Spawn Labs and Mobile Gaming [re-post]

This is a re-post from my original on the Preserving Games blog, April 5, 2009. How fast the game industry moves. OnLive must surely be considerable competition for Spawn Lab’s HD-720, and Vircion is apparently no more.

When I think of mobile gaming, whether it’s on a laptop, iPhone or other device, I think of games sensitive to the processing constraints of those platforms: web-based items like Bejeweled or Tower Defense, a retro-graphics piece like Battle for Wesnoth, etc. The latest games on the PS3, 360 or Wii do not come to mind.

Peter Walker of Spawn Labs and Vircion Inc., based out of Austin, gave a talk last week for the Texas Advanced Computing Center that explained the company’s plan to break this mold in the realm of console gaming. Their ambition is to allow gamers to play their console games on any computer at any location. The central idea behind this technology is that remote servers will handle the processor-intensive rendering of graphics and other game computation, sending an audio/video stream of the processed results to the user’s computer. That would allow the client’s computer to strictly handle those AV streams, rather than be responsible for the serious number-crunching. Gamers would essentially be playing the AV streams of the processed results, which would be dictated by whatever input the player sent to the server.

Walker identified some trends in gaming: gigabyte requirements increase, as do CPU and GPU processing requirements. Moore’s Law seems to be in full effect. But Walker points out that cooling power can’t keep up. Already an increasing percent of battery power is spent just cooling the processing chips. As a result mobile platforms like laptops simply cannot pack the cooling power necessary to run resource-intensive games (at least not without burning your lap). Walker points out the success of smaller-scale games, but notes that these are a different kind of gaming experience, casual and less time-intensive than the likes of Call of Duty 4 or Mass Effect, and constitute a gaming experience of a different order. Spawn’s research is aimed at bringing the gaming experience of the most graphically intense console works to a mobile community.

This is achieved through utilizing the increasing pervasiveness of broadband and the efficiency of audio and video codecs, specifically the H.264 standard. Key to this standard is the Scalable Video Codec. This would allow the client computer to select whichever particular bitstream it was set up to decode, among the many a gaming server would offer. That allows a gaming server to only encode and transmit once and simultaneously support a range of client machines with different codec-decoding capabilities.

So what could all this mean for game preservation? Well, in a certain sense it will make the job much more challenging. Technology like this continues the trend of client computers handling less and less of of the actual content. In this model, gamers are essentially reacting to, and playing in, a movie (the AV stream) that their input incurs. Very little of the game’s actual binary content resides on the gamer’s computer. Compare this to a classic like Ultima 4, where a considerable preservation step is accomplished by possessing uncorrupted copies of the original 3.5” or 5.25” disks. Move ahead to World of Warcaft: the client side CD contains a lot of code and information, but a very large part of the game itself is not to be found there. In the model being developed here, gamers could possess even less of the binary makeup of the game, and might simply purchase a license to play the game. That leaves the individual’s personal game material as a minor component of preservation.

At the same time, it’s a fascinating model for more flexible, platform-agnostic gaming, and it could point the way to interesting methods of preserving games. After all, if gamers could be happy interacting with a dynamic video stream, perhaps a preservation effort could employ a similar approach. If nothing else, the success of a model like this might open up the possibility of remote access to actively preserved games.

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