“Cloud gaming has become the killer service for 5G.” This may look like a bold statement, but Olivier Avaro believes games are, well, a game-changer in the mobile world. “It’s great for industrial applications and so on, but if you want to sell 5G to the general public you can’t sell more Spotify or more Netflix; you want something new. So there has been a nice conjunction of the planets here.”
Avaro, the CEO of Blacknut, was chatting with 6GWorld recently. The company sits in a unique position to discuss the interplay between telecom networks and the gaming industry.
“We are like Netflix but for video games, in the sense that we acquire licenses for games. With Blacknut you pay a subscription fee to get access to content. We bring gaming experiences to end users that they would not otherwise have to play on their mobile devices because it takes too much power, too much processing in the CPU, storage – all this kind of thing.”
This sounds vaguely familiar – isn’t this what services like Google Stadia do as well? Not really. Avaro explains that subscribing to Stadia gives you essentially a cloud-based console which you can then buy games for. “It’s not a content offering, it’s an infrastructure offering – a rental model for a console that’s in the cloud,” he noted. By contrast, Blacknut provides direct access to games.
Cloud, 5G and Gaming: the Planets Align
“Cloud gaming has been here for quite a while in terms of technology, but still there hasn’t been a Netflix for games as there has been a Netflix or Spotify,” Avaro noted. “The main reason is the network infrastructure was not fully ready to support this kind of service.”
This is changing, however. While Blacknut is a relatively young company, it has partnered with mobile operators in a variety of countries where, frequently, it is bundled into their 5G offering.
“There is a triangle between the users, the carrier strategies, and the gaming industry,” Avaro observed. With the rollout of 5G they are currently interacting in a virtuous cycle, he believes.
“If you look at what 5G enabled… in a region where you already had broadband deployed, it’s really enabled them to provide the same kind of experience on the move; to have the cloud gaming experience anywhere. It’s not something you could do with 3G and 4G because of the instability of the network, because of the latency… 5G in these countries has been an extension of the indoor fibre experience everywhere.
“And if you look at countries that are not well equipped with broadband or consoles, you’ve basically opened up a completely new world because 5G allows you to transform your mobile device into a gaming console. And that is really a new enabler for 5G.”
Cloud gaming is one thing, but what does a new focus on edge computing do for Blacknut? Unsurprisingly, Avaro is positive about it.
“Bringing the compute closer to the end user is going to remove the latency, improve the experience, and from a general family audience we will be able to serve the requirements of an audience that is a bit more advanced in terms of experience, targeting those serious gamers and eSports.”
Beyond Today: The Next Steps in Cloud Gaming
6GWorld couldn’t resist asking where, in Avaro’s opinion, the next frontiers of gaming lie and whether that will lend itself to a closer connection between gaming and the underlying network. After all, we have seen some exciting demos of the internet of senses and AR/VR has been around a while. Or will holograms be the next frontier? Avaro is more pragmatic, at least for the next couple of years, pointing out that streaming console-quality games is still quite a new service.
“We are doing some experiments with a big network manufacturer where we can get dynamic information from the network. We can see how the network is evolving so that we can adapt the streaming capacity and ensure the streaming experience remains better. Instead of having games freeze and then increasing the capacity, we can look at trends and say ‘You know what? Your cell is becoming a bit crowded, you should do something to maintain your bitrate’. If you can see this in advance the experience is better – the user doesn’t struggle or lose the network.”
While this isn’t sexy or headline-grabbing, it may be the difference between a successful service and disappointment. By contrast, VR has a number of drawbacks the market has yet to overcome: The cost of purchasing a headset, the bulk of it, and a shortage of services tailor-made for VR… “We are still very, very far from the arrival of VR as a mass-market technology,” Avaro observed. “I see it in entertainment parks and these kinds of specific spots, I think it’s great, but I don’t see it as a mass market.”
That said, looking only slightly further out there are some reasons why the telecoms sector can start to get excited about a new generation of games that depend on the mobile network’s capabilities.
Cloud to Cloud-Native
“We are looking at a new kind of game that we call cloud-native games, which actually benefit from all the good things that 5G, cloud, and cloud gaming brings to build some new types of experiences. That is the part that really excites me, because here we’re not talking about the complete disruption for the user that VR is. I’m talking about an evolution of the cloud gaming service that benefits from the advance of the networks.”
If it’s not immediately obvious what difference is between having a cloud-native game and one essentially built for a console and pushed into the cloud, Avaro explains as much as he can. He is actively working with a number of games developers and is unable to go into too much detail. However, even this is tantalising.
“One of the first things that you can do with the fact that the game is in the cloud properly, is you can lightly and more easily access the game everywhere. Then, when you’re not limited by where you can play this game, that’s going to bring some innovative stuff,” Avaro began.
“If you take the same kind of game [as Fortnite] but you have the capability to play everywhere in physical locations… that’s probably where we can start to have a bit more AR. That, I think, would be really interesting because things can happen in relation to the virtual experience and the physical experience at the same time.
“That’s the kind of innovation I’m looking for, where you can play a game and you can connect real life and virtual games, and you can actually do it on the fly because of the infrastructure, because of the nature of the games, and because you can access this kind of virtual world on your mobile device.”
The possibilities now start to become clear. Location-based gaming isn’t new as a concept; for that matter, neither is AR, or tying together gaming and socialising. However, cloud-native gaming – and especially with the edge in the mix – might provide the performance that can blend these elements successfully and create a whole new kind of experience, not just console games on the move. Crucially, it gives the telecoms networks an important role in managing a service and opening up APIs on, for example, user location.
By coincidence, this announcement from the GSMA highlights the thinking that operators are putting into supporting gaming services at the edge. Crucially, in this trial of an open Telco Edge Cloud across different operators, the scalability and flexibility of a single integration across operators ties in with support for services that could be directly useful to games developers, such as spatial recognition and XR streaming. Now you can start to imagine an open world game taking place literally in the physical world, in real time.
Rather than being a bit pipe, all of a sudden the operator is a key part of the value chain. Avaro sums it up neatly:
“I think this is the most advanced, most promising and most interesting opportunity in this category of disruption. But in this case it’s disruption based on infrastructure and services that are already solid, and that has the potential to become mass-market.”
Alex Lawrence is Managing Editor at 6GWorld. His mission is to bring together stakeholders from across industries, countries and disciplines to make sure that, as technology evolves in the coming decade, it’s meeting the changing demands of society, government and business.
He has been involved as a professional nosy person in the telecoms sphere since 2004, with short detours through industrial O&M and marketing.
If you’d like to talk to Alex about your ideas or projects he’d love to hear from you. @animalawrence or firstname.lastname@example.org.