You probably know the name Cloudgine as the company behind the cloud technology that powers Crackdown 3 for Xbox One and PC.
Yet the studio, led by original Crackdown Director Dave Jones and CEO Maurizio Sciglio, is looking beyond a single platform or two. They’re currently developing their cloud technology based on similar principles of the one used on Crackdown 3 (which has recently been delayed to spring 2018), but built to work on all platforms.
Recently, following the reveal of the tech showcase game They Came From Space, DualShockers had a chat with Jones and Sciglio, getting the lowdown on how Cloudgine works and what it can do.
The tech has been worked on for about three to four years now. A lot of that time has been spent doing a lot of research and development on the Project. The principle was first applied to Crackdown 3, and then the studio moved on to expand it to a different environment – virtual reality – generating They Came From Space. The game is primarily a technical showpiece to display the technology.
The internet bandwidth necessary on the user’s end for the tech to work depends on the game. The technology itself allows developers to go “really, really wide” in terms of complexity. For instance, Crackdown 3 requires two megabits. The system is scalable: if there is a drop in bandwidth, for instance because the end user is using Netflix at the same time, the result may be lower quality from a cosmetic point of view for a limited time, but the gameplay won’t be impacted. There is a compression system in place that is designed to adapt to the available bandwidth.
For Crackdown 3, developers adopted a physics engine based on Havoc, while Cloudgine’s own tech can support both Havoc and PhysX. In fact, They Came From Space is based on PhysX. The tech is effectively engine-agnostic and cloud-agnostic. It’s designed to use any viable solution, and both Jones and Sciglio confirmed that game developers could use it to run on PS4, Switch and more.
Even if it’s cloud-agnostic, the tech of course requires servers to run its calculations. While a cloud setup is not specifically necessary, the easiest available way to get large amounts of compute power is a hardware cloud like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft’s Azure or Google Cloud.
Speaking of They Came From Space specifically, the idea started with Cloudgine’s earlier game Toybox. It’s a social experience where the player with a VR headset is at the center of the game wreaking havoc, but since not everyone has the equipment, the developers thought to give players on standard PCs the ability to play in the same space. That also allows to experiment on whether it’s financially viable to make a VR game right now, since that is still a challenge.
This ended up being a great showcase for the technology, since with virtual reality you have to run the game at least at 90 frames per second. That takes a lot of computing power, which means that VR games often have to skimp on things like AI and physics. With Cloudgine’s tech, this issue is solved, because those elements can run in the cloud, allowing the local PC to focus on rendering.
Another component of the game is streaming, and that’s pretty much the icing on the cake. Streaming in VR is quite difficult, as the output from the headset is in 2D, and it’s not a good experience for viewers. GPUs in the cloud are very viable and cost-effective nowadays, so the developers found out that they could do a full render of the game on a GPU in the cloud, and then just stream that as an external camera.
This has two further advantages: many who live in countries that don’t have extensive cable internet coverage are stuck with DSL, which has very limited upstream bandwidth. Streaming directly from a GPU in the cloud allows them to stream their gameplay without relying on their own internet connection. On top of that, even from a hardware perspective, streaming video places a burden on the system’s resources, reducing performance. The issue is completely eliminated using this method.
Speaking of upstream bandwidth, it’s not a concern to use Cloudgine’s tech in general, as it’s very light on the upload side. All you have to send to the servers is – similarity to any MMORPG or online game – little more than the input from your controller, and your voice if the game supports that.
The development team would actually love to port They Came From Space to consoles. One of the goals of launching it on PC is to gather reactions and feedback, and if there was a console partner that wants the game on its platform, or a publisher that wants to release it on consoles, the folks at Cloudgine would be more than happy to talk about the possibility. They’re very open to this kind of discussion, even more so because it’d allow them to showcase the technology on more platforms.
When the team built the technology, one of its main design goals was to make the investment in cloud computing and servers very low for the developers using it. There is also full integration with Unreal Engine and Unity. Of course the investment in server power depends on the game, and on how intense the physics simulation is. A game with an extreme amount of physics would result in a “marginally higher” hosting cost compared to what you would have for a normal multiplayer game.
Considering that there are a lot of single player games that require internet connectivity, Cloudgine’s tech could also be used – unlike Crackdown 3 – for single player games as well. According to Sciglio and Jones, applications beyond physics could encompass complex AI. One of the goals of the project is to get the tech in the hand of as many developers as possible, and see what they do with it. Among them, there will be probably some that will create single player experiences.
Speaking of applications, all the compute aspects of a game can be run with the same technology that is used for physics. Complex AI behavior is going to be the next natural step, global illumination is another, on top of dynamic pathfinding and navigation.
Interestingly, we also hear that there are opportunities to support the GPU’s workload from the server, running some of the complex rendering tasks in the cloud instead than on the local machine, and allowing it to perform beyond its hardware capabilities.
Quite a few developers have already been contacting Cloudgine to use the tech. On their side, the team is working on making the technology adaptable, so that external developers can use it without needing bespoke solutions. On the other side, studios require some lead time to come up with designs and prototypes, so there will be a bit of ramp-up time before we see the reveal of many new games developed with Cloudgine’s tech, but once they will appear “we’ll see some interesting new concepts.”
On top of that, Cloudgine itself will create more little games like They Came From Space. They like to do game jams to see what kind of projects their own developers can come up with, and spark the imagination of other studios as well.
According to Jones, there is so much more to do in order to create fully living and breathing dynamic worlds. Cloudgine wants to be part of that future. As video games keep evolving, developers are always going to want more power. Most advances in the past few years have gone into rendering technology, with the introduction of 4K resolution, HDR, and more. CPUs have been lagging behind a bit, and Jones feels that this tech is going to open up a lot more compute power for other aspects of the games, to work alongside the power of the GPUs.
Many games can run quite fine for most of the time with the current CPUs, but then there are moments in which compute requirements spike – and this happens a lot with AI – and cloud technology is very good at dealing with it, as it can adapt dynamically to provide exactly the resources that are needed.
According to Sciglio, PS4 Pro and Xbox One X are great from a rendering perspective, with the ability to display 4K resolution, but not so much from a CPU perspective. Yet, they still work well with Cloudgine’s tech, because they can render more objects, and that allows the cloud to simulate more objects on the back end, empowering developers to push the tech even further.
Interestingly, Jones mentioned that Cloudgine’s tech could even help with compatibility between standard PS4 and Xbox One, and their upgraded versions, PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. If a developer creates a game that runs well on the newer version of a console, but the original hardware can’t run it because it doesn’t have enough compute power, using the cloud on the older console could be an option to bridge the gap.