Who needs a PS4 anyway? Why Sonys head is in the cloud

After the usual circus of rumour and denial, there was big Official News from Sony this week as it snapped up cloud-gaming service Gaikai – run by the guy who made Earthworm Jim – for a hefty $380m.

"SCE [that's Sony Computer Entertainment to you and I] will deliver a world-class cloud-streaming service that allows users to instantly enjoy a broad array of content ranging from immersive core games with rich graphics to casual content anytime, anywhere on a variety of internet-connected devices," said PlayStation boss Andrew House, in the press release.

House, like all senior executives, has read that special book with instructions on how to remove traces of clarity from anything important he says. Gaikai's Dave Perry clearly has a copy, too.

"We’re honoured to be able to help SCE rapidly harness the power of the interactive cloud and to continue to grow their ecosystem, to empower developers with new capabilities, to dramatically improve the reach of exciting content and to bring breathtaking new experiences to users worldwide," he added in the same release.

Which is rather a long way of saying "ker-ching!" while, I expect, performing the money dance naked in front of a full-length mirror. Either way, trust me when I say the implications for gamers and gaming are enormous.

Everybody's banging on about the cloud these days, and whether this or that is or isn't going to be something we will all be doing "in the cloud". To be clear: we'll all be streaming games "from the cloud" eventually on any internet-connected device with a screen.

What we're talking about is gaming on demand - no different in principle from iPlayer or Netflix or Spotify or Sky Anytime. Except it is, being games, interactive rather than passive. And that's the biggest problem with cloud gaming as it currently exists. But I'll get onto that in a moment.

We've had cloud gaming as a 'thing' in the UK since last autumn when OnLive launched. The service is both astonishing, in that it actually does what it does, and a little bit disappointing, in that it doesn't yet live up to our unrealistic expectations of what should look (in razor-sharp HD) and feel (without any noticeable lag between pressing a button and something happening on-screen) the same as what we're already playing on Xboxes and PlayStations.

Gaikai is much the same sort of service, one whose technical foundations were already of sufficient quality for Sony to splash the big bucks on securing it before any of its rivals.

If you're still wondering what the big deal is with cloud gaming, I can show you very easily. Go to Gaikai's website, click "Play now" on the giant Alan Wake banner, et voilà. You are playing a high-end console game, streaming live right there in your browser. Pretty amazing, huh?

There's several reasons why such a service and tech would be appealing to Sony. First, as most new tech – from TVs to smartphones – has the ability to decode the streamed data – there's no need for consumers to invest in expensive new hardware.

As a result, there's no reason in theory why you won't be able to play PlayStation 4 games on your Vita – because all the processing required will be handled remotely, rather than by the console. Clearly, there's a balance for Sony to strike here as it prepares to release PS4 as a standalone console next year.

Second, as the business of gaming becomes more like a Sky-style service, it's likely we'll be subscribing to gaming services rather than just buying individual games soon enough. Pay a monthly fee and play any game you like – including the massive PSOne and PS2 back catalogues - instantly on your HDTV, smartphone, handheld console or tablet.

Third, it's an excellent way to demo games. Not sure if a title is your thing? Try it within seconds without having to wait ages for a download. Fourth, well, it could be just the boost Sony needs across its many struggling businesses to keep it competitive and give it an advantage in the fierce battle for the living room – so this is about much more than just gaming, especially with the spectre of an Apple television looming.

The key issue, as I've suggested, is the quality of the experience compared with what we're already playing. Right now, it's no replacement for a PS3 or 360 under your TV, particularly if your experiences of choice involve fast-paced action, in which lag can cost you dear. And, certainly in the UK, average broadband speeds are too slow to deliver a flawless experience. Yet.

You see, for all the speculation, it's clear Sony's acquisition of Gaikai is a deal for tomorrow not today. It's not suddenly going to kill consoles or local gaming. But it is, to a very large extent, the future of gaming and one that will change the way we all play.

And by getting in early, Sony is sending out a very clear message (well, apart from that press release) that it's not going to hang around and let others do it right, first. Which, given the Japanese company's myriad troubles, could prove quite the silver lining.


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