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What latency feels like on Google’s Stadia cloud gaming platform – TechCrunch

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After peppering Google employees with questions regarding Stadia’s latency, pricing and supported devices, to mostly no avail, I got my hands on one of their new controllers and pressed play on the Doom 2016 gameplay they were showing off on a big-screen TV.

Things started off pretty ugly. The frame rate dropped to a fast-paced PowerPoint presentation, the resolution dipped between 4K crispness and indecipherable blurriness and latency seemed to be as much as a half-second. As the Google employees looked nervously at each other, someone grabbed the controller from me and restarted the system.

After a system restart, things moved along much, much more smoothly. But what the situation sums up is that when it comes to game streaming, things can be unpredictable. To give Google credit, they stress-tested their system by running Stadia on hotel Wi-Fi rather than taking me down to Mountain View and letting me play with Stadia under much more controlled conditions.

Stadia is Google’s cloud game-streaming service and, while there’s a lot we don’t know, the basic tenets are clear. It moves console-level gaming online into your Chrome browser and lets you access it from devices like smartphones that wouldn’t be able to handle the GPU-load initially.

Despite the initial hiccup, my experience with Stadia was largely positive. Doom 2016 was in crisp 4K and I was able to focus on the game without thinking about the service I was playing it on, which is ultimately the best endorsement of a new platform like this.

This will likely be a great service for more casual gamers, but might not be the best fit for the most hardcore users playing multi-player titles. While you may be launching this service directly from YouTube feeds of esports gamers, this is something they probably wouldn’t use. That’s because the latency between input and something being displayed onscreen isn’t imperceptible, though it’s probably good enough for the vast majority of users (myself included), which is still a worthy prize for the company’s efforts to take on the massive gaming market.

Google Stadia VP Phil Harrison wouldn’t give me a proper range of where exactly latency fell, but he did say it was less than the time it took for a human to perceive something and react — which another Google employee then told me differed person-to-person, but was generally 70ms-130ms — so I suppose the most official number we’ll get is that the latency is probably somewhere less than 70ms.

There is no hard truth here, though, because latency will really depend on your geographic proximity to the data center. Being in San Francisco, I connected to a data center roughly 50 miles away in San Jose. Google confirmed to me that not all rural users in supported countries will be able to signup for the service at launch because of this.

Other interesting things to note:

  • Google said they’d confirm devices later, but when asked about iOS support at launch they highlighted that they were focused on Pixel devices at launch.
  • It doesn’t sound like you’ll be able to restore purchases of games you’ve previously gotten; you’ll unsurprisingly have to buy all of your Stadia titles on the platform.
  • You’ll be able to access games from YouTube streams, but there will also be an online hub for all your content and you can access games via links.
  • The controller was nice and probably felt most similar to the design of Sony’s DualShock controller.

We’ll probably be hearing a lot more at Google I/O this summer, but with my first hands-on demo, the service certainly works and it certainly feels console-quality. The big freaking question is how Google prices this, because that pricing is going to determine whether it’s a service for casual gamers or hardcore gamers, and that will determine whether it’s a success.

Update: We were playing a level from Doom 2016, not Doom Eternal

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Valve promises Steam Deck will run “the entire Steam library” at 30+ fps

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Valve expects that its recently announced Steam Deck portable gaming console will be able to run “really the entire Steam library” on its 1280×800 LCD screen at frame rates of 30 fps or higher.

That’s according to a recent IGN video interview in which Valve Hardware Engineer Yazan Aldehayyat said that “all the games that we wanted to be playable had really good [performance], a really good experience” in Steam Deck testing. Valve developer Pierre-Loup Griffais expanded on that by saying that “all the games that we wanted to be playable” means “really the entire Steam library. We haven’t really found something we could throw at this device that it couldn’t handle yet.”

Griffais said initial prototype testing for the Steam Deck focused on older games in the Steam catalog and that there were “games that were coming out last year that just couldn’t really run very well on the previous types of prototypes and architectures we were testing.” On the finalized version of the hardware, though, he said the company has “achieved the level of performance that is required to run the latest generation of games without a problem.”

“The entire Steam catalog is available to people who have this device,” Aldehayyat added. “That’s where we knew we had a product that was going to deliver the experience we were looking for.”

Aldehayyat attributed Steam Deck’s wide compatibility in part to “future-proofing” internals that include a custom APU incorporating AMD’s latest generation of GPU and CPU technology, as well as 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM. Griffais added that the extreme performance scalability of modern PC games also helps Steam Deck achieve a playable frame rate at its native 800p resolution (which is relatively low compared to desktop gaming PCs).

“If people are still valuing high frame rates and high resolutions on different platforms, I think that content will scale down to our 800p, 30Hz target very well,” he said. “If people start heavily favoring image quality, we might be in a position where we might have tradeoffs, but we’re not in a position where we really see that yet.”

In a follow-up tweet late last week, Griffais clarified that the 30 fps target is the “floor” for what Valve considers playable: “games we’ve tested and shown have consistently met and exceeded that bar so far. There will also be an optional built-in FPS limiter to fine-tune perf[ormance] vs. battery life.”

Steam Deck will come preinstalled with Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS, which can run native Linux games as well as thousands of Windows-based games through a Proton-powered compatibility layer. Steam Deck owners will also be able to install their own OS on the device, including Windows.

Elsewhere in the interview, Aldehayyat said Valve spent a lot of time optimizing Steam Deck’s SD card connection so that games stored there should be “comparable” to those stored on the internal SSD storage. He added that the NVMe storage was connected in a separate module and not directly on the motherboard, which could suggest it will be possible to replace as time goes on.

Listing image by Valve

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MS Flight Simulator on consoles: Finally, a next-gen game for Xbox Series X/S

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When I think of the history of game consoles, I think of flight simulators.

Nintendo in particular has leveraged the “Pilotwings” name not once, not twice, but thrice to show off brand-new tech over various generations. I have long loved that approach. Pilotwings games err on the side of minimal challenge and maximum relaxation, arguably to let players calmly absorb the newest 3D-rendering tricks of each era.

I think about that strategy now because Microsoft Flight Simulator is launching on Xbox Series X/S this week. Since it’s roughly eight months out from those consoles’ launches, it doesn’t count as a “launch” game. But Microsoft Flight Simulator is honestly the first true “next-gen” first-party console game in Xbox’s latest era. Part of that next-gen quality is because this game, unlike other first-party fare, has no “backwards compatibility” path to the older Xbox One family.

It doesn’t take long to realize why. After a tremendous launch on PCs last year, MSFS has now emerged as a living room game with an emphasis on relaxed, Pilotwings-like trips across the entire globe. In good news, it sets a new bar for 3D rendering performance on consoles, and it stands head and shoulders above all other console games at this time. But its PC heritage lingers in the form of some clunkiness. Flight-sim novices—particularly those who claim the game as part of their Game Pass subscriptions—should brace themselves for control- and interface-related turbulence.

Getting up to speed—and that’s a lot of knots

If you’re unfamiliar with MSFS‘s latest incarnation, my report on its reveal nearly two years ago is a good starting point. Much of what I said then (and what I said in a follow-up look at its 2020 beta) is still true. MSFS 2020 combines Bing’s world-mapping data, Azure’s data-processing centers, and some fantastic rendering engine technology to open the entire Earth to unfettered flight. That dev team, lead by the French studio Asobo, employs a lot of clever procedural generation to turn blurry map data into convincing cities, forests, oceans, and valleys for you to fly over.

Since the game’s launch on PC, Asobo has been vocal and transparent about its efforts to spruce up and fine-tune its plane physics simulations, which account for air pressure, heat, and other weather variables. The results have been generally well received by the flight-sim community, and the trade-off for so much beauty and world detail by default is milder physics realism and fewer customization options than rival PC flight sims like X-Plane 11 or Prepar3D. Still, this version of MSFS is Microsoft’s most competent flyer yet.

One point of community contention, however, is MSFS‘s notoriously uneven performance across a variety of PCs. Performance hitches and stutters are more often the rule rather than the exception, while massive download requirements for various patches haven’t necessarily curried favor with PC players. MS and Asobo have promised PC version optimization as far back as the game’s July 2020 beta period, yet to this day, the PC version pulls powerful CPUs and GPUs to their knees at even “mid-high” settings, let alone with unnecessarily maxed graphics sliders.

In terms of CPU optimization, we’re now in “better late than never” territory, because the Xbox Series X/S ports are clearly running on an updated, focused version of the engine. Holy cow, are the results tremendous.

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Zombies rise, terrorize a town in trailer for SyFy’s Day of the Dead series

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At this year’s Comic-Con@home, SyFy dropped the first trailer for its new series, Day of the Dead—the ultimate love letter to the godfather of zombies, George A. Romero.

Somehow I missed the news last February that SyFy had greenlit a TV reboot of George A. Romero’s classic 1985 zombie horror film, Day of the Dead—just before the widespread onset of a deadly global pandemic, no less. And somehow the series managed to get into production despite all the shutdowns. SyFy dropped the official trailer for the ten-episode series during a panel at Comic-Con@home, with a planned premiere date this October, just in time for Halloween. You can watch the full 45-minute panel here.

The original Day of the Dead was the third in a trilogy of films that launched a franchise, preceded by Night of the Living the Dead (1968) and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Romero originally envisioned Day of the Dead as the Gone With the Wind of zombie movies, but disagreements with the studio over a proposed R-rating—Romero wanted the film to be unrated—meant that the director ended up with half his original budget (about $4 million). He was forced to scale back his vision substantially, so much of the film takes place in a secure underground bunker in the Everglades, where tensions rise between the scientists and soldiers on-site.

Romero has said that Day of the Dead is his favorite within the franchise, although it has the lowest “fresh” rating (83 percent) on Rotten Tomatoes of the initial trilogy. It only grossed $34 million worldwide (mostly from VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray releases), but it still left its mark on popular culture. The pseudo-civilized zombie “Bub” made a cameo on a S4 episode of The Walking Dead as one of the “walkers” encountered in a railroad tunnel. And in Stranger Things S3 (set in 1985), the teens all sneak into a mall theater to watch an early screening of Day of the Dead. Three more films in the franchise were released in 2005, 2007, and 2009, and Night of the Living Dead II is currently in production, slated for a 2022 release. Three of the original cast members from Day of the Dead will reprise their roles in that film.

Back when the SyFy project was announced, the official logline for the Day of the Dead TV series described it as “the intense story of six strangers trying to survive the first 24 hours of an undead invasion.” It was always intended as an ode to Romero, who pretty much pioneered the entire genre. “Night of the Living Dead was in 1968, and we’re still, every time zombies come up, we talk about Romero,” co-showrunner (with Jed Elinoff) Scott Thomas said during the panel. “He established what we know as the modern zombie… and he did it in a way that also added social commentary. Every single zombie movie or TV show or graphic novel owes Romero for his legacy.”

Judging from the trailer, we’ll get our share of zombie-fueled gore: limbs torn off, disembowelment, and of course, the consumption of tasty brains. There will also be Easter eggs scattered throughout the series for eagle-eyed fans, per Thomas. Personally, I’m hoping to see Bub again (with his mocking salute), and maybe even makeup/special effects master Tom Savini, a crew member on the original trilogy. (Savini made surprise cameo appearances as an actor in last year’s NOS4A2 and Locke and Key.)

That said, the series will also depart significantly from those classic Romero movies. For instance, it looks like there be a lot more humor. And while the show will feature the classic Romero “slow” zombies, Thomas said that the zombie invasion will not be the result of an outbreak that starts turning everyone into zombies. Rather, it will be a scenario where the dead start coming back to life and eating the residents of the small town in which the story takes place. (In that respect, it resembles the premise of 2019’s The Dead Don’t Die.) And the zombies cannot be killed as easily by a simple shot to the head, according to Thomas, which should up the stakes even more.

Day of the Dead premieres on SyFy in October 2021. The cast includes Natalie Malaika as Lauren Howell, Keenan Tracey as Cam McDermott, Daniel Doheny as Luke Bowman, Morgan Holmstrom as Sarah Blackwood, Miranda Frigon as Paula Bowman, Deejan Loyola as Jai Fisher, Kristy Dawn Dinsmore as Amy, Christopher Russell as Trey Bowman, Matty Finochio as Bobby Hart, Kevin O’Grady as Rhodes, Lucia Walters as Logan, Stefanie von Pfetten as Cindy, Darryl Scheelar as Magnum, Trezzo Mahoro as Trent, Caitlin Stryker as Nicole, and Marci T. House as Captain Pike. One assumes a few of those cast members will end up as zombie food.

 

Listing image by YouTube/SYFY

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