah. You basically won’t even know there was a service available, because we won’t have offered it to you – no button will show up, because it won’t be a good connection.
But anyway – that’s one step. The second part is the bandwidth itself, and how much data you can push. That’s where we’re really different to OnLive, because we’ll be pushing publishers to go smaller – and we’re trying to demonstrate that. You don’t need to have full screen HD to play a game, you just don’t. It needs to be good, but each game has a set size it’ll work at, and we suggest that they go as small as they can while still having a great experience – because the audience will be exponential. The smaller you go, the bigger the audience.
That’s really our position – I know everybody has the idealistic world… like, wouldn’t it be great if all your music was just the same recording as when it was made? On the other hand, I have a whole bunch of mp3s with me, which are heavily compressed but they sound just great to me – but I can carry an awful lot of them with me.
That’s kind of our attitude – let’s not get crazy about this. Our goal is to deliver games on any sensible bandwidth connection to the biggest audience possible… and I don’t want to rule you out because your connection is 1.5mbps. OnLive is looking for 2-6mpbs, and that’s a lot to expect.
I came to this hotel [in Brighton] and jumped on the internet to see what my room connection was. It wasn’t great, but it works, so I was able to play the game through this hotel’s internet connection, and that’s real world. That’s what I want – we don’t want to tell people they can only play from home, on a really good connection, and that if you’re recording HD from somewhere else in the house your internet connection is gone…
We’re trying to keep it real. That’s our goal.
Q: Obviously there will be a lot of people who have maybe had problems with MMOs and lag, or other core online games – but they’ve already got their set-up, and they know about games, so are you even going to have to market to those people to persuade them?
David Perry: GaiKai is not built for hardcore gamers – those are the guys that want HD, 60 frames per second, who are happy to sit for an hour and a half, download and install it… that’s just not our audience at all – it’s trying to reach out to new players, the hundreds of millions of people who never touched Mario Kart but would like to. They don’t know it yet, but when they click – they’re clicking on games on Facebook, on their iPhone, on MySpace, on Flash games sites – and they haven’t experienced games like EVE Online, or Spore, or LEGO Star Wars. They haven’t bought a console yet, they’re not there yet.
So that’s the audience we’re going after initially – and it’s a very different approach. To them it will be shocking: “Good God, what the Hell is this?” And that’s the experience we want people to have.
Q: It’s pretty easy to think of the core audience and worry they won’t be persuaded, when it’s not for them…
David Perry: Absolutely – ultimately, if we can grow an audience, at the end of the day that extra audience brings value to the game. So if a company puts their game out and we can double that audience because of extending that reach into places they couldn’t reach, that’s more revenue for the company, and hopefully they’ll invest more into the game, or future games – that’s really a good thing for everybody?
Q: So what’s in it for you?
David Perry: It’s simple – very easy. Think of it as us selling new players. Imagine you’re a game company and you’re developing a game, and you really want to get it out there. You have a choice of putting banners all over the internet, hoping that people see those banners and feel they need to buy the game, then go and download it.
Or you can come to us, and for a cost – and we don’t know what that cost will be yet because it’ll be market-driven… whatever the market’s willing to pay will be the cost, for the publisher to get that player to pay. My goal is for the publisher to pay, not the gamer. That’s the most important part here – that’s a game-changer.
I’m a big fan of free-to-play – I’m the chief creative officer of Acclaim, and I care greatly about how to get people into games on a mass scale, and then convert them once we’ve got them. I just wrote an article on EA about how they’re committed to Free with Battlefield Heroes, Sony’s doing great with FreeRealms – there’s no question that works. If you can get them to come in and give it a whirl…
I just think it’s a game-changer – say you’re reading a preview of a game that’s about to come out, and the preview is written from the point of view of knowing the person is about to play it while reading the preview. On that window, you design your page so you’ve got the preview and the game is playing right there. They can click and actually experience the real game – it’s pretty cool because it’s not the idea of making a portal and trying to get everyone to come to it, but letting the publishers say to a certain website, “Hey, why don’t we work together?”
Because everybody you get to play the game, you just saved the publisher money. There’s a real synergy there – it’s not like they had to pay for every banner to get every single click, you just drove your traffic into their game.
So they’ll give you the game for a certain period of time, and they’ll have to cover the cost of the servers while people play – and that’s what we charge them. If they use one minute of our service, we’ll charge them for one minute. If they play for an hour, we charge for an hour – they set how long people can play for, and ultimately they either try to convert them… go to the store and buy the game, download and buy the game… or continue playing – keep streaming, keep playing.
Q: What about the servers? It’ll need a lot of hardware across the world – do you start in the US? How many do you need?
David Perry: Well, there are two different approaches – one, you build a network that’s gigantic and hope people come, and the other is to build a network based on demand. If you advertise for traffic – imagine I was to go in all the movie theatres, or put banner advertising all over Brighton, for example – and all these people show up, there better be servers for them. If there isn’t, then all that peak traffic that came in is going to be wasted.
You can’t have that, so you have to build a network that’s ready for the peak traffic, and there will be lulls in that traffic, and you’ll have servers eating power… it’s quite a complex equation. If you were making that order, how many would you order on day one? That’s the peak traffic solution, that’s what OnLive is going to have to solve.
Q: It sounds like a traditional MMO?
David Perry: It’s a little bit old school thinking to be honest, because it’s a brute force solution that’s very, very expensive. It’s going to cost… I don’t know.
Q: Even if you’re renting space, and not buying outright?
David Perry: Let me give you an analogy – you just signed up to this service and you’re paying a subscription now. In that subscription you try to log in during peak, and it says “Sorry, our servers are full” – how happy are you going to be?
Q: That’s a cancelled subscription, right there.
David Perry: That’s a cancelled subscription, and they can’t afford that – it’s such a high cost. To get a paying player on the internet costs a lot of money.
So for us we’re the exact opposite – we’re doing a scaling solution. Say we only have one server in the whole world, and that server can deliver about 3500 new players to a publisher during a month, based on the number of hours, if they do one hour each.
It’s going to be up to the player to decide if they want to continue playing that game, but assuming it’s good, you’ll have a healthy conversion from playing to wanting to continue.
So just like banner advertising on the internet, there’s only a certain amount of views available, a certain amount of inventory, and people end up bidding for that inventory – it’s how Google works, it’s how Facebook works. You bid for inventory – there are 3500 players available, how much do you want to pay? The publishers can decide – it might be too expensive for them, it might be really worth it.
So we then say: “My God, they ordered 10,000… we need more servers.” And we just keep on buying servers – but we only buy them based on demand. Why does that work? Because it keeps the cost down for everybody. We have no servers running, and I didn’t spend USD 150 million, with the interest on USD 150 million burning away as I hope people are going to show up.
That’s basically the model – every time we hit maximum capacity, we order more servers.
David Perry is chief creative officer at Acclaim, and heading up the GaiKai project. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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