PlayStation has their streaming service, Google is trialling video games through Chrome and Ubisoft has been open about the next frontier of video games. It's all about the cloud, and we can now add EA to that list after the firm revealed it has more than 1000 staffers working on the cloud gaming project.
Ken Moss, EA's chief technology officer, has publicly revealed Project Atlas through a Medium post. It's largely an ambitious outline for the venture, and to a large extent outlines many of the advancements developers and game engines have made over the last decade.
Broadly, Project Atlas is designed to unify EA's backend with Frostbite and their existing infrastructure in a way that makes it more scalable with the use of cloud computing. It will also incorporate artificial intelligence into EA's existing systems.
But there are some notes there outlining what EA hopes Project Atlas will unlock, along with guidelines on how that will feed back into regular development. For instance, when talking about user-generated content:
We’ve been developing software that utilises the cloud to remotely process and stream blockbuster, multiplayer HD games with the lowest possible latency, and also to unlock even more possibilities for dynamic social and cross-platform play. Beyond that, we’re investing in cloud gaming to enable deeper personalisation, and to eventually create a world full of user generated content - blurring the lines between the discrete domains of game engines and game services. In fact, it is the merging of these two formerly distinct domains, along with the paradigm of cloud gaming, that is a key driver of the next-generation unified platform from EA.
Moss also described incorporating AI into commentary for sports games, allowing for more contextual remarks based off the current play rather than simple triggers:
For example, imagine that you’re playing Madden, and you’ve just thrown your second interception of the game against the same cover 2 defence that caused the first turnover. Instead of the commentator simply stating that you threw a pick, the AI enables contextual, real-time commentary to reference the fact that you’re throwing to the sideline against a cover 2 defence and should have thrown against the weak zone over the middle to your tight end, who was open on the route.
Using AI to generate ambient music and soundtracks for games was also mentioned. "Imagine a world where a huge and talented virtual orchestra is behind every game, and new and unique scores get written depending on the current scene you are playing," Moss wrote.
AI-powered asset generation was another potentially enormous benefit, saving hours if not weeks of work for individual artists. "In one example, we are using high-quality LIDAR data about real mountain ranges," Moss said, "passing that data through a deep neural network trained to create terrain-building algorithms, and then creating an algorithm which will be available within the platform’s development toolbox."
Project Atlas would also help EA develop games without the constraints of "individual systems":
Previously, any simulation or rendering of in-game action were either limited to the processing performance of the player’s console or PC, or to a single server that interacted with your system. By harnessing the power of the cloud, players can tap into a network of many servers, dedicated to computing complex tasks, working in tandem with their own devices, to deliver things like hyper-realistic destruction within new HD games, that is virtually indistinguishable from real life.
A simple example given was the battle royale genre. Games tend to have a maximum of 100 players due to the current constraints of consoles and gaming PCs, but relying on cloud computing could - in theory - overcome those technical restrictions to enable grander experiences. "Thousands of players could compete on a single map hundreds or thousands of kilometers wide, in a game session that could last for days, weeks, or years and with the progression and persistence of realistic seasons and campaigns," Moss said.
This is only some of the examples given, and much of it is still ambition at this point. But there are some real-world instances mentioned of how we might start to see this tech be deployed over the next five to ten years.
It's also just an interesting thought exercise: what kinds of games do you build when the crappy Jaguar CPU in your Xbox One or PS4 is no longer a problem? Rather than limiting yourself to how many people can be displayed on a screen at any one time, what's the maximum you would want to render? Will I finally be able to run Star Citizen at 60fps?
OK, I kid. But it's a provoking read nonetheless, so go check it out. It's also the kind of territory we'll hear publishers talk about more often, as they look towards the billions of gamers without consoles, computers and the hardware we take for granted.