Is your application performing poorly? Just throw more hardware at it! This attitude has become mainstream thanks to the widespread availability of cheap hardware and the high cost of developer time. Why pay a team of developers tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the performance of an application when you can buy a handful of relatively cheap servers and still be able to provide the performance your customers need?
What’s interesting about this equation is that consumers have been mostly shielded from it. However, when this equation does impact consumers, it usually raises some important questions:
Capcom will give Japanese Switch owners a chance to play last year’s Resident Evil 7 on the Switch later this week. But the port will only be playable as an online stream running on Capcom’s own servers, rather than a downloaded version that would run directly on the Switch’s relatively low-powered hardware.
But such a port would have required time and programming resources that Capcom might not have been willing to spare. With cloud streaming, on the other hand, getting the game onto the Switch is likely just a matter of setting up some servers to run the existing PC version, then writing a simple client to stream inputs and video/audio to and from the Switch. Streaming to the Switch means not having to compromise on graphical detail, but it could lead to stuttering and frame rate issues if the Internet connection isn’t absolutely solid.
Nintendo has been at a disadvantage for the last several console generations. Its consoles have been less powerful than its competitors, which has contributed to developers not porting games to Nintendo’s consoles. When games have been ported, developer time had to be invested in down scaling the game enough to run on the less powerful hardware.
With the widespread availability of high-speed Internet connectivity, an alternative strategy to porting a game directly has become possible. Instead of porting the game itself, the game can be run on more powerful hardware and the video can be streamed to the player. This would theoretically allow any game to run on almost any platform. A user could just as easily stream the game on their Switch as their phone.
But the universe abhors perfection so this strategy naturally has trade offs. The most obvious of these trade offs is latency. If the game is being run on a remote server, every button pressed by the player must be transmitted to that server. Even with a high-speed Internet connection that latency can be noticeable, especially for extremely fast paced games. But the more sinister trade off in my opinion is the fact that players can’t own the game since it exists exclusively on remote servers. At some point Capcom will decide that continuing to operate the Biohazard 7 servers is costing more money than the game is making. When that happens, the servers will be turned off and the players who paid for the game will no longer be able to play it.
I’ve lamented about the fact that consumers own fewer of the products they “buy.” The idea that paying a producer money for a product resulted in exclusive ownership has been replaced by the idea of licensing. You don’t purchase a tractor, you pay to license the software that runs on it and John Deere just happens to throw in the hardware for free. In the case of Biohazard 7, gamers aren’t buying the game, they’re paying for the privilege to stream the game for as long as Capcom allows.