The cloud has already transformed the world of entertainment. Streaming movies and TV is commonplace, and the widespread lockdown brought about by Covid-19 has inspired musicians to launch a whole genre of virtual, live quarantine concerts – with rapper Travis Scott choosing Fortnite as one of his venues. PC gamers – ever ahead of the curve – have been accustomed to downloading content from the cloud via Steam ever since 2004.
But those downloads can take hours, and as the cloud continues to grow, so too does its power to deliver digital experiences. Google, Microsoft, Nvidia, and many others are seeking to harness that power, betting that streaming games – not to watch, but to play – will be the next trend to shake the industry.
With their services, such as Stadia, Project xCloud, and GeForce Now, you can get access to a huge library of titles without the expense of the console or gaming PC you'd need to play them locally. It's immensely appealing, but it has certain drawbacks due to the technology that all these services share. Polystream offers a complementary approach built on a clever new technology called Command Streaming, and you can try it out for free, today, with a demo of Square Enix's hit adventure Life is Strange 2.
With most other streaming services, powerful servers run the game, turning everything into a video which is then encoded, compressed, and sent to you. Essentially, your keyboard and mouse, or controller, are attached via the internet to a gaming machine in a data centre somewhere, the use of which you are renting from Google or Microsoft or someone else, and your gameplay is streamed back to you as video. It’s basically Twitch, except you’re the streamer, and there’s an extra step in the process as your game input has to go out to the data centre before being sent back to you.
We’ve had this technology for ages, and it works. It works especially well for one-to-many video streaming services like Twitch, and if you’ve got a very fast internet connection that can send all that video data back to you quickly, it works well enough for the one-to-one needs of game streaming. But if fibre optic broadband hasn’t rolled out to you yet, you need a different solution. Providers, too, face a challenge of scale: there is not and never will be enough hardware in the cloud to give everyone their own gaming rig under this one-to-one model, nor enough energy to run or cool the data centres it would require.
That’s where Command Streaming comes in. Here’s how it works: you send instructions to a game running in the cloud as before, but instead of sending the resulting gameplay back to you as video, Polystream sends it back as draw commands. These commands are then interpreted by your computer to draw pixel-perfect graphics, frame by frame, on your screen at home.
This is exactly what would happen if you were playing locally – so you’ll still need a decent GPU to draw all those frames – it’s just that the copy of the game you’re playing is sitting on a computer across the internet, which is telling yours what it’s seeing. Instead of: commands out, remote processing, video back, it’s: commands out, remote processing, commands back, local gameplay.
Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. If your internet connection can receive all that chunky video data quickly enough to neutralise input lag, conventional video streaming can deliver a smooth gameplay experience on even a potato-powered device.
On the other hand, because those draw instructions add up to far less data than video footage, the demands on your bandwidth are negligible under Command Streaming. This means faster, more responsive gameplay even on non-fibre internet connections – no waiting times, no downloads – as well as less energy consumption, and viability at massive scale. However, turning those draw instructions into smooth gameplay will require that your local device has graphics processing capabilities beyond those of a paintbrush. It all depends on what you want from a streaming service and what your local internet and device can handle.
New technologies always encounter some friction, but what’s nice about Polystream is that you can give it a try right now. The company has partnered with publisher Square Enix to offer a streaming demo of DONTNOD’s hit Life is Strange 2. Easy to pick up and telling a universal, moving story of brotherhood and tragedy, the game is accessible to all, making it a perfect testbed for the technology. It was also nominated for best narrative at the 2020 BAFTAs and Gonzalo Martin’s performance as Sean Diaz won the prestigious award for best actor in a leading role.
So if you haven’t checked out Life is Strange 2 yet, or for that matter any form of game streaming, now’s the perfect time – make sure you’re on a PC in a supported location, and if your broadband is good you’ll be able to see the streaming button. With one click you can get involved for free right now via Polystream’s technology. For more information on Polystream itself, check out the website here.