Right now, the fastest way to start playing a new game is to download one from the internet. PC services such as Steam and all three major living room consoles - the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Wii U - offer online stores where you can purchase one with few quick button combos. But try sucking a couple dozen gigabytes of game files through the an already-choked home internet connection and it can be hours before you're button mashing; what's more, the process eats up hard drive space faster than a pirated season of Game of Thrones.
Netflix’s solved this problem for the movie and TV industry. The massive high-definition video file for a House of Cards episode, for example, streams from a server somewhere in a giant computer warehouse, each frame evaporating after being watched. HBO Go, Amazon Prime Video, and on-demand movies all work the same way, giving you what you want, when you want it, with no waiting and no awkward morning-after moment staring at a stack of DVDs you'll never watch again.
Games, while slow to transition, are moving in the same direction, thanks to heavyweights like Sony and Nvidia who hope to use the same streaming technology built into a new generation of micro-consoles -- tiny game machines that plug into TVs, but are smaller, simpler, and cost much less than an Xbox.
Nvidia, the high-tech giant that makes graphics cards and processors for computers, tablets, phones and even cars, has just announced the Nvidia Shield, a new $199 micro-console. Rather than downloading hard-drive-hogging games from the internet or asking for plastic discs, the Shield simply streams games from the internet.
Much like a Netflix show, a streamed game is actually playing on a powerful game server, a big computer located somewhere up in the cloud. The player hits a button on the controller, the signal goes up to that cloud computer, and the result is beamed back to the micro-console. Gamers are essentially watching a live streaming video of themselves playing a game, but when done right, the effect is instantaneous.
Nvidia's game service on the Shield is called GRID, and it offers an assortment of recent and slightly older titles, including Saints Row IV and Batman: Arkham Origins. Sony's version is called PlayStation Now, and it works with the $99 PlayStation TV micro-console (as well as your PS4, and some Sony televisions) to deliver instant gratification for games that are admittedly a generation out of date, but still fan favorites (including games from the Killzone and God of War series). OnLive is a PC, Mac and Android app that does the same thing, with a big catalog of new and old PC games, and even comes built into a devices such as select LG televisions and the Amazon Fire TV set-top box.
The biggest obstacle to the growth of cloud gaming is lag, the added delay required to send a game command signal up to a computer in the cloud, calculate what happens in the game, and beam the results back to the viewer. When lag hits, it can mean sluggish games, which is a deal-breaker when a plasma grenade is in mid air. For now, conquering lag requires a rock-solid internet connection and a little luck, but it's an uphill battle. And it's not just the streaming that's to blame. Everything from using a wireless game controller to the fancy picture processing modes on a flatscreen TV can add milliseconds of extra lag.
But Sony, Nvidia, and other tech companies have teams of engineers working on hiccup-free streaming game technology, and even today, the experience can be excellent if the bandwidth gods are smiling. If they're able to conquer the lag issue, there's a very good chance the PlayStation 5, Xbox Two, or any other console will be smaller, cheaper, or nonexistent.