We can always count on the people at PlayStation for planting crazy ideas about the future of gaming in our heads. These are the people who advertised the PlayStation 2 with a commercial for the PlayStation 9, who told us that their PS2 games would look like Pixar movies and who, at one time, were trying to convince us that the then-upcoming PS3 would be more powerful if it was on the same home network as a refrigerator that had its own PS3-style computer chip. Or was it a toaster? It doesn't matter. It didn't happen.
With Sony's continued refusal to say anything about the PS4 (psst. Codename Orbis!), the world of PlayStation has become all too much in the present. This is not what we demand from Sony. We demand sci-fi from Sony. Last night, we got that.
It's time to think about the future of PlayStation in crazy ways again, now that they spent about a third of a billion dollars on an outfit called Gaikai.
Gaikai is a cloud gaming service, which is not as boring as it sounds. It's a technology, similar to OnLive, that zaps video game graphics and sound into your home from servers faraway while you zap inputs from your game controller back up to those same servers. This tech is what enables Gaikai to let you play Alan Wake on a web browser or Mass Effect 3 on Facebook. All of the processing that a console would do is happening far, far away, well outside your living room or home. When Gaikai works, you're essentially able to play video games with an extremely long controller cord that might be stretching halfway across your state or country.
Here's the Xbox 360, PS3 game Bulletstorm running in the Google Chrome web browser, for example.
Sony is now in the process of buying Gaikai. Specifically, Sony Computer Entertainment (aka PlayStation) is buying them. That's got people dreaming that the idea of the game console as some sort of physical box that you bring into your home could be going extinct. Who would need to buy a PlayStation 4, the thinking goes, if you could use Gaikai to stream PS4—level-no, let's just say actual PlayStation 4—graphics and sound into your living room through your computer while you send commands from a DualShock controller back upstream?
Gaikai and Sony could make your need to buy a new game console irrelevant, right? Why, you could just stream in PS4 games through your… PS3! And do the same for PS5, PS6 and PS7. End of hardware cycles. End of console generations.
That's the kind of sci-fi future you might foresee if you were the kind of person who really expected the PlayStation 3 to ship with the ability to output to two HDTVs at once (they cut that before shipping).
Gaikai won't make console hardware obsolete, because Gaikai doesn't run everywhere. It requires a stable and fast Internet connection. The company's FAQ asks for "5+ megabits [downstream], but many demos will still work around 3 megabits". That's fine, except it doesn't work in my house in Brooklyn, not if I'm using my Internet connection for other things.
My speed, via speedtest.net.
Gaikai's response when I tried to run Alan Wake in my browser.
Gaikai works fine on our office Internet, where we've got better speeds.
The connection that Gaikai needs isn't ridiculous, but it's also not ubiquitous. Many people won't be able to use it because their Internet is either too slow or is burdened with other services and priorities. My Internet, for example is also going to be used for Skype calls and App store downloads, any of which, if running while I'm playing a game through Gaikai, could hurt the framerate of the game I'm playing. It could add lag. Because of that, it's impossible to see a PS4 or PS5 that is entirely based on streaming. It's impossible to imagine the boxes going away for those of us who want our games to run well all of the time, not just when our Internet is awesome.
Gaikai can't kill consoles, because it will have to match them. The magic of a Gaikai-like PlayStation service is that the hardware running the games you play could be upgraded without you getting off the couch. If you're connected, remotely, to what is essentially a PS4, there's little that would technically stop Sony folks from swapping out the PS4s on their end for a PS4.5. But in a world that requires some people to own an actual PS4 box, this just wouldn't happen, not without Sony alienating all the PS4 owners whose hardware wouldn't be able to run PS4.5 games. Game creators would probably appreciate this restraint, lest the PlayStation become its own version of Android or the PC—fertile, interesting gaming platforms, sure, but ones that can give headaches to game creators who would like to make and sell games that run on standardized technology.
What Gaikai can do, is give people the ability to stream PS3 or PS4 games through web-enabled TVs or any other gizmo that can run the Gaikai widget (Gaikai is already going to be in some Samsung TVs). Gaikai could stream PS3 games to you in the browser you're reading this in or, say, a PlayStation Vita. If we want to be silly for a second, Sony could run Gaikai on an Xbox 360 or a Wii U. (Prediction: this will not happen.)
Gaikai would also enable games from older Sony platforms to be streamed to any device. There are no PS4.5-like problems when it comes to the original PlayStation or PS2. In fact, there's a solution here for a company like Sony that removed PS2-compatibility from the PS3 because it wanted to save money by removing the chip that enabled it. Gaikai just needs that streaming connection and its software widget, so it would have no problem restoring all PS3s to a state of PS2-compatibility and could do the same for Sony's back catalog across more devices.
If Gaikai is this promising, and if you had a fast enough connection, you might wonder if there would be any point to buying a PlayStation 4 box if you could just stream a PS4 experience to your laptop. You'd probably still want the box. Gaikai, like Netflix, is a streaming service. So, in addition to any lag concerns you might have, you'd be dealing with the bigger problem of grumpy Internet Service Providers, who are eager to find ways to charge you for all the data you stream through your home connection. If you're being charged for every bit you stream into your house, you're not going to want to stream a 30-hour role-playing game. Right?
Gaikai's founder Dave Perry told me back in 2007 that he thought consoles would no longer have disc drives by the PlayStation 5. He was thinking far into the future then, it seemed, and yet streaming and downloading make him seem more right than he did back then. At the time, and as Gaikai launched, he promoted the service as a rental model, as one that let gamers try games before they bought them. This is still the concept that makes the most sense. It would keep bandwidth usage down, but it would also give gamers more chances to try games, across more devices—their PlayStations among them—before committing to a download of a game or a drive to a store to pick up a physical copy.
The try-before-you-buy streaming model also leads to a most wonderful and appropriately-futuristic vision of PlayStation gaming to come. Currently, you can use Gaikai to run Mass Effect on Facebook. The processing of the game is happening far away. Your browser is, essentially, able to pretend to be a PS3. Extend the thought…extend it to E3 2013 and the likely reveal of the PlayStation 4. Imagine that you're home and your PS3 is turned on. Maybe, by then, there's a Gaikai app that lets you play old PS2 games through its streaming connection. Imagine the Sony executives saunter around on stage at E3, telling people about PS4 and showing a demo of a game. And then imagine that they say that you can load up that Gaikai app on your PS3 and that you'll find something special there: a demo to stream of a PS4 game. "Go ahead," they could say. "Try the PS4 right now, on your PS3."
It could happen. It may sound sci-fi. But it also sounds very Sony PlayStation.