Okay, so this last week streaming cloud company Gakai announced that they’ve now launched a streaming app for PC games on Facebook, allowing gamers who don’t have the kind of hardware required for playing their favourite games on High to access the entire experience via their desktop browser. While this isn’t a new idea, I’m going to rather look at why its not the money maker it should be, for now.
Firstly, Gakai has to be commended on their idea. OnLive, another cloud-based streaming company that also has a game streaming service, allows users to subscribe to their Desktop service where they gain access to a streamed, remote desktop-like environment on Windows Server 2008, enabling them to access a desktop that they can use for work or pleasure from anywhere in the world without the hassle of corporate IT agreements, domain servers and loads of passwords and smart cards. Gakai does much the same, but allows access to a server that hosts these games for you at no extra cost – no scratched DVDs, no CD key hassles and, best of all, no requirement for high-end hardware to support your hobby.
But while it is a good idea, its still being shot down by major game publishers while they figure out how this affects them and their revenues. Hardware manufacturers will certainly have to look at lowering their prices and costs of entry for low-end gaming computers that play all these titles at moderately good settings (they’re not really affected, but its the thought that will count). However, the service will probably require a 2Mb/s connection by default which isn’t something a lot of people in this country have access to. The big three consisting of EA, Activision and Blizzard haven’t come forward and embraced the idea. Other companies like Ubisoft, Codemasters and Konami apparently have no problem with it, and OnLive already streams many titles from both publishers for your enjoyment.
In addition, OnLive had issues last year with their offering of a streamed, cloud-based Windows 7 desktop. See, Microsoft’s EULA allows for desktops to be streamed to corporate end-users provided they actually work for (and provided the software remains the property of) the company. OnLive is essentially Terminal Services for the masses and Microsoft doesn’t like that due to the way its structured licensing makes companies pay for each remote desktop. OnLive apparently got around this by using Server 2008 instead of Windows 7, but it still costs the company a sizeable amount per end user to get the license from Microsoft.
Both Gakai and OnLive could get around this using Linux and this would more benefit Gakai because they can design a custom user interface and run the games off WINE. But there’s still a licensing issue to be considered, and that’s the one the game publishers set. Take Spore, a 2008 title, that had incredibly restrictive DRM. The game had a limit of three installs maximum. If you reached that limit by installing the game on three machines, you couldn’t reinstall it on another machine without removing it from a previous one and calling the EA helpdesk to reset your install limit. You couldn’t uninstall and reinstall it on the same computer three times without calling them for a reset. You similarly couldn’t install it if some mongoloid cretin with half a brain installed it three times, cracked those copies and pawned off the disc to your local Cash Crusaders so he could buy some cigarettes – you weren’t the original owner, and he still had all three license available to him. I guess its the same issue fundamentally as Steam, but at least Steam has been proven countless times to be worth every cent you’ll ever pay to Valve and towards Gabe Newell’s bed with a mattress stuffed with money.
EA subsequently increased the limit to five installs and released a de-authorisation program so you could do it yourself at home, but still consumers faced the same problem that they simply weren’t owners of the game they paid money for. Gakai will inevitably run into a similar problem because now they’re the actual owners of the games, and not the subscriber. Will they stream one copy per subscriber, or allow many subscribers access to a single copy of the game? Thus far they’re only demoing their service with PC demos, but which publishers will support their offering? You won’t be getting Steam games, that’s for sure. CD Projekt Red will no doubt support the initiative, but only because they’re awesome guys and don’t put any DRM of any kind on their games. But the big publishers like EA, Ubisoft and Blizzard? Probably not. I can see Bethesda finding a way to bring games that gamers across the world love to the service, but not EA because they already have Origin to concentrate on.
My question though, is why don’t publishers come out in support for Gakai? They all complain left, right and center that the second-hand games market tears their revenue down and they only want you, the consumer and gamer, to buy new titles in launch day or as new packaged products. Gakai’s service ensures this won’t happen and will allow cash-strapped gamers to buy more games. but critically, the service will require the removal of DRM for the whole thing to work properly. Its not like people will all find a way to pirate the games straight off the accounts, but its possible that they will be hacked and games will be stolen and then there’ll be an uproar by the game’s publishers and they’ll just further cripple the service with their DRM, additionally including the same increased punitive measures for legitimate gamers who buy physical copies because no-one can be trusted. No one, evar. Herp derp and all that.
Why won’t they show support? Because if Gakai ends up being a success because the DRM is gone and gamers have a better time without it, the big three at large will be forced to re-think their approach to DRM as more internet-connected gamers boycott the crappy systems introduced that don’t really combat piracy at all.
If Gakai shows that without DRM, more gamers are more than happy to pay for launch titles without fail, then the gamers, journalists and reviewers will have something concrete that shows that piracy isn’t the real threat to the industry – its the way you approach the problem that creates need for pirating those games in the first place.