Frustrating interruptions that slow or stop play in online ‘cloud gaming’ could become a thing of the past as computer scientists are rethinking how this exciting new generation of gaming will work in the future.
Some of the biggest tech companies in the world have begun launching new subscription-based streaming platforms – such as Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud.
These new services, using the computational power of remote data centres, will allow people to play huge libraries of games without having to buy consoles or expensive gaming PCs.
However, the ‘game engines’ – the software framework that are used to create games – that have made games work so smoothly on traditional home set-ups are now becoming a weakness as gaming shifts into the cloud.
Emerging cloud gaming providers, such as Google Stadia, are built around the concept of ‘virtual machines’. These complex pieces of software use data centre computers to produce and start game engines – including elements such as the graphics, AI, physics calculations, and audio, and allocate that machine’s resources to a gamer playing in their home.
With all the calculations for the game done in the cloud, these virtual machines then stream the video and audio to the players’ devices. This all requires a very secure and stable connection. As a result, network issues, or problems within the data centres themselves, can lead to gameplay slowing, spoiling the experience, or even grinding to a halt entirely.
Recognising this inherent problem, a team of researchers from Lancaster University are developing a new cloud gaming platform. Dubbed ‘Project Thunderchild’ it has a completely new design that promises to overcome game stoppages, or poor performance.
Instead of having all the game calculations taking place in data centres, this new cloud gaming platform would work by ‘distributing’ the game engine over the network. This means different game engine calculations can take place on the players’ devices at home, or from the cloud – automatically shifting depending on performance requirements or connectivity.
The research team, reporting in a new paper presented at USENIX HotCloud’20 in Boston, US, demonstrated their proof of concept by showing they can decouple the graphics rendering part of the game engine.
By sending the graphics code for a game to devices, owned by the player, as well as the cloud, the researchers’ platform delivers seamless gameplay – albeit with a temporary reduction in graphical resolution.
The system can also dynamically switch between different graphic libraries, such as OpenGL and Vulkan, during play. Doing so overcomes issues of players restarting the game due to changing graphic settings.
When a network connection is lost to the cloud then instead of gameplay stopping the graphical code on the local device is used to enable the game to continue.
Dr Peter Garraghan, Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications and author of the paper, said: “On paper cloud gaming sounds like a good idea – no download times, device portability, and access to higher-end hardware. However, there are problems that are holding back its adoption. Providers are assuming users have constant access to high-speed Internet with unlimited data-caps, and the current way they are delivering games reflects this assumption.
“The reality is very different for many gamers and finding a solution to this has driven us to create a new system that aims to pave the way towards a much smoother cloud gaming experience. While we have started with graphics, this is the first phase of a much larger platform towards a fully distributed game engine.
“Cloud gaming could do so much more than offer equivalent offline gaming experiences with variable lag due to network latency. Think of games such as Civilization, Total War: Warhammer, Cities: Skylines, Football Manager 2020 – all these game suffer some form of performance slowdown due the sheer size and number of things that they have to simulate – all demanding vast quantities of CPU or GPU computation. The ability to offload some of this computation to other devices would really help make these games run better at scale. It could be the cloud itself, or your currently idle desktop PC.”
The researchers add that by also having the games stored on the players’ devices it also overcomes other reasons why some gamers are reluctant to adopt cloud gaming. These are the perceived lack of ownership of games they have paid for if they are stored remotely and only accessible through a subscription service, as well as concerns about Internet data-caps, or loss of network connection while travelling.
Dr Garraghan said: “Ideally, it would likely be effective if games were designed to include an option for enabling ‘Cloud acceleration’ that can be toggled in the game settings, and would make it much more agreeable to gamers who are worried about their network quality.”