The challenges of cloud gaming

By Philip Morton

One theme that received greater recognition at this year’s E3 trade show in Los Angeles was cloud gaming. This is a novel technology and one that presents new opportunities for businesses, but also a number of user experience challenges.

What is cloud gaming?

Rather than own and play a game on your computer, console or mobile device, you connect to a cloud gaming provider who streams the game to you. Cloud gaming is like Netflix or BBC iPlayer for games: content is sent to you one frame at a time, rather than having the whole game stored locally.

This has a number of advantages for consumers. You don’t need a top-of-the-line PC to play the latest games, because your device is simply receiving a picture, rather than rendering an entire world. It’s also more convenient: games can be played instantly, with little waiting for delivery or downloading. It’s often cheaper too: subscription costs tend to be low and there’s no large upfront cost for expensive hardware.

The competitive landscape

Two companies are vying for top spot in this nascent industry: OnLive and Gaikai. I had the opportunity to talk to both at E3 and better understand their approaches to cloud gaming.

OnLive is a straightforward, consumer-facing business. They sell a subscription service which allows gamers access to all of their content for a set monthly fee. To play OnLive, you plug a box into your TV and use the OnLive controller provided. Everything you see as a consumer is branded OnLive.

Gaikai take a different approach, wholesaling their technology to other companies who wish to provide their customers with a cloud gaming service. Partners pay Gaikai a set fee and are then free to recover that cost through whatever business model they choose. They also have the freedom to brand Gaikai as they like and change the interface to match their other products.

A recently announced deal has seen Gaikai partner with Samsung to create Samsung Cloud Gaming. Those with certain smart TVs will be able to download an app onto their TV and start playing without a console or PC. This wholesale approach was summed up well by a Gaikai representative, “We’re not trying to compete with retailers. We’re trying to work with them”.

The UX challenges of cloud gaming

1. Handling support

Cloud gaming’s greatest UX challenge stems from its greatest technical challenge. The service is dependent on broadband providers maintaining a fast, stable connection between the cloud gaming service and the consumer. When something goes wrong, who should a customer call?

This is even trickier for Gaikai-powered services. Customers might contact Samsung’s TV business, Samsung Cloud Gaming, their internet provider or Gaikai. A service must make it clear who to talk to when something inevitably goes wrong.

2. Fragmentation of controllers

OnLive comes with a controller, but with Gaikai, you can use “any USB controller”. This lends the question, “Which controller should I buy?” USB controllers have different brands and different buttons. How will customers know which one to buy?

Choosing a controller for cloud gaming should be as easy as it is for console gaming. Samsung and other partners must either provide a controller or co-brand one as ‘certified’ for their service.

3. Managing expectations

Cloud gaming is a novel concept which consumers are unfamiliar with. Explaining the proposition and communicating its benefits won’t be easy. There will also be a temptation to overstate how reliable the service will be, which could backfire when a customer tries out cloud gaming at home, only to find that their connection isn’t stable enough.

If too many customers find the cloud gaming experience to be poor, it will quickly be seen as an unreliable technology. Businesses must be careful not to let a gap emerge between what their brand promises and what the experience is actually like. If left unchecked, the damage to their reputation and that of the industry in general could be irreversible.

A challenging opportunity

Cloud gaming has the potential to revolutionise the games industry but to realise this businesses must deliver an excellent user experience. Consumers will not be as easily excited by the technological innovation as those at E3 were and will buy games using the convenient channel. Cloud gaming promises this convenience, but if the user experience does not match this promise, they will stick to their disk-buying ways.
 

Philip Morton

I help businesses create better products and services by putting customer insight at the heart of the design process. In the last six years, I've worked with the likes of Sony PlayStation, HSBC, Sega, Tesco and TSB. In that time, I've seen our research, design and strategy work improve both the experience for customers and commercial outcomes for clients.

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