G-Cluster Makes Games to Go
By Mark Frauenfelder, Tue Nov 06 00:00:00 GMT 2001

You've heard of distributed computing. But what about a centralized model for mobile devices?

Don't get me wrong; I've played some good games on mobile devices. A few of them are even excellent, like Mario Kart Super Circuit and Advance Wars for the GameBoy Advance.

But even they can't compare to the sophistication and excitement of a full-blown desktop PC or console game, simply because handheld devices don't have the necessary oomph to run processor-gluttonous titles like Doom or Half-Life. Handhelds are weaklings compared to full-size computers.

Frags on the run

So imagine my surprise when Mika Peltola, CEO of a video game platform developer called G-cluster, hands me a Compaq iPAQ pocket PC and says, "let's have a deathmatch." Dubiously, I grab the iPAQ and start fiddling with the buttons. The backlight blinks on, and there on the small screen is the familiar claustrophobic underground complex of the gory shoot 'em up.

As I press the iPAQ's navigational buttons the game's scenery changes as smoothly and as quickly as it would on a high power desktop computer. The sound is a little tinny coming out of the iPAQ's diminutive speaker, but I can clearly hear the sound of the explosive missile that Peltola's character fires into my character, sending it to an early digital grave.

"How did you get Doom to run on this thing?" I ask Peltola, pretending not to care that he trounced me in the space of 30 seconds.

"It's not running on the iPAQ," he says, pointing to the wireless Ethernet card plugged into both of the handhelds. The game action is actually taking place on his notebook computer, which is running G-Cluster's streaming software over a WiFi connection. The only thing the iPAQ is doing is playing an audio/video stream of the game, a trivial feat that almost any handheld can do with ease.

Handhelds aren't the only thing G-cluster's streaming technology can work with. The Helsinki-based company's system can deliver games, music, and video across any kind of broadband network, such as cable TV set top boxes or in-flight entertainment systems. Because all of the heavy-duty game processing takes place on a cluster of powerful central servers, G-cluster can stream the video and portion of games to any piece of hardware capable of playing video clips.

G-cluster, which has 12 employees, is aiming to become a one-stop shopping solution that sells proprietary client/server equipment and modified games to broadband and wireless operators who want to offer games to their subscribers. G-cluster has already made deals with most of the major game companies, as has signed several letters of intent with telephone and digital cable operators.

G-cluster was founded in January 2000 by Jussi Westergren, a veteran software developer who had sold another game technology company he'd founded earlier, called Lateral Logic, in 1999. While Westergren was looking for a new challenge, he hooked up with his childhood friend, Erik Piehl, a vice president for VistaCom, a videoconferencing company. The two started kicking around ideas for a new company. They recalled their younger days, which they'd spent playing video games at the local arcade, and decided to start a game technology company. They wanted to base the company on what Peltola calls the "Dr. No paradigm" - a giant computer humming away in the "crater of a volcano."

The idea of using a very powerful computer instead of a PC could open the door to all sorts of new game possibilities, such as realistic physics simulation and massive multiplayer worlds with none of the time-lag problems that can ruin a player's experience. Such a system would allow "game designers to focus on designing games instead of worrying about scaling them down to a small box," says Peltola, who left his job as managing director of the Helsinki division of online consultancy Razorfish to become CEO of G-cluster.

While other companies such as Stream Theory, Extent, and Into Networks are competing in the same market, G-cluster's technology is quite different from the other three. The other companies stream program code, which means they require a PC or game console at the receiving end of the stream to execute the code. Also, it can take a long time to stream down the first chunk of executable code.

G-cluster, on the other hand, streams just the audio-visual content (typically via mpeg) of the game to any device that can decompress a mpeg stream - including set-top-boxes, phones and PDAs - and after a small initial download to the end-users device, the game is ready to play. The only other thing that is transmitted between the server and the end device are the control instructions (shoot gun, dodge left, somersault though the air, etc.).

Centralized computing

There are several advantages to G-cluster's centralized system. First, because games are processed on a central server, they can work on any device or network, regardless of platform.

Second, the system is easy to scale up - if more users sign up to use the service, it's a simple matter of adding more servers to the existing cluster. Third, because the games are hosted on a centrally-located computer which broadcasts audiovisual content only, no game code is ever sent to players and there's no danger of pirates stealing the game code.

Compared to game hardware and software makers who have to spend huge amounts of time and money developing their products, G-cluster's costs are very low. The most expensive part of G-cluster's operation, says Peltola, is modifying the games so they can run over G-cluster's network. And even that task "isn't very expensive," he says.

It takes about one man-month to tweak a game title, and most companies, such as Electronic Arts, Elixir Studios, Team 17 and Lego Media, are more than happy to give G-cluster the source code to their titles, because it represents a new stream of income. Peltola says that any existing PC game can be ported onto G-cluster's platform.

So far, the only place you can currently play games driven by G-cluster's technology is at Sonera Mspace in Tennispalatsi, an entertainment center in Helsinki. But G-cluster has signed a deal with Compaq to begin providing the hardware for G-cluster's servers, and Peltola says several announcements regarding partnerships with fixed-line broadband companies will be made in the next month. After that, G-cluster will go after the mobile market.

By that time, I'll be ready for my Doom rematch. Prepare to get your butt kicked, Peltola.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.