Harvard Hero Moment #16: Gaming On-Demand, or how we learned to love the slightly glitchy cloud

Lorna Hughes

10 Jan 2020

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved gaming. From the moment my older cousin (finally!!) let me use his Atari, I was hooked. I later graduated to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), onto the Sega Mega Drive (the Sonic drowning music still haunts me) and eventually made my way to Playstation. I’m now the sometimes-a-bit-addicted owner of a PS4 (sorry Xbox fans… if there are any left) and I’m looking forward to forgoing my social life when the PS5 launches later this year. Gaming itself is a tech which has changed our world, as my fellow dork and colleague Ben discussed in his love letter to the Nintendo Wii. It may not be as pivotal to society as health-tech or edtech, but it has brought a tonne of fun to many on those rainy days when Netflix can’t satisfy. And if you really want to get sciencey, there’s a lot of evidence that gaming improves reflexes, attention-spans and its use in education can help engage and teach kids… but I don’t want to get preachy, so I’ll move on. Gaming itself though is not my hero moment… for me, that came in 2003 when a development brought two technologies together and, I believe, set gaming onto a whole new path. Way before Spotify or Netflix, OnLive launched the world’s first cloud gaming service, which allowed subscribers to rent games without installing them. It also meant games could run on computers or consoles that couldn’t normally cope with them, and it was the first time players could easily record gameplay and spectate. While this might not sound ground breaking in 2020, bear in mind Netflix wouldn’t start streaming for another four years. “On-demand” was not part of everyday life and gaming itself was nowhere near as advanced as it is now – from graphics, to engine or storytelling. So, the idea of having a seemingly endless supply of games to try out, drop or play-through was incredible and should have instantly revolutionised gaming.

When only half the tech is ready

But it didn’t. As with a lot of technology innovation, early iterations weren’t great and some would argue, OnLive launched before the tech was truly ready. The games themselves were prepared – the 00s would bring us some of the biggest selling and most technologically-advanced games in history, from Fallout 3 (absolute classic!) to Bioshock (overrated!) and Portal (time-sucking!) But the infrastructure definitely was not. Reviews of the service were mixed to say the least. The potential was clearly there but lagging, system crashes and pixelated glitches right in the midst of a big boss battle driving gamers insane. It was a case of too-much-too-quickly and OnLive was no more by 2012.

Sony takes over

As with much of the gaming innovation between 2005 and 2015, Sony was at the heart of things. It acquired OnLive's patents when the business shut down. Its own R&D team beavered away in the background for years, working on engines which could genuinely support high-quality gaming. And Sony watched closely as the next major game steaming service, Gaikai, was launched in 2011 before the giant acquired it a year later. In 2014, Sony announced PlayStation Now and game streaming finally started to fulfil its potential – albeit, it’s taken time and tinkering to perfect the service and start gaining substantial subscriber numbers. But as a gamer, I believe PSNow and services like it are the future of gaming. Just as DVD sales have plummeted in Netflix’s wake, physical games will do the same as cloud-gaming takes hold. Ultimately, PSNow allows us gamers to access thousands of games – old and new – without paying a fortune for them. You can download most games, or just stream them. New deals are constantly being done with game developers which means huge properties like Red Dead Redemption, Fallout and GTA are all available. This year I played through Red Dead Redemption 2, then continued into RDR1 on the PSNow. No gamer – casual or professional – would say that’s not appealing. Gaming is a huge industry and streaming has already revolutionised it. Now that the back-end is increasingly solid, I’m excited to see this corner of the industry grow and I can’t wait to take advantage! You know it’s going to change the world when Google decides to stake its claim!