gaming in the cloud

Brian drew my attention to this:

Just announced at this year’s GDC, OnLive is an on-demand gaming service. It’s essentially the gaming version of cloud computing – everything is computed, rendered and housed online. In its simplest description, your controller inputs are uploaded, a high-end server takes your inputs and plays the game, and then a video stream of the output is sent back to your computer. Think of it as something like Youtube or Hulu for games.

The service works with pretty much any Windows or Mac machine as a small browser plug-in. Optionally, you will also be able to purchase a small device, called the OnLive MicroConsole, that you can hook directly into your TV via HDMI, though if your computer supports video output to your TV, you can just do it that way instead. Of course, you can also just play on your computer’s display if you don’t want to pipe it out to your living room set.

When you load up the service and choose a game to play (I’ll come back to the service’s out-of-games features in a bit), it starts immediately. The game is housed and played on one of OnLive’s servers, so there’s never anything to download. Using an appropriate input device, be it a controller or mouse and keyboard, you’ll then play the game as you would if it were installed on your local machine. Your inputs are read by the plugin (or the standalone device if you choose to go that route) and uploaded to the server. The server then plays the game just like it would if you were sitting at the machine, except that instead of outputting the video to a display, it gets compressed and streamed to your computer where you can see the action. Rinse and repeat 60 times per second.

I know Shamus is distracted right now but I can’t wait to see what he thinks.

Roku digital video player: game-changer for home entertainment

Digital video has its advantages over discs, but also suffers from a major flaw. I have to admit that (unlike others who are more diligent) I haven’t taken full advantage of the Netflix streaming video service, because I find that being tied to the PC screen just isn’t the most convenient location for watching movies. I do use a bit but still, it’s being tethered to the PC that really inhibits usage. I’ve found that I do watch a lot more anime now, though, because I can torrent the AVI files, put them on a USB jumpdrive, and watch them on my DVD player (which has a USB connection). However, that process is time-consuming since you need to download the whole video file before watching, and of course there’s the inconvenience (not to mention legal gray area) of finding torrents in the first place.

Roku digital video player
Roku digital video player
This is why Roku’s new digital video player
box is so exciting. Unlike the latest piece of s^&t from Sony, the Roku player is a simple and small box with the standard video outputs (component, HDMI) and an ethernet jack, plus built-in wifi. It connects to the internet over your home network, plugs into your TV, and brings Netflix streaming-on-demand and’s video store right to your living room. The concept works because it’s so simplistic and cleanly executed – it doesn’t do anything else. Even the remote is a piece of utilitarian art.

There are other ways to get Netflix streaming onto your television – for example, the Samsung BD-P2500 Blu-Ray player, which adds the streaming capability. But at $300, it’s three times the cost of the Roku (and doesn’t support Amazon). Amazon’s video store lets you rent or buy movies and television and rivals and the iTunes store for selection, so the Roku really almost replaces the need to go to a retail video rental store like Blockbuster in a way that Netflix alone never could.

If digital downloads are going to really kill off the physical-disc format, it won’t be until devices like Roku become mainstream. And at the price point of $99, that’s not too far off at all.

convenience vs cost

In an ideal world, you pay more for increased convenience. Want to save money? mow your own lawn. Have no time? Pay the local kid $20. etc.

This dynamic seems to be inverted online, however, especially with regard to digital content. Here, you pay for decreased convenience – a good example being DRM restrictions on video games, where legitimate, paid users of a game like Spore must suffer through all manner of annoying restrictions and installation limitations and game activations and whatnot. Meanwhile, anyone who downloads the cracked version off the torrents for free, gets a clean, enjoyable gaming experience unmarred by all the nonsense. Therefore we have the curious situation where anti-piracy policies serve to incentivise piracy rather than prevent it[1. Shamus Young’s ongoing DRM rants are the definitive explanation of this dynamic. I think he needs to write a book.].

A similar dynamic applies to anime, except that instead of invasive DRM you have simple expense. This is partly due to region-coding, which maintains artificial price differences between markets. It’s also due to the increasing cost of producing anime, which gets passed on to the end user. Price is not a barrier for people with steady jobs who enjoy anime as a hobby, but this probably doesn’t describe the target demographic very well. Another problem with paid, legitimate anime is that it comes mostly in DVD form, which is physical media. As such, it must be carried around, doesn’t fit in your pocket, can only be played on specific hardware and displays (ie, a TV with a DVD player attached), might scratch, etc. Even if you circumvent the expense issue by paying for a service like Netflix (which is not free, but significantly cheaper than buying anime outright), you still hae these physical media headaches to deal with. Even a completely free solution like ties you down, as its DRM keeps you locked into your web browser. Meanwhile, users who simply download fansubs get all the benefits – free, totally portable digital content – and even some extras (eg. superior subtitle quality). Again, the incentive on the end user is to encourage downloading rather than paying.

So the question is, who perpetuates this imbalance? Is there a way to get users to pay for convenience again? The power seems to be solely in the hands of the publishers here. There’s already a set of concrete suggestions for the gaming industry, which are eminently reasonable but probably will never be embraced. A similar set of suggestions could be crafted for the anime industry as well, but I’ll leave that to otaku who have more knowledge of the industry itself than I do.

Speaking as a consumer though, I can define convenience that I’d pay for. I currently pay Netflix $20/month, so that’s a good guideline for a budget. If I could purchase entire seasons of a given anime for $10, or individual episodes for $1, and have these come in DRM-free files that I can freely reburn to DVD for home viewing or convert to any intermediate format for whatever digital player I might choose, then I’d never need to download again. I would also pay an extra $.50/ep or $5 per season for quality fansubbing. Note that if the anime studios went DRM-free, and completely outsourced subbing to the fansub community, then the latter coudl legitimately charge for the service (which would be a true value-add).

Of course, the scheme above means someone could just seed the files they buy out to torrent. But so what? That’s what happens now, anyway. at least with my scheme, people like me pay more in. Revenue will increase, and that’s the bottom line.

pc gaming is dead to me

It seems everyone is raving about the creature creator in Spore. As J says, expect to see a lot more of these. The idea behind Spore is truly brilliant, to let everything in the game evolve, the ultimate simulation of life. And yet, the game is already tainted by the promise of the same DRM that Shamus has been warning about for months – the game requires an online security check every ten days or it stops working. This is outrageous, well beyond the reasonable need of copy protection.

In fact, the recent coverage of these issues at Shamus’ site has led me to reconsider my own position on PC gaming entirely. I haven’t actually played a PC game since Tie Fighter and Myst: Exile. However, I have entertained thoughts of building a new rig for gaming (and scientific calculation, mostly MATLAB). Increasingly, though, the trend in PC gaming is towards more DRM, not less, and I don’t see any compelling argument to subject myself to the suspicion of being a criminal. Aside from Spore, that is – but Spore will also be released on the Wii.

In addition, at some point in the near future we will be biying an HDTV, and then will need a Blu-Ray player. The single best Blu-Ray player on the market, also the cheapest, is the Playstation 3. Between the Wii and the PS3, is there any genre of game that I might even theoretically want to play which isn’t available on the console side? Even Portal, the other game that has my attention, has a PS3 version.

I think it’s safe to simply declare that console gaming is the sole route I will follow from here on out. Rather than invest even a minimal $500 in building a gaming rig, I can buy ten games on the Wii. The value proposition of console gaming blows PC gaming out of the water since you aren’t stuck in the perpetual upgrade cycle – and consoles have astounding longevity, just look at the PS2 (another system I might pick up someday for kicks). And actually owning my games, and being able to play them without jumping through hoops, is just icing on the cake.

a DRM solution

Shamus has long been a gamers’ advocate with regards to prohibitive DRM on computer games, and even has a common-sense 5 point solution to the problem. Unfortunately, since his plan (which treats customers as customers instead of potential pirates) does nothing to actually prevent pirates from pirating games, his solution is likely to be ignored. It seems to me that any solution to ease the DRM load on the end user will need to at least make a token effort to reduce or otherwise inhibit piracy, for it to be taken seriously. Obviously, the common-sense argument that Shamus makes, namely that good business practices which treat customers like a scarce resource instead of a bitter enemy will result in higher revenue despite piracy, is simply not going to penetrate. Even Penny Arcade, a longtime gaming fansite, fell prey to DRM’s allure in their own game, after all.

Somewhat related to all of this is the lesser issue of CD keys, about which Shamus draws a distinction to DRM with. If all DRM was just CD keys, then DRM wouldn’t be that much of a pain, but the problem with CD keys from the manufacturer perspective is that they can be written down, cut and pasted, emailed, etc. I’ll readily admit that I’ve used CD keys for various software in the past that were “borrowed” – its no different (apart from being less annoying) than the old “whats the 10th word on page 4 of the game manual” routine. So, again, as far as preventing piracy, or even mitigating it, CD keys just can’t solve the problem.

However, in considering CD keys, a possible solution to piracy does present itself. What is needed is something that is both dynamic and tied to the specific user. For example, imagine a software download service wherein:

1. game can be downloaded if user sets up an account and registers a credit card for payment. game can also be mailed out on physical media for nominal extra charge.

2. user is asked to set a password to their account. This account is treated like a bank acct password, ie you have the little picture for verification, you have security questions about your mom’s maiden name etc, the whole bit.

3. upon download, game can be activated for installation (not play!) by entering a key that is generated via a standard one-way function in real-time by several inputs:
a. the license number emailed to the user (or printed on the back of the physical disk).
b. the user’s username and password to their online account
c. the current date and time (automatically slurped from public date/time servers).

4. the game itself can be played anytime, but still requires username and password (not CD key).

the advantage of the scheme is that the activation code for installation is not a static string but something that changes in a consistent way. The one-way function should be something very well-known (like MD5). The only way that the game can then be shared would be for the user to share his account password and login, which presumably they’d be incentivized NOT to do, because their account represents private data including payment information for future game purchases.

The user would be happy because the code is easy and really just requires a simple login, and then the game is fully unencumbered for play. The game company would be happy because they are tying each copy of the game to a specific consumer, and they can leverage that for marketing purposes as well (for example, offering good customers a buy 10 get one free deal, or a points system to redeem games, or the option to download exclusive minigames or other freebies). The problem for pirates who want to distribute the game should be pretty clear – especially if the encryption on the actual game software is pretty high.

What do you think? would this work? does it meet all of Shamus’ criteria for a solution to the problem?

are fansubbers pirates?

Shamus has a three part series on PC game piracy in which he makes some concrete recommendations to the game industry. Part of Shamus’ premise is simply that video game piracy is a problem partly driven by the industry itself, with ever-increasing paranoid reliance on clumsy copy protection and authentication schemes that treat ordinary users like criminals and which do nothing to deter the thieves. He argues that the industry should accept a baseline level of piracy and attempt to incentivize users to buy the product rather than attempt to forestall it completely. His specific recommendations are:

1. Make sure the pirates can’t offer a superior product
2. Get closer to the community
3. Offer a demo
4. Entice them with valuable updates
5. Clean House

How does this apply to anime? It occurs to me that the rationale for the fansub industry is quite similar to game piracy. Region-encoding, release schedules, and unequal pricing seem to be the methods by which the anime industry attempts to control their product and which has created the vacuum which fansubbers have rushed to fill.

Do Shamus’ recommendations apply? It makes for an interesting thought experiment.

I give up

I tried to use the Netflix live-movie streaming service to watch Ghost in the Shell:Stand Alone Complex and was rewarded for it with this:

netflix denied

that was after I was told that Firefox was incompatible, then asked by Internet Explorer to download three things and install two others, and after jumpin through all those hoops, got various “you do not have permissions to access this content” dialog boxes. The coup de grace was the message aboveApple is headed down the same bogus road:

Sources say Apple plans to charge $3.99 a pop for 24-hour rentals. Since Apple may agree to pay closer to the $17 wholesale price paid by other retailers, it’s unclear whether iTunes might boost the price or take a small loss to help drive sales of Apple TV boxes and video iPod players.

Apple’s movie download service is going to crash and burn, and leave a bigger smoking crater than Circuit City’s ill-fated DivX did a few years back. Four bucks for 24 hour rentals?

The first company to let you click one button and download a movie – no frills, no subtitles, no disc extras, just the movie – directly to your DVD burner and stick that in your home theater DVD player is going to mint money, for themselves and for the movie studios. And yeah I’d pay five bucks a pop for that, and I’d ditch Netflix too.

Unfortunately it only took the music companies 20 years or so to figure out that DRM was Dumb Retail Marketing. Maybe we have to wait another 20 years for the movie studios to figure that out. By which time the whole concept of physical media will be obsolete anyway.

LOTR on Blu-Ray?

Warner Studios made a big splash this past week when they announced they were going to ditch HD-DVD in favor of Blu-Ray. The ripple effect of this hasn’t fully played out, but one consequence appears to be that the Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit, one assumes) will only be on Blu-Ray:

According to Variety, New Line and HBO will follow Warner’s lead to side only with Blu-ray Disc. BBC Video, the company behind the popular high-definition nature documentary Planet Earth, has not yet publicly expressed its intentions with format exclusivity.

New Line already positions its Blu-ray Disc products with greater priority than the equivalent HD DVD. New Line’s first high-definition film, Hairspray, hit Blu-ray Disc in late November 2007, while an HD DVD version was only promised sometime in early 2008.
Perhaps the most important outcome of New Line’s upcoming decision is that the studio owns the rights to The Lord of The Rings trilogy. Should the (second) most compelling motion picture trilogy hit high-definition home video, it’ll be on Blu-ray Disc.

If anything, this means that it’s better to just stick with legacy DVD and get my HD content via the internet. At least until the price of Blu Ray drives falls to the $100 mark or below (territory already occupied by HD-DVD). It also should be noted from the article that part of the reason for the preference of Blu-Ray is again the region-coding issue.

Sony caves on DRM

the last holdout, Sony, admits defeat:

In a move that would mark the end of a digital music era, Sony BMG Music Entertainment is finalizing plans to sell songs without the copyright protection software that has long restricted the use of music downloaded from the Internet, has learned. Sony BMG, a joint venture of Sony (SNE) and Bertelsmann, will make at least part of its collection available without so-called digital rights management, or DRM, software some time in the first quarter, according to people familiar with the matter.

Sony BMG would become the last of the top four music labels to drop DRM, following Warner Music Group (WMG), which in late December said it would sell DRM-free songs through’s (AMZN) digital music store. EMI and Vivendi’s Universal Music Group announced their plans for DRM-free downloads earlier in 2007.

Given this, what will Apple’s excuse be for maintaining DRM on the iPod? Attention Steve Jobs! Doesn’t music want to be free?