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'Project Thunderchild' uncovers what's wrong with cloud-based gaming

What is wrong with cloud-based gaming and how can it be improved? These are some of the questions that researchers at the UK's Lancaster University set to explore as they create their own dedicated cloud gaming platform, dubbed ‘Project Thunderchild'.

The researchers explain that massive subscription-based streaming platforms like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud allow people to play huge libraries of games without the need for highly-specced gaming PCs or consoles, but they operate in such a way that connections can be far from stable.

According to researchers Peter Garraghan and James Bulman, Stadia and other cloud platforms rely on remote data centers and virtual machines (VMs). These VMs use data center hardware to start the game engines and all associated elements like graphics, artificial intelligence, audio, and game physics.

Traditionally game engines were developed with specific PC or console platforms in mind, and users could customise various options to get the best playing experience. But with cloud gaming, that experience is purely relying on the strengths of remote data centers.

“With all the calculations for the game done in the cloud, these virtual machines then stream the video and audio to the players' devices. This all requires a very secure and stable connection.

As a result, network issues, or problems within the data centers themselves, can lead to gameplay slowing, spoiling the experience, or even grinding to a halt entirely,” researchers state.

Lancaster University School of Computing and Communications lecturer Peter Garraghan says that cloud gaming looks like a great idea on paper – after all, there are no download times,  added device portability, and no need to access to higher-end hardware.

But he says platform providers assume that players have access to high-speed internet with no data caps.

“The reality is very different for many gamers and finding a solution to this has driven us to create a new system that aims to pave the way towards a much smoother cloud gaming experience. While we have started with graphics, this is the first phase of a much larger platform towards a fully distributed game engine.

Project Thunderchild's aim is to create a game platform that prevents poor performance in games by distributing the game engine over the cloud network.

“This means different game engine calculations can take place on the players' devices at home, or from the cloud – automatically shifting depending on performance requirements or connectivity,” researchers explain.

They have created a proof of concept that separates the graphics-rendering abilities of a game engine.  The graphics code is sent to players' devices and the cloud for better gameplay, although they do admit a ‘temporary reduction in graphical resolution' (in other words, the resolution might take a hit).

“The system can also dynamically switch between different graphic libraries, such as OpenGL and Vulkan, during play. Doing so overcomes issues of players restarting the game due to changing graphic settings.

“When a network connection is lost to the cloud then instead of gameplay stopping the graphical code on the local device is used to enable the game to continue.

Garraghan says that games like Civilization, Total War: Warhammerand Cities: Skylines often suffer from performance latency purely because of the size and number of things they must simulate.

“The ability to offload some of this computation to other devices would really help make these games run better at scale. It could be the cloud itself, or your currently idle desktop PC.

“Ideally, it would likely be effective if games were designed to include an option for enabling ‘Cloud acceleration' that can be toggled in the game settings, and would make it much more agreeable to gamers who are worried about their network quality.

The researchers also point out that gamers are slow to adopt cloud gaming because of other issues such as the perceived lack of ownership of games they have paid for if they are stored remotely and only accessible through a subscription service, as well as concerns about data caps, or loss of network connection while travelling.

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