Virtual Mobile Infrastructure (VMI) serves many purposes: it helps app developers accelerate development, it streamlines IT operations, and it empowers security teams to protect data. But perhaps the most unheralded use case for VMI is allowing cloud providers to deliver mobile applications—and more specifically, video games—as a service.
Why, you ask, would cloud providers want to offer such services? Cloud providers could generate new revenue streams from online advertising or from subscription-based gaming services. With high density mobile app virtualization and compression algorithms optimized for mobile devices, cloud providers can host Android-based games at a very low cost. But before we get into the nitty gritty details of mobile gaming, let’s take a step back and look at the history of gaming as a service.
PC-based Gaming as a Service
Gaming as a Service sprung up several years ago as a way for gamers to play PC-based games without needing to set up high-end gaming computers with graphic cards or buy, download and install individual video games. Services like OnLive, Gaikai, NVIDIA GRID, and others have tried to address this market with varying degree of success.
Unfortunately, PC-based Gaming as a Service is a costly venture. Hosting providers must contend with server hardware and graphics cards, expensive Microsoft Windows VDI or remote desktop licenses, and data center costs such as power and cooling. 3D video games with vector graphics require powerful graphics processing units (GPUs), limiting the number of games that can be played on a single server.
The proliferation of smartphones and tablets have set in motion a tectonic shift in gaming development and consumption. Video game research firm NewZoo predicts that mobile gaming revenue will overtake console-based games in 2015, generating $30.3B USD worldwide.[i] According to NewZoo, mobile gaming “gives gamers the possibility to play games anywhere at any time, pushing overall time spent on games in the U.S. up 40% in only two years.”[ii] With the huge influx of new gamers lured in to playing mobile games, Gaming as a Service must evolve to meet today’s mobile requirements.
Mobile Gaming as a Service Advantages
Besides addressing the growing market of mobile video game players, Mobile Gaming as a Service solves other unique challenges like:
- Supporting many different devices: The mobile market is very fragmented. While almost all PC-based games are built to run on x86 processors with NVIDIA and AMD GPUs, the mobile market has more than 20 different chip set and software combinations. With OpenGL ES, Metal, Windows DirectX, Amazon Fire and other graphics APIs, mobile game developers must spend time and effort porting their games to a multitude of different devices. Developers must contend with high-end smartphones with 64-bit processors and 4GB RAM or greater, while the vast majority of phones sold today run on less powerful, integrated chips. Even app developers like Facebook had to release a low-end version of its app to make it usable on entry-level Android phones.
Solution: Mobile Gaming as a Service eliminates this problem; developers just need to build a game for Android platforms and they are done. They don’t need to worry about GPU or memory or other aspects of the client device.
- Piracy: Game publishers have reported startling piracy statistics; developer Ustwo observed that only 5% of Android users had paid for their hit game “Monument Valley.”[iii] The percentage of legal purchases was even lower for game studio Lucky Frame, with 144 copies of their game “Gentlemen!” purchased, but 50,030 copies pirated.[iv] It is easy for modern-day pirates to unlock games sold in the Google Play Store and Amazon Appstore and then post them on torrent sites. Besides piracy, game developers are seeing mobile ad-blockers put a dent in mobile advertising revenue.
Solution: If game developers release versions of their mobile apps strictly for gaming services, then they can squash piracy. Because the games and the mobile ads are streamed to users’ screens, they will be more difficult for ad-blocking software to detect and stop.
- Disk size limitations: With PC-based games, developers can create powerful games that can exceed 50 GB in size because of high-resolution textures and graphics. Large file sizes are not an issue with consoles and computers that have massive disk drives. Mobile devices, on the other hand, may have only 4 GB or less in disk space. As a result, game developers must often build isometric-view games and low resolution textures; they are unable to fully unleash their creativity.
Solution: With hosted games, game creators do not need to worry about size limitations. With Mobile Gaming as a Service, app developers can begin to develop games that look and feel like PC games.
- Protracted software update processes: When developers issue software upgrades, patches, and new game packs, they need to send these updates to multiple app stores and wait for app stores to review and post the updates. It may take weeks or months before users download important updates to their devices.
Solution: With Mobile Gaming as a Service, developers can work directly with cloud providers to rapidly upgrade mobile games. By streamlining software updates, developers can reduce the time and cost of maintaining mobile apps.
Microservers and VMI: A Love Story
A confluence of factors make Mobile Gaming as a Service possible. Technologies like VMI and mobile app virtualization allow cloud providers to host hundreds of gaming sessions on a single server. Today’s improved cellular networks and widespread WiFi coverage mean that mobile users will be able to access online gaming services from just about anywhere. But one of the most important innovations that will drive down the cost of cloud gaming is ARM microservers.
ARM microservers are a new category of servers built on a large number of low-cost ARM Systems on a Chip (SoCs). Many upcoming ARM microservers use the same SoCs as mobile devices, so they natively support mobile graphics APIs. Any mobile app developed for mobile devices should be able to run on a microserver without modification. Hosted games can depend on back-end servers for pre-rendering, match making, and other many other offload functionalities without any network, bandwidth or battery usage restrictions posed by a game running directly on a tablet or smartphone.
Mobile Gaming as a Service will allow mobile games to come closer in quality to console and PC games because it frees developers of disk size and component limitations. It will also empower game developers to build bigger, better games without losing sleep about piracy. The future of mobile gaming will be in the cloud.
[ii] http://fortune.com/2015/01/15/mobile-console-game-revenues-2015/; the author of this blog post has personally experienced similar increases in time spent on mobile games.