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Cloud gaming: What can businesses learn from the realm of the joypad?

Is there a link between cloud gaming and business value? Jane McCallion finds out what firms can and should learn...

A gaming monitor on a desk with speakers and a PC

The idea that gaming should be brought into the workplace is one that many executives would shy away from.

After all, who wants their staff playing games when they should be working? Yet, increasingly, businesses are realising that principles taken from gaming, and in particular cloud gaming, can be used to increase employee engagement and drive value in their companies. And what business isn't interested in adding value, not least to the bottom line?

Cloud gaming explained

Cloud gaming falls broadly into three categories: Pure, Social and Hybrid. While each one is distinct in its properties, the overarching principle is that game data is stored remotely for players to access from multiple locations and devices, much like any other Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offering.

The most well known, and some might say infamous, example of pure cloud gaming is OnLive. The platform was founded in San Francisco in 2003 and, since then, more than 50 publishers, including big names such as Ubisoft, Sega and Eidos Interactive have partnered with OnLive to make hundreds of games available via the service. Players can access games using devices running on Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Android and iOS operating systems.

OnLive’s proposition is simple: any user can play any game regardless of the specifications of their computer or mobile device. This is because the games are rendered remotely on OnLive’s servers and delivered via the internet to the player’s screen, allowing even those with low-end computers to play in high definition.

OnLive’s recent financial troubles and subsequent restructuring have been well documented, however it is not the only firm to provide a pure cloud gaming service. Gaikai, founded by creator of Earthworm Jim and Enter the Matrix, David Perry, also allows gamers to play high-end games on any internet-connected device regardless of its own specifications. The company has enjoyed a great deal of success and on 2 July 2012 was acquired by Sony Computer Entertainment for $380 million (£240 million).

While OnLive, Gaikai and Dutch company Kalydo may offer the ‘purest’ form of cloud gaming (in that everything is processed and held remotely), they are neither as well known nor as widely used as Social and Hybrid platforms. And it is these services, perhaps, that have the most to teach the business world.

Hybrid gaming

While there are an increasing number of hybrid cloud gaming platforms available, the best known and most widely used are Blizzard’s Battle.net service and Valve’s Steam network. They have approximately 70 million active users between them. 

The business models of the services is quite distinct. Battle.net only offers proprietary games, such as Diablo IIIWorld of Warcraft and Starcraft while Steam also distributes third-party games. However, the way they operate underneath and a number of other features are the same. The reason for calling these two platforms - and those like them - hybrid is that although a player’s saved games and milestones are saved remotely to the service provider’s cloud, they rely on the specifications of the device in order to run properly. Additionally, both Steam and Battle.net take up some room on the user’s hard drive.

The fact these services depend on the device’s hardware specifications and use up some memory, even if it is not necessarily a large amount (around 15,000-21,000KB on a desktop PC for Steam, although it can reach up to 30,000KB) has led some to argue they are not cloud platforms at all.

Nevertheless others in the cloud industry, such as Rackspace’s Nigel Beighton, have told Cloud Pro they believe they are cloud platforms, as the majority of user data is saved remotely and the space available for saving grows or shrinks automatically in response to users’ needs.

Lessons for business?

Where SMBs can learn from hybrid cloud gaming is primarily through achievements and leader boards that are incorporated into games. Players have certain goals to work towards, with varying levels of difficulty in achieving them. As these achievements are stored in the cloud, users can compare their progress with that of others in the wider and global gaming community. In addition, they can see, in real-time, how they are performing compared to everyone else. This drives behaviours such as repeat playing of a game in order to achieve more and a desire to boost performance. 

Increasingly, companies are realising this achievement-oriented aspect of cloud gaming can be used within their business to change behaviour and achieve wider business goals. This process has been dubbed 'gamification'.

“[Gamification] should not be confused with ‘playing games’, it is about appealing to people’s psyche and what motivates people [in order to] engage them and change their behaviour,” Peter Grant, CEO of cloud-based sustainability software firm and developer of SuMo, CloudApps, told Cloud Pro.

“Before you can change people’s behaviour, you need to change their belief system, [by making them] conscious of their actions. Then you motivate them and embed effectively a competitive element and that is when the gaming kicks in.”

Grant added: “People also forget it is not all about money – a huge amount of it is about recognition, [which is] really important for employees. If they do something good for your organisation, they like to be recognised, whether that be getting towards the top of the leader board or getting a call from the CEO or employee of the month. And the fact ... everybody can see is a huge motivator for people and shows the company is listening as well."

Social gaming

The final category of cloud gaming is Social. This is a type of gaming that many people will be familiar with, but may not necessarily have thought of as a cloud platform. The biggest name in this space is Zynga, whose titles such as FarmVilleChefVille and Bubble Safari are primarily distributed through Facebook. However, some of the bigger and older developers, such as EA are also entering this field.

Social cloud gaming has a number of distinct characteristics that separate it from Hybrid cloud gaming. That said, such traits are equally useful in gamification. Firstly, they rely on social networks in order to spread the message of how people are performing. While Steam can be linked to Facebook if the user so wishes, this is an automatic and integral part of the Social cloud gaming experience, and is the main appeal for players.

While there are often no leader boards, users achieve as they progress through the game, such as harvesting their first field of corn or buying their first tractor. These achievements are then automatically shared with friends via the social network. When this principle is applied in the workplace, such achievements can be shared via an internal social network or, if that is absent, the company’s intranet.

The second differentiation is short cycles within the games. Each level or progression element only lasts a few minutes (e.g. between sowing your crop and harvesting it, or between firing your first Angry Bird and winning or failing the level), even as you reach the more difficult levels.

Peter Hofstede, game development director at social games producer Spil Games, believes this is a key part of Social cloud gaming’s keen uptake.

“This has been proven to be a very successful model to keep people engaged and has been used in social games, you have all these missions and when you finish one thing there is another thing waiting for you. There is constantly something that keeps you playing and this is something people find quite rewarding," he said. 

“[Furthermore] it is the kind of design lesson that ... can be reused in every type of gaming, including gamification."

Finally, Social cloud gaming is also multi-device oriented by design. That is, this type of game will operate equally well on a smartphone or tablet as on a desktop or laptop computer.

Alex Wentzo, CEO of Casewise, which develops gamification software, told Cloud Pro he believes this technology has become  an important trend within businesses.

“Ten years, ago Apple produced the first iPhone and had the very clever idea of creating the App Store with some of the first games on it. People started using their handsets as a small gaming device. Now everyone has a mobile device and everyone uses it to get some distraction, maybe listening to their music, but mostly games," he said.

"Because of the explosion of mobile devices, the culture has drastically changed. People are now able to bring their mobile device to work and they expect their employers to use the same technology."

He added: “This change in culture, which is being pushed from the consumer to the enterprise world, is a revolution. Gamification is a response to something the consumer is using every day. It is not only a trend, it is a new way of working. We have to accept it."

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