Gaming may soon see its Netflix moment. Already, you can play Doom – a graphics-intensive computer game requiring split-second decision-making – over the internet without downloading it. Even on an old Macbook Air, the lag is barely noticeable. All you need is a fast internet connection.
This feat is being achieved on a daily basis by a Moscow-headquartered startup called PlayKey. Users pay a fee to connect to the company’s servers, which hosts its wide selection of game titles. The gamer’s commands are sent from a personal computer to the server and back. It is like streaming a show on Netflix – except you dictate what happens in the story.
“We’re trying to move everything to the cloud,” Egor Gurjev, co-founder and CEO of PlayKey tells Tech in Asia.
PlayKey is seeing traction on the business side too. While the five-year-old company is not profitable yet because it is investing money in expansion, it claims to be seeing strong growth:
To be sure, PlayKey is not the only game in town. GeForce Now, LiquidSky, and PlayStation Now offer similar experiences.
There’s no certainty this form of “cloud gaming” will become mainstream. These services may face a common obstacle: Imagine needing to purchase a movie on top of paying a monthly fee just to watch it on Netflix. That is the current situation with cloud gaming, and game publishers are unlikely to budge.
“They like the transactional model, and only a few games are sold on a subscription,” says Gurjev. Yet, he adds that users still get cost savings from not needing to purchase a brand new computer just to play the latest titles.
PlayKey thinks it has another ace up its sleeve: the blockchain. Running a game streaming service is costly because of the specialized servers needed. Amazon Web Services will not do.
To serve its users, PlayKey leases over a hundred Nvidia Grid servers – which are ideal for graphics-intensive applications – in four spots around the world. It’s planning a fifth location in Singapore that will cater to Asians.
The blockchain could eliminate the need for centralized servers entirely. Gurjev envisions a global decentralized network involving two groups of people: gamers and miners. Gamers pay miners PlayKey’s unique digital tokens – called PKTs – in order to access their computers.
If enough miners come on board, gamers would be able to stream from a computer that is in their neighborhood. As a result, PlayKey can expand without investing in physical infrastructure. Gamers get a better experience with close proximity to a server. Miners earn PKTs for serving gamers, and the tokens can be exchanged for Ethereum and other currencies.
A crucial piece of this network – which will be built on top of the public Ethereum blockchain – is the smart contract between miner and gamer.
Miners need to ensure a smooth performance for gamers in order to get the tokens, and the smart contract enforces that by automatically tracking video frame rates, disconnections, and other data. For a start, the company plans to approach professional cryptocurrency miners first because they already have the rigs set up.
“They won’t switch off their PCs if somebody is playing on them,” says Gurjev.
Upending the gaming ecosystem
To raise funds for this network, PlayKey is preparing for an initial coin offering (ICO), which is slated to start on November 1.
Gurjev wants to outdo typical ICOs by giving potential investors more than just a whitepaper to sink their teeth into. Already, his team of 45 people has built a working prototype in which a gamer can pay the miner tokens and play games reliably on the remote computer. Now, they are looking to scale this up to more users and computers, and allow people to access the system without assistance.
If PlayKey succeeds, it can eat into the hardware industry. After all, why splurge on a Razer gaming laptop if your beat-up Macbook can play the latest games at maximum graphics settings without missing a beat?
“We believe there is no need to buy expensive or power computers, especially if you’re a gamer who only plays several hours a week,” says Gurjev.
Further, the startup has ambitions beyond providing an affordable means to play the top games. It plans to set up the PlayKey Foundation, which will fund itself by acting as a toll gate for the entire network. The money will be used to develop an ecosystem of game publishers and developers, competitive gamers, as well as esports enthusiasts.
A game publisher would be able to sell a new product directly within the PlayKey network to miners, who would then attract gamers with the latest titles.
In other words, it could disrupt existing games publishers and distributors like Blizzard, Steam, and Valve, who require users to download games onto personal devices.
And let us not forget the other big elephants in the room: PlayStation and Xbox.
“The next generation of [gaming] consoles could be the last one that is based on hardware,” says Gurjev.
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