No cloud strife
Inside Square Enix’s cloud-powered gaming tech, Shinra
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