For PC gamers, buying new games in stores has become increasingly difficult in recent years that the brick and mortar stores to devote shelf space to fewer games for Windows (and Mac). There is always mail order, of course, but many of us have subscribed to digital distribution to get our share of games.
Traditionally digital distribution meant going to a service like Steam or Direct2Drive, making a purchase and then letting the service download and install the game to our computers while we went and had lunch (for people with fast broadband) or went to bed, and then to work, and then had dinner (for people with dial-up) Recently OnLive has offered a different model where the game streams to us with no download required (and with very modest hardware requirements) but OnLive only works with a reasonably fast download connection and limits some of your options. For instance, there’s no way to use mods with OnLive unless OnLive itself decides to install them.
Now there’s a happy medium. It even has a happy name: The Happy Cloud. The Happy Cloud is a download service, but one that gets you into the game much faster than something like Steam. Rather than waiting until the entire game is downloaded, Happy Cloud prioritizes content to get you up and running fast (you don’t need the later levels of the game when you first start playing, right?) Unlike with OnLive, the game is running on your hardware and you have full control over options like screen resolution, mods or even backing up your save files.
The Happy Cloud is in beta and is accepting sign-ups. I got in within a few hours of requesting an invite. Their selection is very limited right now (clearly this is a ‘real’ beta, not a ‘marketing’ beta) with only five titles available. All five offer a free trial. I decided to give Amnesia: the Dark Descent a trial run. First I had to install a small Happy Cloud client, who took just a few minutes (and was a onetime operation) and then I launched Amnesia from the browser. I had to wait about 30 seconds before I could actually start playing. Not bad considering I was on WiFi (getting somewhere around 5 Mbps). Once in the game Happy Cloud got completely out of the way.
Since this was just a demo (I’m assuming) I had to launch Amnesia from the browser and the game files only existed as a compressed file in the Happy Cloud cache, but according to Eric on the Happy Cloud forums, a full, purchased game will wind up installed on your system with a desktop shortcut and all the games files installed so you can play while offline or install mods or do any of the things you’d expect to be able to do with a retail copy of a game.
According to GigaOm, Happy Cloud has secured $1 million in funding and has lined up Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Frictional Games and Paradox Interactive as launch partners. It’d be great to see EA or Activision or another big publisher besides Warner Brothers added to that list.
It seems like a great system from this one trial. Of course, without a full library of offerings the technology doesn’t mean too much. It sounds as if Happy Cloud wants to offer its service through partner websites (as well as its own). Imagine going to a game’s homepage and being able to buy it right from there, and start playing it a few minutes later.
The only concern I have for him is that Happy Cloud feels like a technology with a naturally limited life. Play seems to be growing in size at the rate as before, and broadband speeds continues to grow. Finally, most of us will just have to wait some time before any download service can get a game for us (remember, this is pure speculation on my part). But until we have all received service of 50 Mbps as a happy cloud could be very welcome.