How Mozilla and OTOY Have Made the PlayStation 4 Obsolete
I am unreasonably wary of cloud systems, a process by which information is stored online in order to be more easily accessible to the users. It allows for greater flexibility, perhaps, but you should still be wary of outages, of being spied upon, and of being shackled to a single internet service for your storage. It’s generally better to back up your stuff on a hard drive than rely on someone else. It’s not wrong to use the cloud, but at the moment it is sub-optimal, especially if you have a spotty internet connection. In theory, cloud storage is supposed to be a giant farm of servers where if one goes down, there’s thousands of others to take its place. They tell you that cloud services are always available but they go down anyway, in a big way. Amazon, Google, and many other sites have cloud systems (most visibly to consumers for backup up files or hosting websites) and there are a couple others who want a piece of that pie before it gets bigger.
Despite my gripes, there are things you can potentially do with cloud systems that you couldn’t otherwise. Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 4 console will not be able to play games from previous systems–not out of the box, anyway. Instead, they have promised to provide a service (the exact details are unknown at this time) in which their computers (in the cloud!) will run the old games and pump the audio/video to you, responding to your inputs as if you were playing it running right on your machine normally. Since it’s Sony running it, it will probably be an laggy, artifacted mess if it doesn’t in fact turn out to be just a complete pack of lies. (Maybe it can finally run Toy Story in real time. If not, Netflix already can.) Depending on your connection quality, playing PlayStation 1-3 games on your PlayStation 4 might look like you’re playing 1992’s Sewer Shark. This is the reality of streaming video today, but you’re not going to hear that, you’re going to hear about how great it is. You won’t know until you’ve bought a PS4. Sony is about as caring as malaria and as trustworthy as a politician without a gun to his head.
However, the concept has potential. Mozilla (the creators of the Firefox web browser) and OTOY have proposed a new service that will allow for greater possibilities in gaming. It takes the same cloud idea (certainly not exclusive to Sony) and combines it with a versatile browser interface. With this technology, there is no reason why you couldn’t run brand-new games right in Firefox or Chrome as opposed to burning through your wallet to get some proprietary console that only runs certain games. HTML5 and a modern browser are cross-platform, which means that the service would expose the complete lack of necessity and consumer gouging of having multiple proprietary consoles with vendor lock-in and artificial exclusivity. This could be the end of the moronic tribalistic console wars as we know it. Sony looks like it’s going into the future, but it’s ushering in its own obsolescence.
This process will have the ability to, say, do the heavy lifting in a game or other computer program by running the majority of the processes on their remote servers and while your home system handles a basic frontend. You get the results of both machines put together. This will enable users to run hardware that would otherwise be unavailable either due to rarity (especially old stuff) or expense (new stuff). “Emulating” old computer games will be a snap if someone has access to the old hardware and can connect to you. So we got Atari, NES, etc., which were good, but they didn’t ever look as good as the arcade. Services for both of these could be incredibly profitable by giving the customers, the developers, and the information transferring technicians what they want. Everybody wins and the little guys don’t get screwed over for a change. Even more exciting, newer games will have greater technical capabilities than would otherwise be commercially viable due to the cost of the hardware.
So a consumer can afford an Xbox, but because of commodity cloud computing, for the same price of a game per minute of play, it might be possible to render a game with the power of a hundred Xboxes. People went to arcades in part because the games were better than home games. An arcade game might cost between $1000-5000; there was no way for a consumer to enjoy a game like that at home because it was too expensive to do it. Home systems eventually got better to the point where you didn’t have a reason to go to the arcade because the home game was just as good technically. In a sense this cloud computing solves a business problem for them because we’re probably close again to just how much power you can put in a consumer box and have it be affordable.
If you’re a PC lover and you have a lot of money you can buy an $8000 PC loaded with GPUs and have an amazing experience, but the vast majority of people cannot or will not spend that. And most of the time the computer sits there unused. What a cloud system does is provide thousands of computers, sitting there waiting on demand for somebody to need to use them. You can’t afford a computer with a ton of gizmos but with a cloud game, you could get as much power as that $8000 computer, but only be paying for the time you’re actually using it. It’s like you’re timesharing a huge GPU system. Imagine if a game company was running something like this to provide the horsepower for some fancy new game and you got to enjoy the benefits of it long before it was commercially available for the purchase of ordinary consumers. This stuff also works on smartphones and tablets, which (with a good internet connection) effectively could upgrade them to first class gaming systems if it weren’t for poor to nonexistent controllers.
Some games could be pay-once-and-get-a-lifetime-of-service (or at least until the servers disappear), some could be free to play or cheap to play with a monthly fee, just like how MMOs are now, except it could be for all genres; and there will probably always be offline games. This scenario could either be wonderful (unlimited options for types of games, promotes new technological breakthroughs) or awful (greedy game companies pile on the DRM and provide ridiculous arbitrary limits on their customers in order to better control them). Given that video game companies today treat us about as well as Athanasius treated Arians, the latter is unfortunately the more likely development. It’s not necessarily going to happen, but things are headed that way.
But Doesn’t That Make Me a Hypocrite?
So why am I pleased about Mozilla’s idea and not the PlayStation 4’s equivalent? Isn’t it the same always-online DRM drudgery I was griping about previously? For starters, the PlayStation will only have access to whatever Sony-approved games they find profitable while the PC version of game clouds will allow practically any platform from any time period, including an infinite number of genres of new indie games. That and Mozilla is not evil. Sony’s crimes are many, and those scum at Microsoft still pretend that everyone on Earth has access to a constant internet connection even though I still disconnect from Team Fortress 2 whenever someone turns on a microwave on the same city block as my router. So while I probably won’t be able to enjoy this new technology for quite some time, I’m glad it exists and has qualitative differences from the current state of computing.
Even though Mozilla’s idea has potential (and assuming there are any worthwhile games with it) there will still be the obvious problems with requiring a constant internet connection. Connections can be lost, ISPs can have unexpected downtime, servers can die off permanently. But then again, streaming high-quality video in realtime was hardly possible ten years ago; perhaps within the next decade the average worldwide DL/UL speed will have progressed to the point where streaming games is feasible, where everyone’s computer can run Crysis 867-5309 or whatever the new benchmark for bloated graphical excess will be. Maybe within ten years hillbilly areas like the one in which I dwell will have stable internet connections almost completely free from lag, something that people in big cities (and anywhere in Asia) often take for granted. Maybe then the callousness of the video game companies and their restrictive always-online DRM won’t be such a big problem.
The only reason to get a PlayStation 4, the next Microsoft console, or a WiiU is to get exclusive games that are only on those systems. The PC can handle everything they do and more, and with much greater versatility and freedom. If this ORBX.js is as good as they want it to be, it will still be annoying to have to connect to it, but it should completely sweep away all justification for console bickering once and for all. So while you’re mashing that idiotic share button so your Facebook friends can see your PSN trophies for games that you can’t mod or change the resolution of, keep in mind that PC gaming is usually far ahead of the competition in regards to conception and execution. Sony expects us to ooh and ahh at the concept of taking screenshots and recording video—things that were simple in Windows 3.1—while PCs continue to explore new ground and break boundaries.
Yes, there are many PC gaming companies that are every bit as soulless and pointless as Nintendo, EA, and the rest. There are certainly PC games both big-time and minor that are dumbed down to the point of Fisher-Pricery. But the true bastion of creativity and integrity, for the moment, resides within the personal computer community. Maybe Sony and Microsoft will prove me wrong and completely eclipse the PC in terms of game quality, but history has done nothing to indicate that they have that capability.
The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be
We can’t forget that there are games being lost to history because they are always-online and don’t have the financial viability or the game is just plain not strategically interesting to the company despite popularity. Game creators won’t have the incentive to maintain them any longer, and it will keep happening the more we rely on constant internet connections to play our games. League of Legends and other currently popular online games probably won’t exist in ten years. Like it or not (and I certainly do not) always-online is the way of the future. And though it will probably initially be a gigantic fiasco leading to so much butthurt that it will make the hysterical reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending look like an announcement for Half-Life 3, the idea is not completely without merit. So we should make the best of it—as Mozilla is attempting to do—rather than using it as an excuse to rob the proletariat some more.
What about in the future year 2015 when your DataTech Cyberscreen has no offline capabilities and can only run games that your corporate masters allow you to? It’s fine right now when we can still have our old stuff, but how about when the only way to play a Super Nintendo is through online cloud emulation? It probably won’t happen, but avaricious CEOs will definitely try. Where there is not real scarcity, artificial scarcity is introduced. Anything to exert power over customers. Fortunately, Chinese hardware manufacturers care not a whit other than units sold, so unless something drastically changes, there will always be a constant supply of cheap, unlocked devices.
That’s the primary reason why I always suggest waiting for the second edition of new computer hardware, especially game consoles. Give them some time to streamline it and work out the bugs. And why I don’t understand people rushing out to buy a new console, cellphone, tablet, OS, or even game on release day. You’re basically getting gouged for the opportunity to more or less be a public beta tester. Whereas if you wait a couple years, you pay considerably less for a better product.
Every time there’s some new advancement in technology, technophiles are quick to rave about it “revolutionizing” whatever industry. Cloud gaming might be amazing. Or it might turn out to be just as revolutionary as blast processing or virtual reality headsets (Note: I am aware of the current Oculus VR buzz by none other than John Carmack). And I’ve never heard someone talking about how waggle/touchscreen controls have made a game better, except in cases like Resident Evil 4 for the Wii, which would have worked just as well with a mouse. Sony and Mozilla are both promoting what would be subscription services. They both may provide better services than now if they work properly, but the Mozilla advantage is that there is one less thing screwing you over (exclusivity and vendor lock-in).
This is all revolutionary stuff, but on a purely technical level. You know what’s truly revolutionary? Great games. Can we get some more of those? Please?
Special thanks to Erik Harmon for helping with this article.