No cloud strife

Inside Square Enix’s cloud-pow­ered gaming tech, Shinra

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Over ten years since the foun­da­tion of OnLive, cloud gaming re­mains an en­tic­ing yet frus­trat­ing con­cept, of­ten touted as the in­dus­try’s fu­ture yet checked by in­fra­struc­ture con­sid­er­a­tions beyond the in­dus­try’s con­trol. The pos­si­bil­i­ties con­tinue to daz­zle: armed with on-tap server support, cre­ators of cloud games are in the­ory un­con­strained by the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of client de­vices. Due to en­ter beta test­ing early next year in Ja­pan and the US, Square Enix’s own Shinra Tech­nolo­gies is built around a fa­mil­iar vi­sion of bold new games brought to life by the bound­less might of a server farm – a vi­sion of mas­sively mul­ti­player shoot­ers that fea­ture hun­dreds of mov­ing ob­jects and un­prece­dented de­grees of re­al­time en­vi­ron­men­tal de­for­ma­tion.

For all the airy talk of un­re­stricted ac­cess to power, how­ever, nei­ther startups such as OnLive and Gaikai, nor es­tab­lished play­ers, most no­tably Mi­crosoft, have man­aged to over­come the lim­i­ta­tions of the In­ter­net it­self. Band­width al­lowances may have rock­eted since broad­band be­came the norm, but vari­able la­tency means that time-crit­i­cal tasks such as graph­ics ren­der­ing and types of game that rely on min­i­mal in­put de­lays sim­ply aren’t prac­ti­cal by way of the cloud.

How does Shinra stand apart from th­ese ser­vices? In that re­spect, at least, it doesn’t. An­nounced in Septem­ber un­der the lead­er­ship of Yoichi Wada, who stepped down as CEO in 2013 as part of company-wide re­forms, the ser­vice is, at heart, an ed­u­cated gam­ble about how the In­ter­net will evolve. “When I speak to Eric­s­son, Hori­zon and all those large com­pa­nies about where they’re tak­ing the net­work, im­prove­ments to la­tency are com­ing,” says se­nior vice pres­i­dent of tech­nol­ogy Ja­cob Na­vok. “We made a pre­dic­tion that the net­work would get bet­ter,” adds se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of tech­nol­ogy Tet­suji Iwasaki. “We’re not look­ing at where it is to­day, but where it will be in sev­eral years.”

This is hardly in­spir­ing after OnLive’s prom­ise met real-world per­for­mance con­sid­er­a­tions, but if Shinra runs the same risks, it does take a more holis­tic, cre­ator-driven ap­proach to how games make use of the cloud. Where many ser­vices so far have served pri­mar­ily as a plat­form for pub­lish­ers’ back cat­a­logues, Shinra’s tools are the re­sult of ex­ten­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion with the de­vel­op­ers of forth­com­ing games, in­clud­ing Just Cause stu­dio Avalanche and Ja­panese cre­ator Kengo Naka­jima. Rather than sim­ply mak­ing it easy to port over old soft­ware, the more ad­vanced of its de­vel­op­ment kits are de­signed to help teams take ad­van­tage of server pro­cess­ing re­sources that can be scaled up and down on de­mand. It also han­dles the as­so­ci­ated cal­cu­la­tions more ef­fi­ciently due to a mod­u­lar­i­sa­tion strat­egy that, among other things, erases the syn­chro­ni­sa­tion de­lays that are of­ten the cause of crip­pling lag.

Iwasaki’s work on Shinra be­gan with the idea that su­per­com­puter-grade servers could be made avail­able to de­vel­op­ers at a frac­tion of the ex­pense by us­ing gen­eral-pur­pose com­po­nents while im­prov­ing how they com­mu­ni­cate. He re­calls a lec­ture by Pro­fes­sor Tsuyoshi Ha­mada at Na­gasaki Univer­sity in 2009, who had man­aged to as­sem­ble a $400,000 su­per­com­puter us­ing In­tel GeForce GPUs that ul­ti­mately proved more pow­er­ful than the Earth Sim­u­la­tor, a su­per­com­puter built in 2004 by Ja­pan’s gov­ern­ment to study the ef­fects of cli­mate change.

“We made a pre­dic­tion that the net­work would get bet­ter. We’re not look­ing at where it is to­day”

Per­for­mance, Iwasaki ex­plains, isn’t di­rectly pro­por­tional to cost, and stream­lin­ing how com­po­nents in­ter­act de­liv­ers greater re­turns than a for­tune’s worth of be­spoke high-end kit. He cites the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of new net­work cards, which can trans­mit a file of 1,024 bytes be­tween servers in 46.6 mi­crosec­onds – equiv­a­lent to mem­ory read/write speed 10–15 years ago – us­ing tech­nolo­gies such as In­finiBand and re­mote di­rect mem­ory ac­cess, which al­lows com­put­ers to by­pass OSes and driv­ers in or­der to tap di­rectly into each other’s mem­ory.

The speed with which the re­sults of cal­cu­la­tions can be shut­tled be­tween

Shinra is be­ing run sep­a­rately to Square Enix’s other op­er­a­tions to avoid be­ing slowed by stu­dio pol­i­tics or es­tab­lished think­ing. It will, how­ever, bor­row Agni’s Phi­los­o­phy

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