Square Enix is quick to point out that Project Flare, their upcoming foray into the world of cloud gaming, is not like the systems you already know. “Gaikai and OnLive are ‘streamed’ games. Not really ‘cloud’ games,” says Jacob Navok, director of business development for Square Enix. “[Flare] replaces the console with a supercomputer.”
There aren’t a lot of hard details about Project Flare today. There is no set business model in place, and outside of Ubisoft, most of the business partners are still being locked down. Square Enix sees this more as an statement of intent: They want other developers to know what they’re working on and why they think it’s the future.
The development house behind Final Fantasy decided to get into cloud gaming because they didn’t see the technological advancements they’ve been expecting in the field. “[Flare] separates computer processing from rendering processing. We separate the CPU from the GPU. Some games are compute heavy, and some games are rendering heavy. And you can’t really balance them when they running on one, single processing unit. But Flare introduces an exponentially scalable system that isn’t possible with streaming games.”
“Everything in current streaming games is running in its own individual instance.” Flare, instead “creates one instance and shares those resources...Supercomputer-like experiences are possible with Project Flare through a unique, patented architecture that enables cost-efficient scalability and processing power through which images are streamed as video.”
The technology sounds far-fetched, but Navok moves on to the visual demos to give me a better understand of the service. I look at an image of a meteor crashing into the earth with rock particles exploding violently outward. “If you wanted to do this kind of scene in a highly realistic way, something that looks like a Hollywood special effect or movie, you’d have to take hours to render each single frame. We only have milliseconds to do that in a game. So it would be practically impossible to do this in a place where we only have one chip lying under someone’s TV.”
Next, he shows me Square Enix’s MMO Final Fantasy XI, but laments that you don’t know that much about what your other party members are doing. “All I have is a little bar on the outside. But everything's just shared data. Everything is just a little video screen. So why shouldn’t I be able to see exactly what my party is seeing.” Smaller screens showing each of his other party members pop-up on the side of the screen as he continues, “Why can’t I zap to another town just by clicking on somebody else’s video screen and instantly be next to them?”
Navok moves on to a video of Deus Ex streaming on screen but with an impossible number of crates. Something that seems like it would cause horrible slowdown in even a behemoth of a machine. But the framerate barely registers. The next demo lets me manipulate incredibly high resolution character models and a flying dragon streaming live over a tablet while manipulating the camera.
But all of this goes beyond just offering a new game delivery service. One of the possibilities Navok sees is an entirely new game where you leap from screen to screen traversing puzzles designed around multiple users playing simultaneously. “Game design itself could change radically.” Navok says. “If I had Deus Ex, which is a stealth game, and I added video screens to it from around the world, it could start to be a strategy game, because I have to keep in mind all the other things that are happening in this world as I’m going through the game. ”
It may still be a far off idea, but Navok says, “Why should we be designing all this content ourselves? Why shouldn’t we take Google Maps to design our cities, traffic data, or weather patterns? Why shouldn’t we be using IBM’s Watson to power our AI? We don’t have to worry about the connection coming to the local client anymore, everything’s going to a data center; it’s going to be very fast.”
“Cities in a game tend to have a couple people, and a few cars.” He stresses that you can’t render a real crowded city because it would just “overload the processor” without even thinking about the AI and other considerations. Flare will solve that by providing the processing power to render a realistic, elbow-to-elbow croweded city street like downtown New York.
But does all this mean Square Enix will be abandoning the current hardware model in favor of a new streaming business model, or is there a system that they hope to outsource? “We’re very open,” Navok says. “We could be working with Sony or a console company. We could be working with Valve or one of the other companies. We could be doing it ourselves. We don’t know yet.”
Project Flare is still a couple years from being a consumer-ready product, but whatever form the cloud service ultimately takes, Square Enix hopes it will change gaming in ways even they can't foresee.