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云计算有望引爆电子游戏的新一轮革命

云计算有望引爆电子游戏的新一轮革命

John Patrick Pullen 2012年07月27日
不断推陈出新结实耐用的硬件设备,这种做法在微软和索尼公司已经开始失宠。究其主要原因,或许在于云技术。云游戏的画面由远程服务器进行渲染,通过互联网将图像发送到玩家的屏幕,现在唱主角的硬件设备或许将沦为配角。

    游戏迷们沸腾了。对于任何试图预测电子游戏未来的人来说,过去的一个月绝对是喧嚣不安的一个月:先是任天堂(Nintendo)在电子娱乐大会发布Wii U游戏主机,然后是这款产品将在圣诞期间上市的传闻引发的大讨论;又有一个所谓两年之前的微软(Microsoft)备忘录泄漏了下一代Xbox的细节;此外还有索尼公司(Sony)收购云游戏服务公司Gaikai的消息。实际上,新一代游戏主机背后最大的推动力或许并不是一流的处理器,也不是创新的控制器,而是云技术。

    所谓云游戏其实就是一种颠覆。一般来说,电子游戏系统已经变得日益强大。游戏机的科技含量越高,屏幕上显示的画面也就更加出色。(当然价格也就越高。)而云游戏则恰恰相反,它的画面由远程服务器进行渲染,并通过互联网将图像发送到玩家的屏幕。这样一来,云游戏服务公司就类似于网飞公司(Netflix)等订阅服务提供商。当然,这种模式也存在巨大的挑战:高质量图像可能导致数据通道崩溃,而由于网络延迟,快节奏游戏的响应速度可能变成一场梦魇。

    过去几年,许多公司都声称已经解决了这个问题。OnLive或许是云游戏领域最令人瞩目的公司。这家公司拥有一个高品质游戏库,而且公司还推出了可以在苹果(Apple)iOS设备上运行的应用程序,虽然尚未获得批准,但已经是万众期待。而凭借为《阿凡达》(Avatar)等电影远程输送高品质图像而扬名的Otoy公司则承诺将发布用于游戏的云渲染平台。Gaikai公司则直接利用Java技术,将《死亡岛》(Dead Island)和《黑道圣徒3》(Saints Row: The Third)等高品质游戏发送到网页浏览器上。今年7月2日,索尼公司以3.8亿美元的价格收购了Gaikai。

    Gaikai以如此高的价格被收购,不禁让行业观察家们好奇,这是否代表云游戏时代终于到来?Otoy创始人兼CEO朱尔斯•乌尔巴赫认为:“索尼收购Gaikai是对云游戏领域的极大认可。现在,所有人都开始重视云游戏。”今年3月,Otoy收购了新西兰Refractive Software软件公司,再加上2011年欧特克公司(Autodesk)对Otoy的秘密投资,现在,这家地处洛杉矶的公司正在改进内容创作工具,帮助游戏开发商优化通过云提供的图像。该公司的游戏流媒体平台目前正处于封闭内测阶段。

    但对于云游戏,业内也存在不同声音。Xbox高级产品经理戴维•丹尼斯表示,微软认为,云游戏没有足够的基础设施,因此还不足以改变消费者玩游戏的方式。丹尼斯说:“在云游戏模式下,玩家可能正在玩一款可能存在潜在问题的3A大制作游戏。而且,在游戏过程中,他们还在消耗着宽带流量。结果,除了正常的宽带账单外,它还会给玩家带来巨大的增量成本。这种基础设施或者模式根本无法在全球推广。”

    在可以预见的未来,微软计划将不需要高速光纤连接的在线功能作为重点业务。未来,微软将为Xbox Live的4,000万用户提供流媒体电影、音乐与电视服务;数字游戏发行,以及游戏数据储存等服务。丹尼斯承认,技术进步可能在未来五年内出现。他认为,到时候游戏手柄仍会处理各种数据。

    上个月,一份号称是微软备忘录的文件显示,微软一直在考虑替代性方案。这份规划文件可以追溯到2009年,文件中表示,到2015年,流媒体服务将成为Xbox的主要特色。此外,备忘录将OnLive作为潜在的威胁和收购目标,因为OnLive“有潜力使3A游戏不再需要昂贵的游戏机和个人电脑,因此将彻底颠覆游戏机市场。”(对于这份文件的真实性,丹尼斯拒绝发表评论。)

    OnLive创始人兼CEO斯蒂夫•帕尔默没有否认这些传言。帕尔默曾在微软担任部门负责人,他说:“他们提出了许各种收购方案。毫无疑问,OnLive符合公司一系列不同的策略。”但是,OnLive目前正在运行的产品,发行首日的用户数量就达到数百万,更不用说OnLive桌面应用的远程计算能力。所以,收购OnLive的价格,肯定远远高于索尼给Gaikai开出的价码。

    市场分析机构IDATE的分析显示,当前硬件的全球市场规模达到600亿美元。但从2010年至2011年,游戏机市场仅增长了可怜的0.4%,而且这还得归功于在线游戏和社交游戏,传统游戏机的销量却在下降。NPD集团近期的一项调查发现,2012年第一季度,美国消费者在电子游戏上的开支为34亿美元,而实体内容的销售额比去年同期下降了5%,但数字内容却上涨了10%。在这样的大环境下,云游戏似乎更为可行。

    是不是很有讽刺意味?虽然多年以来,OnLive和其他公司一直在缓慢发展,但索尼收购Gaikai的举动却立刻改变了这种态势。帕尔默说:“只要有人提出质疑,并且说:‘我们落后了,’风险方程式马上就会发生改变。重点不是‘希望不会发生这种情况’,而是‘希望我们不会掉队’。”

    译者:刘进龙/汪皓

    The fanboys are in a frenzy. The past month has been tumultuous for anybody trying to divine the future of video games thanks to hands-on sessions of Nintendo's (NTDOY) Wii U fanning holiday launch rumors at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, an alleged two-year-old Microsoft memo leaking details of the next Xbox, and Sony acquiring the game-streaming company Gaikai. But the biggest force shaping the next consoles may not be amped processors or innovative controllers. It might be the cloud.

    So-called cloud gaming involves a kind of apostasy. Typically, video game systems have gotten progressively more powerful. The more technical wizardry inside the box, the more fantastic the graphics displayed on-screen. (And the higher the price.) In contrast, cloud games are rendered by remote servers that beam images to screens over the Internet. This allows cloud gaming companies to operate much more like subscription services such as Netflix (NFLX). But there are considerable challenges: high quality graphics crush data pipes, and twitchy responses in fast-paced games can suffer because of network lag.

    Over the past few years, several companies claimed to have cracked the problem. OnLive may be the highest profile company in the segment. It features a library of high-quality games as well as a still-unapproved but long-awaited app to play on Apple iOS devices. Otoy, known for remotely powering high-quality graphics for films like Avatar, has promised to release a cloud rendering platform which could be used for games. And Gaikai, which uses Java to stream high-quality games like Dead Island and Saints Row: The Third directly to web browsers, is being absorbed by Sony (SNE) in a $380 million deal announced July 2.

    The Gaikai acquisition, with its high price tag, has had industry observers wondering if cloud gaming's time has finally arrived. "Having Sony acquire them is enormous validation of the space, in a way that now everybody is taking cloud gaming very seriously," says Otoy founder and CEO, Jules Urbach. With Otoy's purchase of New Zealand-based Refractive Software in March, and an undisclosed investment by Autodesk (ADSK) in 2011, the Los Angeles-based company is fashion content creation tools to help game developers optimize graphics for delivery via the cloud. The company's game streaming platform is currently in closed beta.

    There are hold outs though. According to David Dennis, senior group manager for Xbox, Microsoft (MSFT) does not believe that streaming has enough infrastructure to change the way games are played. "A model where someone is playing a AAA blockbuster game where there could be latency issues -- and by the way, while they're playing, they're running up the meter on their broadband, adding huge, incremental costs on top of their standard broadband bill -- is not an infrastructure or model that scales on a consistent global level," says Dennis.

    The company plan, for the foreseeable future, is to focus on online features that don't require high-speed fiber connections. Streaming movies, music, and television; digital game distribution; and save game data are likely all that's in store for Xbox Live's 40 million users in the coming years. Dennis concedes that advances may come five years down the line. Until then, he thinks consoles will continue to crunch the data.

    An alleged memo from Microsoft that surfaced last month suggests the company has contemplated the alternative. The planning document which dated back to 2009 said streaming could be a major feature of Xbox by 2015. The memo also listed OnLive as a threat and a possible acquisition target with the potential to "up-end the console gaming market by making expensive consoles and PCs unnecessary for AAA gaming." (Dennis declined to comment on the document's authenticity.)

    OnLive founder and CEO Steve Perlman also did little to deny the rumors. "Every kind of acquisition of every sort has been put on the table," says the former Microsoft division president. "There's no question that OnLive could go and fit together with a number of different company's strategies." But with a working product offering launch-day titles to an estimated tens of millions of users -- not to mention the remote computing capabilities on its OnLive Desktop app -- OnLive could haul in a much higher sum than Gaikai earned from Sony.

    The current generation of hardware has become a $60 billion worldwide market, according to IDATE. But from 2010 to 2011, it grew a measly 0.4%, with online and social gaming providing most of the lift as traditional consoles declined. According to a recent study by the NPD Group, consumers in the U.S. spent $3.4 billion on video games in the first quarter 2012, and though physical content sales declined 5% against the same quarter 2011, digital content increased 10%. In that kind of climate, cloud gaming looks more viable.

    The irony? Though OnLive and others have slowly been building their businesses for years, Sony's purchase of Gaikai instantly changed the dynamic. "Once someone's thrown the gauntlet down and said, 'We're getting behind this thing,' then the risk equation changes," says Perlman. "It's less about 'let's hope this doesn't happen,' and more about 'let's hope we don't get left behind.'"

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