Tag Archives: Stadia

The Allure of the Thin Client

For a couple of decades various companies have been trying to get us back to the thin client model of computing.  Oracle has suggested this loudly more than a few times and Google ponders it now and again, with things like Stadia being based on the idea.  Also, if you work for a big company I assure you that your IT department has wet dreams about taking away all your laptops and desktops and making you work on some sort of thin client appliance.  IT at my company keeps pushing Citrix virtual desktops as the solution to every problem.

I say “back to” because I am old enough to remember when dumb terminals and terminal emulators were a mainstay of computing.  In addition to my time spent in the computer lab in college, the online games I played back in the 80s and into the mid-90s, things like Stellar Emperor or Gemstone on GEnie, MegaWars III on CompuServe, and Sonjourn/Toril MUD, were all built on that model.

Star Trek in vt52 emulation

As personal computers came along and started growing in computing power, much of the heavy lifting was put on that end of the equation.  Air Warrior rendered its very primitive visuals on the player end, and shooters and action games like Marathon and Diablo made the user’s system do the graphical work while just data about inputs and positioning were shared.   This meant that in the low bandwidth of the time… I played Air Warrior on a 2400bps modem… the back and forth between client and server was kept to a minimum.

So the end user client became fat.  Eventually so much data was stored at the user end by the late 90s that EverQuest had a little test module app that let you run around a mini-zone to test your 3D card, but you could rename many of the game maps and run around the main, if empty, world if you knew what you were doing.  You couldn’t zone or do much, but if you wanted to explore it was a boon, and you were not even connected to Sony while you did it.  And that is the way that many MMORPGs and other online games went, keeping data on the server and letting the end user machine do the graphical work.

For video game developers there are many benefits to going with a thin client, of keeping all that data on their servers.

For starters, the downloads and patching at the user end are kept to a minimum.  This has often been viewed as a point of friction that keeps players from trying out new games.  The holy grail is for a player to just be able to play without any sort of download, something CCP has been experimenting with recently with EVE Online and their EVE Anywhere browser beta.  If you can just play the game on any computer, then your potential market is greatly expanded.

It also makes updates easy, since things only have to get pushed as far as the servers.  Very little need be pushed to the player’s machine.  New content just appears or is unlocked without a download.  You also get all your settings and configurations as you move from device to device.

It is also a major boon for security.  If all the key files are on the company’s secure servers, then secrets can be kept.  We are familiar with every new pet, item, mount, or NPC being spoiled for us in WoW by the race to datamine any pre-patch update.  And, of course, addons, illicit or benign, and hacks are kept at bay.  This all falls under Raph Koster’s admonishment that “the client is in the hands of the enemy.”  Overall the environment is more secure.

Finally, all the end user issues that come from the wide variety of PC configurations, a huge problem for many applications, are largely eliminated.  A thin client stops caring about processors and video cards and operating systems and the like.  Your game can theoretically run on somebody’s TV or refrigerator.

All in all there is a lot of upside.  Control! Security! Ease of access!

Sign me up today!

So why isn’t every new online game in a thin client in the cloud?

Since I used the word “cloud” there, I am going to take a moment to point out that cloud computing is not the same thing, or required for, a thin client, though when people who should know keep conflating the two things I get how you might be confused on that.  Thin clients are as old as computing.  See my reference to dumb terminals at the top of this post.  And cloud computing is, simply put, a scalable server architecture with redundancy built in… though, again, some things that get referred to as “the cloud” are better labeled “somebody else’s computer” and not used as examples of the technology.  Talking about cloud computing as though that means any remote computer is a simplification that renders the term meaningless.  If that is your frame, then every online game is “cloud” and there is nothing special about it.

Anyway, why is Google’s Stadia something of an outlier rather than the norm for the industry, at least when it comes to 3D rendered world-based games?  (Because you kind of have to count early RuneScape, Club Penguin, Star Wars: The Clone Wars Adventures, Nation Geographic Adventures, and all those Cartoon Network games if you don’t put a barrier somewhere.  So I am speaking of high end games where some level of realistic graphic fidelity is a requirement.)

And maybe Stadia is a bad example in that it is attempting to be a virtual console that can play titles that were not otherwise designed for such an environment, but if you take it off the list we don’t have a lot of other big name examples.  Well, at least no successes.  A few companies have tried to do what Stadia is doing in the past and have ended up failing.  But given that it is common as shit unless you want render a ton of polygons, why isn’t already a common thing?

Part of the issue is likely due to the cost of the infrastructure.

The problem is that if you’re going to take over all the rendering functions of the remote device, you essentially have to do all the processing that the end user’s PC or console was going to do.  If you want to run that all yourself or you want to use somebody else’s data center, that still means a lot of extra hardware.  The company basically has to pay to run your client rather than letting you run it on your own hardware.

For example, EVE Online has a minimum system requirement of a 2.0 GHz dual core processor and a modest GPU.  If it went entirely thin client, if EVE Anywhere was the only way to access New Eden, you would have to have the equivalent of 20,000 minimum spec PCs in processing power on hand just about all the time, scaling up to 35,000 or even 40,000 at prime time on weekends.

You can probably get away with less processing power for most operations, but you would most assuredly want to put more processing power behind GPU support unless you want the whole game to run in potato mode for everybody all the time.

In a modern cloud architecture where you can bring capacity online easily and only pay for what you are using at a given time, you can keep the costs down somewhat, but everybody playing is incurring a cost, and somebody has to pay for it.  I don’t think it will be like my days back in college where your online account had an allocated budget to spend on processing time (which inevitably got squandered on Rogue), but the company is going to have to find some way to pay for using their processing power rather that your own.  Expect to pay more.

And, while the company saves on bandwidth when it comes to things like pushing patches to every client, the need to pipe high quality video at an appropriate resolution and quality will more than offset that.

Meanwhile, latency and connection quality issues will become a much more visible, something that Google’s Stadia demonstrated.  These are issues in current games like WoW, but you often don’t see it because the client with all the assets and world data will keep you walking, running, riding, or flying along while it tries to catch up after any data blip.  But if you lose connectivity for a bit and far end is only routing video to you, everything stutters or stops quite noticeably.  And even when the is able to get to you but the network traffic is slow, you’ll see your video quality degrade.

Also, if you live some place with restrictive bandwidth caps you’ll find streaming all that video might put you in danger of exceeding them.  You need high speed and lots of bandwidth to play a thin client game at the quality level you’re used to with an equivalent fat client title.  But you can play the thin client title on your refrigerator, so there is that.

But, if the game decides to take full advantage of the potential platform independence aspect of a thin client, if they’re going to support your high end desktop PC with the 34″ ultra wide screen monitor AND that refrigerator screen, there is likely going to have to be some sort of compromise on quality and UI.  So even if bandwidth and network hiccups aren’t dragging down your quality, the game itself, optimized to some happy medium, might not deliver the same satisfying, high definition experience that you would get if your own gaming rig was doing the work rather than some standardized system on a remote server.  Oh, and I keep using the term “thin client,” but for most uses you can substitute in “web browser,” though a light app is also possible. (Though with that comes the temptation to fatten it up.)

Finally, if the thin client game shuts down… see MetaPlace… you have nothing left but memories and credit card bills.  All of the major pirate /private server projects to restore online games that have been closed rely heavily on people being able to get a hold of a copy of the fat client.  All the graphics and a lot of the data is stored there, which is how so many of these rudimentary projects get stood up so quickly.  The world is in the client, you just need to get a system with the right responses going to get basic walking around the world functionality running.

The thin client idea is an attractive proposition for the dev side.  It simplifies a lot of things for them, gives them better security, and hands them all the control.  Done right in a cloud environment, it could even solve the first day server load issues if they can scale successfully.

But somebody is going to pay for the additional cost, your experience may be degraded if you do not have an ideal internet connection, if the studio wants to run their title across platforms and devices you may find the experience and interface less than you desire, and the whole thing becomes a virtual world that can disappear, never to be seen again, as fast as any virtual good.

Quote of the Day – Streamers Should Pay

Streamers worried about getting their content pulled because they used music they didn’t pay for should be more worried by the fact that they’re streaming games they didn’t pay for as well. It’s all gone as soon as publishers decide to enforce it.

-Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director for something owned by Google, on Twitter

This was sort of toss out of left field I wasn’t expecting.

This all started on Wednesday when Amazon’s Twitch streaming service delete a large number of saved video stream for DCMA takedown requests without notice or an option to appeal, followed by an email about how streamers should familiarize themselves with the DCMA process… which isn’t supposed to work like that.

Twitch is Twitch

That is a whole tempest in itself, and Ars Technica has a good summary.

So a lot of streamers were pretty upset about this.  And onto the hot coals of their ire, Mr. Hutchinson decided to pour is own oil of scorn.

This was followed by two more tweets:

Streamers worried about getting their content pulled because they used music they didn’t pay for should be more worried by the fact that they’re streaming games they didn’t pay for as well. It’s all gone as soon as publishers decide to enforce it.

The real truth is the streamers should be paying the developers and publishers of the games they stream. They should be buying a license like any real business and paying for the content they use.

Leaving aside the whole “kicking people when their down” aspect of this tweet, which is loathsome in itself, I can think of no quicker way to put an end to video game streaming that trying to extract a license tax from streamers.  A few streamers make some decent money, but most make little to nothing, and any fee would just put a stop to them.

And he seems to be pretty sure that game publishers can make this happen.  I’m not sure if the EULA and or ToS of every single video game is up to the task, but it is possible I suppose.  Shut it all down.  That is what he appears to want.

Remember, this comment is in a world where some game companies give popular streamers free copies of their games to play and often promote such streams.

And that isn’t the only problem with this sentiment.  It also appears to equate video games with forms of entertainment like music or movies, things that yield the same experience if you buy it yourself or listen/watch somebody play it online.  That seems to be a stretch for me.  Watching people play video games is a very different experience in my book than actually playing a video game.

Then there is the fact that, here in 2020, that horse appears to be well and truly out of the barn and gone.  If you can’t stream it, or have the saved recordings of those streams, what does that mean for YouTube?  We’re about fifteen years down the road on game videos on that front.

However, I think the most shocking thing about these statements is that they don’t really seem to be something others in the industry have been grumbling about.  “Streamers should be paying us!” isn’t something I’ve heard, and this is an industry that boils over now and then about used game sales, Steam sales, the cut apps stores (and Steam) take on sales, the cut physical retail stores take on sales, any barrier between them and publishing, too much competition due to lack of barriers to publishing, and the fact that people won’t spend their money on crappy 99 cent games rather than their morning latte.

Oh, and piracy.  Always piracy.  Literally a “make devs angry” thing for at least forty years, and one that has seen more money thrown at it for less benefit than anything I can think of.

But Mr. Hutchinson clearly sees this as piracy, so there is no doubt that fire in his belly on the topic, having been a game developer himself in the past.  And, as was pointed out over at MMO Fallout, he has had his own issues in the past. and might even be stretching the truth in his Twitter bio.

The funniest thing about today’s streaming drama is that everyone thinks Alex Hutchinson runs Google Stadia (because his Twitter bio says “Creative Director @ Google Stadia”). He’s actually a creative director at a Montreal game studio that was purchased by Google last December

[He has since updated his profile to reflect this.]

Anyway, being a creative director of some sort at Google’s means he likely isn’t in a position to do anything about this.  It looks like just so much hot air.  And I doubt there are many studios out there keen to press this issue and make enemies of streamers.  This is akin to the Mark Twain saying about not arguing with a man who buys ink by the barrel.  The videos are already blossoming on YouTube and elsewhere about this.  It may die down soon, but the embers will remain, ready to burst into flames it stoked.

I’m also pretty sure most game studios or publishers are smart enough give this idea a wide berth.  Even EA can’t be dumb enough to get on board with this idea.  And Google has made sure to carefully distance itself from the idea.  In a statement they said:

The recent tweets by Alex Hutchinson, creative director at the Montreal Studio of Stadia Games and Entertainment, do not reflect those of Stadia, YouTube or Google.

Google is not keen to burn bridges or throw away whatever small success they have managed to eke out with Stadia.

So, in the end, one person’s noxious opinion did not represent their company or the industry and probably would have largely ignored if their profile had not represented their position as a senior exec at Stadia and not somebody in a subsidiary far from Google HQ.  The status quo was maintained.

But, as we well know, the internet is a place where bad ideas find followers easily.  This might come up again.  Some other company exec, one with actual influence this time, could grab on tot his idea and run with it.  And if they do, I’ll buy some popcorn.  The drama will be excellent.

Others on this topic:

Friday Bullet Points About Aether Wars, Stadia, and Other Things

It is Friday and, as often happens, I have a few items which I want to note but which I do not really want to create whole blog posts about.

  • Aether Wars

Tomorrow is the day, the time for the big attempt at the world record for most players together in an online battle… or so CCP and Hadean keep telling me.  They have had a count down all week on Twitter.  But it is tomorrow, Sat 23 Nov 2019 at 20:00 UTC.

Aether Wars Tech Demo

As I mentioned in my previous post, the client is available on Steam.  It is a quick and easy download and you don’t have to register or sign up or anything, just launch the game when the time for the event comes up.  The event itself has not changed much since the summer version, which I wrote about here.

See you there tomorrow?  What if I told you there was a Steam achievement for joining it?  Because there is.

You could also win an all expenses paid trip to Fanfest 2020 in Iceland by just showing up, but I am betting the achievement will have more influence on who plays.

  • Stadia Launches

Google’s cloud gaming service, Google Stadia, went live this week.  Reports were that the phone app required to configure the service and buy games was downloaded 175,000 times, which doesn’t exactly put the launch into the realm of unqualified successes.  However, the launch was only for people who pre-ordered the $129 Chromecast Ultra package.  Numbers will no doubt go up when the free version is released next year, but the press has not been kind to it and data usage could still be a problem for some.

Like some others, I don’t really get why Stadia is even worth considering relative to any of the possible alternatives, which might just mean I am not the target audience.  Still, there was an excellent long Twitter thread comparing Stadia to a similar product design from the past that stirred up my own lingering feeling that Google was doing this more because they can than because they believed there was a market.

But the real pessimists have started a countdown clock to Stadia’s expected demise, a number reached based on the average life of Google products.  And they do have a point.

  • Minecraft Plans

I was going to mention this previously… and then forgot.  Such is my life.  But back at Minecon it was announced that the next update for Minecraft will focus on the Nether, adding new biomes and structures and mobs.  There are some basic details here  However, if you put a bed down in the Nether and try to sleep in it, it will still explode.

As usual, the update will only affect new worlds or areas explored after the update drops.

  • Pokemon Sword & Shield Sells Big

I mentioned last Friday that Pokemon Sword & Shield was launching.

The core RPG line continues

While I wasn’t buying a copy… we don’t own a Switch… it turns out a lot of people were on board with the new game as it sold around six million copies in the first week, making it the fastest selling Nintendo Switch title so far.

Announce you’re making a real core Pokemon RPG game and people will line up.

  • Mobile WoW When?

Bobby Kotick was up talking about the idea of perpetual franchises, which I guess is the line you take when you cannot make anything new that outsells the stuff you already have.  Seriously, the Activision Blizzard big money makers remain World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and Candy Crush Saga.

As part of that he said that the growth would be staggering once they brought all of these to phones.  That makes me want to ask where Diablo Immortal is, but never mind.  However it sure sounds like we’re going to get some flavor of Warcraft on mobile.  Maybe.  Some day.

Friday Bullet Points NOT About WoW Classic

I have been all about WoW Classic for a stretch now.  The run up to the launch, less than two weeks ago still, probably made that seem even longer.  But other things have been going on, a few of which I want to note in passing, which gets us to another Friday Bullet Points post.

  • Fallen Earth Falling

I had to dig around a bit to find anything here about Fallen Earth.  I have some very vague recollections in the back of my brain and some references in a post to playing in the beta just before the launch.  I also recall it going free to play at some point, but that happened to almost every MMO at some point between 2009 and now, didn’t it?

Since I paid so little attention to it over the years since then, you might have been able to convince me that it had already shut down.  But it hasn’t, though it is planning to.  The CEO put out a message in the forums that the state of the game was such that they plan to bring the game down come October 2, 2019.  There is hope that the downtime will allow the team to repair the game so as to bring it back at an unspecified future date.  We shall see if it returns from the dead or succumbs to the apocalypse.  Hell of a way to celebrate a decade online though.

  • LOTRO Legendary Carries On

Late last year my nostalgia obsession was the LOTRO Legendary, a fresh start experience from Standing Stone Games.  While very low effort when compared to WoW Classic, it too had queues, problems it had to patch, and ended up having to double its server count, though here it meant going from one to two servers.

A legend in its own something or other

I was enamored with it through the original content, but fell off the nostalgia wagon somewhere in the depths of Moria.  Not the first time that has happened to me.  But it carries on without me, having announced this week that the Rise of Isengard expansion has been unlocked on Anor and Ithil servers.

  • Homeworld 3 is Coming

In the pantheon of classic RTS games Homeworld and Homeworld 2 stand out as high points in the space based branch of the genre.  I never played either, but I swear every time half a dozen Naglfar’s undock in EVE Online somebody brings up the game as they look like a ship from it. (Some Nags shooting a Nyx for reference.)

In the everything old is new again way of video games these days, both titles have seen a remastered to bring them up to current standards.  But that isn’t enough.

Gearbox Publishing is working on Homeworld 3, which includes a crowdfunding campaign.  And, as down as I am on video game crowdfunding at this point, this looks to be of the better of the breed, being for a game that is mostly done… and which isn’t an MMO.  They asked for a dollar as a minimum and are now through the $600K mark.  It is basically a pre-order mechanism that lets you buy your way into possibly influencing the game some.  The game will ship and we’ll get a crack at it… and they haven’t announced it is an Epic Store exclusive or anything… this just allows you to get some special things early if you simply cannot contain yourself.  There is also an investment option if you care to drop $500 on the game and think it will do well.

There is also a trailer for the game up now as well.

  • Google Stadia is Coming to Fail

Google Stadia is still coming, being due out at some point in November, no doubt timed for the holiday shopping season.  It still isn’t for me, but the question is starting to become who is it really for?

Over at Gamasutra there is a blog post exploring that very question with the optimistic title Google Stadia Will Fail at Launch – Here is Why.  It brings up some of the initial questions about the service and then piles on a few more.  I suppose we’ll see when it launches.

  • EVE Echoes Alpha

Word is out that the alpha for the CCP/NetEase joint venture mobile game based on EVE Online has begun.  The progress toward alpha was announced early in August and it sounds like it kicked off on the 26th of last month.  Something else in the shade of WoW Classic.

From the sound of things, the functionality is quite limited, with docking and undocking, flying about, and simple combat being the focus of the test.

Image from a Reddit post about the alpha.

You have to create a solid foundation on which to build, so a simple start seems reasonable.  If you are interested in being part of the testing you can still sign up on the EVE Echoes site.

  • Origin Sells Out

Over at the Digital Antiquarian this week there is a post up about the acquisition of Origin Systems, the company founded by Richard “Lord British” Garriott, by Electronic Arts.

Rightly called Origin Sells Out, it is another in the line of tales I put under the heading of “The Madness of Lord British.”  He tried to work with EA, pulled out of that agreement, vilified EA for years, then sold the company to them for a boat load of cash.  The story covers the immediate impact of the sale, which wasn’t all bad, but which saw the Origin change and sets up for follow on posts about some titles that came out later.  Worth a read as a piece of video games history.

Friday Bullet Points – Comings and Goings

Another Friday and there are some bits of news wandering around the net that I want to mention, but really don’t want to get into a whole post about.  So off we go.

  • Google Stadia

Google’s game streaming subscription service, Google Stadia, got a November launch date.  Just in time for Christmas, as they say.

The Founder’s Edition will run you $129 to get in and $9.99 a month thereafter.  For that you get a controller, a dongle that hooks up to your TV, some “free” games thrown your way regularly, and support for up to 4K video.  A Standard Edition is listed, but won’t be available until next year.  The Standard Edition won’t have a monthly fee, but will only support up video up to 1080p.

There is a list of games that will be available at launch, though some items on the list are TBD.  You, of course, have to buy the games and those purchases are locked to Google’s platform.  But you can play them on your Google Pixel phone as well.

I have zero interest in this, so this might be the only time I mention it unless something goes horribly wrong or Google shuts it down.  But what are the odds of that?

  • Google Play Tightens Up

Meanwhile, in another department at Google, those in charge of the Google Play store have decided that maybe the whole “anything goes” strategy there isn’t working out. (Steam, are you listening?)  The Google Play Store policies are being revised and targets include hate speech and sexual content.  They are also requiring that titles with loot boxes disclose the odds of obtaining any particular item and they are instituting a minimum functionality metric for apps.  While sexuality and hate speech are squishy topics, not easily defined, posting odds and requiring that stuff works sound good to me.

  • Esports is a Money Pit

Kotaku has an article up reviewing esports and the companies that drive them.  For all the talk of audience numbers (which turn out to be wildly inflated, that headline about League of Legends out performing the SuperBowl was largely because Twitch had the stream on the front page and counted everybody who landed there for any amount of time as a viewer), it seems that esports, even for the biggest names like Riot and League of Legends, is a money losing proposition.  Expect more leagues to close down.

  • Millennials Buy More Games

SuperData Research released a free report which you can download at their site about consumer spending patterns on video games.  Or you can read a summary of it over at Venture Beat.   The big headline carrying the report is that millennials, who are now young adults with jobs and careers and such, spend more money on them than older generations.  Who would have guessed?  Millennials spend more and prefer mobile as a platform.

  • Baldur’s Gate III

There was some excitement as it was announced that a Baldur’s Gate III was in development. That got people a lot more worked up than I expect they ought to be.  The original Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II were classics developed by BioWare, but that was back at the turn of the century.  Remasters of both titles have been released on Steam, and somebody even did an additional expansion for the Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition remaster.

But all of that is more than a few steps away from some new team taking a crack at the franchise 20 years later.  This new game is likely to be very different… it might not have the isometric point of view… and maybe it should be.  But part of the reason it is getting announced now is because it will be on Google Stadia, which means it will have to support console controls, and I have not had a lot of good experiences with PC games that have their UI constrained by the need to be used solely with a controller.  I have the remasters.  If I want to relive the late 90s, I can do that just fine already.

  • Whatever That Blizzard Game Was

It slipped out that Blizzard cancelled an in-development FPS based on the StarCraft franchise in order to focus more on Diablo IV and Overwatch 2.

But rather than headlines about Overwatch 2 or Diablo IV confirmed, there was a bunch of wailing and gnashing of teeth about Blizzard and mindless pining for a game that never was.  Cancelling development on something in progress before it launches is a pretty normal thing in mature companies with multiple product lines.  Hell, it should be seen as a normal thing for Blizzard.  Remember Titan?  How far back was StarCraft: Ghost?

I think that this stems from companies in the gaming industry, small studio start-ups that have everything invested in a single title, being our mental image of how video games are made.  There are plenty of “ship or die” stories out there.  But that doesn’t apply to companies like Blizzard.  Meanwhile, if Blizzard doesn’t think the game is worth pursuing, pinning all your game play fantasies on it just because you like the idea of it sounds like a futile effort.  So if you’re doing that you should probably start a blog.