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Square Enix's Shinra 'supercomputers' could power the games of the future

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There's no doubt we've seen some technically amazing games at E3 already this week, but they all have one limitation in common, whatever the platform — their developers need to take hardware power into account and fit their designs beneath a performance ceiling. What if there were a way to create a game to your own specification and have the platform adapt to fuel your ideas?

That's the pitch made by Shinra Technologies, a self-described "supercomputer-powered cloud gaming platform" that claims to enable "new types of game worlds that could never have existed before," in the words of communications chief James Mielke. Shinra is a subsidiary of Japanese gaming giant Square Enix, whose former president and CEO Yoichi Wada now heads the new company. (And yes, it's named after the evil, world-dominating corporation from Final Fantasy VII.) "In order to create new experiences we believe we need to change the rules," Wada said at a roundtable event yesterday on the sidelines of E3. "And in order to change the rules we need to create a new platform."

"In order to change the rules we need to create a new platform."

The basic idea behind cloud gaming is to offload processing to the cloud and then stream that gameplay to your screen, meaning your local hardware doesn't have to be particularly powerful. Unlike other cloud services like PlayStation Now and OnLive, though, Shinra goes further by aiming to leverage computational muscle to exceed what's possible on personally owned hardware. By building games natively for its servers, the company is trying to enable games that not only run in the cloud, but could only run in the cloud.

At today's event, Mielke ran a demo called "The Living World," showing off a 32 x 32 km virtual space populated with 1 million trees and 16,000 AI dragons (below). The world, Shinra says, would be otherwise "impossible to synchronize over networked multiplayer." Company SVP Jacob Navok tells me that this demo is powered by two servers: the compute side is handled by a Xeon CPU along with a GTX Titan Black dedicated to physics processing, and the render server uses a Xeon CPU with four GTX 980 cards; perhaps not what many would consider a "supercomputer," but certainly power beyond your gaming PC. "Depending on the game our configuration of compute, render and memory are different for each server cluster," says Navok, touting the platform's ability to evolve and adapt.

shinra living world

To get developers on board, Shinra has started a prototype accelerator program intended to assist prospective teams with the technology. Current participants include Camouflaj, the studio behind innovative stealth game Republique, along with Human Head (Prey, Lost Within) and Hardsuit Labs (Blacklight: Retribution).

"These technologies can help what we want to do as storytellers," says Camouflaj founder Ryan Payton, who is working on a "stealth survival" multiplayer game powered by Shinra. Payton says that the untitled game will have dynamic elements only made possible because of Shinra's technology, like environmental destruction that "not only looks great but is a meaningful aspect of the gameplay."

"These technologies can help what we want to do as storytellers."

Human Head is developing a game based around naval battles, and co-founder Ted Halsted says Shinra is central to the design because "the dynamics of water have been too hard for a CPU to process." Human Head's game aims to accurately simulate multiplayer encounters involving pirate ships, whirlpools, and krakens, all with countless non-playing spectators situated on board the boats themselves. By offloading the computational load to Shinra, Halsted says that the game can be "highly emergent," and "no gameplay encounter is ever going to play out the same way twice."

It's hard to tell how much of a difference Shinra's tech will make from a player's point of view, since none of the developers at today's event were willing to share footage, screenshots, or even titles for what they're working on. Certainly there have been countless games with destructible environments and water physics before. But the developers on board with Shinra claim the supercomputers in the cloud allow for much more authentic effects, and say that it's liberating to remove fixed technical limitations. "Instead of you making concessions on your game to target a platform, the platform adapts to you," says Hardsuit Lab's Andy Kipling.

shinra yoichi wada

Still, Shinra's very nature means it's unlikely to be suitable for all kinds of games, at least in the near future. Latency is a major concern with any cloud gaming platform, particularly if you don't have a strong connection. "It's a key concern for us, of course," says Mielke who points to a beta test in Japan this February. "Our system is actually super optimized." Shinra plans to carry out a test on Google Fiber in the US this August, but players who continue to use much slower cable and DSL modems will probably remain suspicious.

Shinra isn't a mainstream proposition yet, and the company still isn't talking about its plans for how these games will be distributed. But it's an idea that'll be worth keeping an eye on. As more and more of our computing moves to the cloud and our own hardware becomes less important, the proposal of a continually evolving platform that outstrips what's under our TV could turn out to be enticing. Games industry stalwarts "risk becoming over-realists and only focusing on what can't be done rather than what can," says Wada (above). "It inhibits us from creating new experiences."