Microsoft looks to take Xbox experience onto mobile

Microsoft has announced the launch of Project xCloud to take the world of Xbox gaming onto mobile.

The idea is a relatively simple one. Gaming is traditionally a better experience on consoles which are specifically designed for gaming, but Microsoft wants to take this experience into the mobile world of tablets and smartphones. Trials will start next year and will allow gamers to take the same content from games built for the Xbox console and PC onto their smartphones, using a Bluetooth enabled handset or an under-development touch overlay.

“The future of gaming is a world where you are empowered to play the games you want, with the people you want, whenever you want, wherever you are, and on any device of your choosing,” said Kareem Choudhry, Corporate VP of Gaming Cloud at Microsoft. “Our vision for the evolution of gaming is similar to music and movies – entertainment should be available on demand and accessible from any screen. Today, I’m excited to share with you one of our key projects that will take us on an accelerated journey to that future world: Project xCloud.”

Compatibility with existing and future Xbox games has been enabled by building out custom hardware in Microsoft data centres. The team have architected a new customizable blade that can host the component parts of multiple Xbox One consoles, as well as the associated infrastructure supporting it. The custom blades will be scaled out through the Azure cloud regions over time.

Currently, the test experience is running at 10 Mbps, though the team are keen to bring this down while still maintaining the same experience for gamers through advances in networking topology, and video encoding and decoding. The idea is to ensure these games can be played on 4G networks, though getting the bitrate down might be a tough ask considering the depth and interactivity of the content on consoles such as Xbox.

One thing is very clear; gaming is just another aspect of the mobile world which is pressing the case for 5G.

Microsoft has an ambition to ensure this content will be able to meet consumer experience demands on 4G networks, though this is a selfish view on networking. These games are incredibly immersive and will place additional strain on the network. For the telcos, the issue is not the singular demands of browsing, video or gaming, but the sum of all the parts. Gaming is just another item which has been thrown on top of the teetering pile of network strain. The efficiency gains of 5G will soon become a necessity, not the buffering-free cat video gains of today.

Looking at the gaming industry, growth is gaining momentum fast. Research from Newzoo suggests mobile gaming will generate $70.3 billion across 2018, accounting for roughly 51% of the industry total. This equates to 25% year-on-year growth, compared to 4.1% growth on consoles, such as Xbox, which is expected to account for $34.6 billion. Mobile’s share of gaming is expected to increase to 59% by 2021, taking $106.4 billion. Asia will account for the majority of this spend, though the gains will be experienced in every region.

An excellent example of the surge of mobile of gaming is Fortnite. While this might be a title most play through consoles or on PC, the most recent update for the game saw 60% surge in data traffic over normal peak traffic levels on Verizon’s broadband network, as well as a 5-8% jump on mobile.

The tsunami of mobile gaming titles over the last 4-5 years has improved the accessibility of gaming for the general public, though the complexity of these games in also growing. While this segment of mobile content might have been simplistic to start with, think of Candy Crush, more in-depth games are becoming increasingly popular with the general public. The proportion of games which require constant connectivity is also increasing. Should the Microsoft project prove to be successful, both in terms of operation and adoption, these trends will only be accelerated.

Gaming is no longer a niche, and pretty soon it will start to weigh heavily on the network.

Netflix dominates the internet, but keep an eye on gaming geeks – Sandvine

Netflix currently accounts for an incredible proportion of global internet traffic, though the gaming segment is starting to throw its weight around.

According to research unveiled by Sandvine, The Global Internet Phenomena Report, Netflix now accounts for 15% of the total downstream volume of traffic across the entire internet. This is an astronomical number when you consider the service only has 130 million subscribers, a large number but some would perhaps has thought higher, while there are roughly 1.7 billion websites on the internet. Video on the whole accounted for 58% of the traffic meandering along the digital pavements.

Netflix, and video on the whole, dominating trends is not a new idea. This is something the telcos have been preparing for, though the gaming segment has been rarely discussed. Gaming has traditionally been reserved for very niche demographics, though with more content providers targeting mobile applications, the target audience has been increasing substantially, as has the depth and scale of the games themselves.

Looking at the contributions to the bottleneck, in Europe two of the top ten owners of downstream traffic volume are relating to gaming; PlayStation and Steam (focused on PC-based gaming). PC games can be as much as 100 GB in size, owning to consumer demands to make more larger and more immersive environments, though telcos would be wary of the continuing momentum for mobile games. With data becoming cheaper for the consumer and devices becoming more powerful, content developers are being encouraged to introduce mobile games which are more on par with those on other platforms. The sheer breadth, depth and variety of these titles on the app stores is quite staggering.

This of course will stress networks, especially considering many users of these games will use them when out and about, not connected to home broadband or public wifi. Ensuring these mobile games meet the demands of the consumer will be critical, as it may well soon become another stick to hit connectivity providers with.

Another interesting statistic to emerge from the data is the level of encryption. Sandvine estimates 50% of internet traffic is now encrypted, though this might be a conservative guess. The estimate only accounts for sources which are encrypted consistently, the number might well be higher, and it is certainly increasing. For consumers, this is a promising trend set against a backdrop of data privacy scandals and breaches, though it is an added complication for the telcos.

Encryption of course protects the consumer from wandering eyes with nefarious intentions, but it also prevents the telcos from keeping an eye on what is going on. Without visibility into what type of traffic is traversing the algorithmic piste, the telcos cannot tailor the delivery and enhance the experience for the consumer. The blame of poor experience might be thrown towards the telcos, but with encryption trends heading northwards, they are relatively helpless.

Microsoft’s cloud gaming ambitions set to further test network capacity

Microsoft has been talking up its cloud-gaming ambitions ahead of the E3 conference in Los Angeles adding another headache to the plethora of migraines network engineers are facing on a daily basis.

While most have been focusing on the rise of video, gaming is proving it could be as much as a thorn in the side of networking engineers, and possibly even a sharper one should current trends continue to grow. Although many games are relatively simple right now, more are requiring constant access to the internet and are also becoming more interactive; today’s simplicity might be short-lived.

But keep the paracetamol in the drawer, as fortunately it is not a massive problem as it stands. The data required to power single player games such as Candy Crush is minimal, content can be cached on the edge to improve performance. Even turn-based online multi-player games are only a minor concern, as latency does not have to too low to deliver a decent experience. However, Microsoft has some big ambitions.

“Our cloud engineers are building a game streaming network to unlock console gaming on any device,” said Phil Spencer, during a pre-show briefing, Executive President of Gaming at Microsoft.

The aim here is to deliver the console experience, what gamers are used to on the Xbox for example, to every device. That includes mobile, which will be a massive headache for the telcos.

This is where data intensity becomes a problem. Even on broadband, gamers need to have a very stable and powerful connection to the internet. Graphics have advanced quickly over the last few years, as has the tendency for gamers to prefer online multi-player environments. When playing other gamers locally, this might not be a massive issue as advancements in edge computing can help, but when playing against someone in Australia it becomes more an issue. The data requirements for these games are often huge as uplink and downlink will have to be synced with unnoticeable latency to ensure appropriate performance. The demand on the network could be much more intense than 4K video.

This is little more than a projection for the moment, gaming is still small-fry but growing quickly, though it is clearly an area which Microsoft is pinning some hopes to.

Though few of the acquisitions have hit the headlines, Microsoft has been gradually snapping up some interesting gaming companies over the last few years. Intel sold software company Havok to Microsoft in 2015, Simplygon, which produces a 3D computer graphics software for automatic 3D optimization, was bought last year, while the PlayFab purchase was announced back in January. All of these acquisitions are helping Microsoft build out its cloud-connected games proposition.

“We’re mobilizing to pursue our extensive opportunity in a 100-plus-billion gaming market,” CEO Satya Nadella said at the annual shareholders meeting in 2017, outlining ambitions in the gaming space. “This means broadening our approach to how we think about gaming end to end, about starting with games and how they’re creating and distributed, and how they’re played and viewed.”

Part of redefining the gaming experience is to create a platform which allows developers to build content efficiently, but then, perhaps more importantly, have the opportunity to scale. Scaling up rapidly is critically important as it could be make or break for a title; consumers are demanding, poor performance could lead to an immediate uninstall. Azure for Gaming is Microsoft’s answer to these demands, creating a gaming-as-a-service platform into the product offering, which features products from virtual machines to scalable cloud storage and a machine learning studio.

Gaming is one of the fastest growing pastimes on the planet, and likely to pose much more a network headache than we are giving it credit for right now.

Ericsson, Intel and Telstra deliver 5G low-latency to gamers FTW

As 5G demos move into their practical phase, Ericsson, Intel and Telstra decided to show how 5G will enable gamers to compete over mobile with no performance penalty.

A lot of professional gaming relies on quick movements and reflexes to get one step ahead of your opponent, a characteristic it shares with physical combat sports. So any technological factors that delay a gamer’s actions, even by a fraction of a second, can prove virtually fatal. The latency experienced by mobile networks has, thus far, made them impractical for use by pro gamers and this demo was designed to show that, with 5G, those dark days are behind us.

It returned data transfer latency rates of 5-6 milliseconds, four times lower than current average 4G latency speeds. The demo was conducted in Telstra’s 5G Innovation Centre in Australia’s Gold Coast, using Ericsson and Intel kit over mmWave spectrum, and professional Australian gamers The Chiefs were drafted in to provide extra authenticity

“This gaming demonstration is a real-life example of how 5G might be used in the future,” said Telstra Executive Director Network and Infrastructure Engineering, Channa Seneviratne. “Latency is the time it takes for data to be sent between two points, so it is crucial in the world of gaming when milliseconds can literally mean the difference between winning and losing. eSports demonstrates how that is possible over 5G, a benefit of the new technology that will underpin a host of use cases.”

Ericsson and Intel spokespeople said pretty much the same. While this is a nice demo it’s not clear how much demand there is for competitive gaming over mobile networks. If it’s that important then its presumably not something people will do on their phones on the way to the shops. But as an illustration of a cool new use-case that may capture the imagination of a broader audience then just those of us who obsess about this sort of thing for a living then it has some value.

PlayGiga aims to bring gaming-as-a-service to the telco channel

Operators have been obsessed with content for a while but that seldom means games. Spanish startup PlayGiga wants to change that.

The core premise is to offer a cloud gaming platform as a white-label solution to operators, for them to re-badge and then serve up as an additional, novel, product to their subscribers. The service is intended to be consumed in a similar way to Netflix: pay a subscription fee and get limitless access to a curated catalogue of games.

The business premise behind this is to offer operators a distinct new product that specifically targets markets below the affluent, hardcore gamer; namely families and developing markets. All the graphics processing is done in the cloud, so even relatively resource-intensive games can be played though a TV and there is minimal setup and load time.

To find out a bit more about PlayGiga and the thinking behind it we spoke to its CEO Javier Polo. He explained that the company was founded in 2013 with the backing of four VCs. The platform was in pure development for three years and Polo was brought in to oversee the go-to-market phase.

Polo’s background is in strategic planning and he spent nine years as Marketing and Commercialization at Orange Spain, so he seems like a pretty good hire for a startup looking to sell into the telco channel. The strategy is B2B2C – white-label to operators – which is presumably why he’s speaking to us rather than a gaming or entertainment title.

Before you can pick a market you need to have identified that market in the first place, and Polo explained that they saw an opportunity with non-hardcore gamers. Anyone that is prepared to drop £400 or so on a PS4 is already amply catered for but there are plenty of people who have other priorities for their cash.

In western markets PlayGiga has identified ‘families’ as an untapped gaming market. We interpret that as harassed parents being badgered by their kids to buy a gaming console and their attendant pricey games and subscriptions, but who are disinclined to blow the considerable cash involved. Gaming-as-a-service promises the majority of the experience at a fraction of the (up-front) cost.

Elsewhere, as you can see from the slide below, there’s the simple fact that in much of the world the latest consoles are simply beyond the reach of most punters. The rationale is similar to the western strategy, except in this case we’re talking about the inability, rather than unwillingness, to pay for the full console gaming experience.

Playgiga market

Since Polo came on board in 2016 things seem to be ramping nicely. Last year it scored significant deal wins with TIM in Europe and Turner in Latin America. The latter is intriguing as it goes beyond the telco channel and reminds us that the on-demand entertainment market is a battleground contested by many different, previously distinct industries.

Playgiga deals

To conclude his pitch to operators Polo stressed that he thinks gaming-as-a-service not only augments the communications service bundle to help with stickiness, but can encourage migration to more comprehensive bundles and even help with customer acquisition. Polo doesn’t reckon anyone PlayGiga has any direct competitors today and we wouldn’t be surprised to hear of more operator deal wins from them before long.