I remember a time when video games were something you played in an arcade – or not at all. I remember a time when, in order to get your hands on the latest, greatest game, you had to stand in line at a store. I remember a time when you had to bring your games with you to play them at a friend’s house.

I remember a time when gaming was something done mostly in isolation.

Today, those times seem almost quaint. These days, most everyone is a gamer in one way or another, whether they play Angry Birds on their phone or League of Legends on their desktop – as of January 2014, 58% of Americans play video games. That number is only likely to increase as time goes on.

In short, video games have gone from a basement hobby to one of our culture’s most prominent pastimes.

Although there were many different factors that contributed to gaming’s newfound popularity- the proliferation of mobile devices, for example – few had as large an impact as cloud computing. Perhaps more than any other field, the games industry has undergone a radical change at the hands of the cloud. One of the first places these changes surfaced was with Steam, the largest digital distribution platform in the world.

Digital Distribution And The Steam Cloud

For the unfamiliar, the concept behind Steam is simple: it’s a digital storefront through which you can browse through a large collection of different games (and, more recently, utility software). Once you’ve purchased an item on the store, you can choose to download and install it from Steam’s central servers. At that point, it’s yours – it’s permanently tied to your account.

That’s where the cloud comes in.

Some time ago, Valve – the studio behind Steam – implemented a system simply known as The Steam Cloud,  through which users could sync all the personal details of their account. Thanks to the Steam Cloud, it was possible to play a game and access one’s files on any system that had Steam installed. At the time, it was a fairly incredible innovation…but it was also only the tip of the iceberg as far as the cloud’s influence over gaming was concerned.

The Birth Of Gaming-As-A-Service

For many users, the biggest sticking point of PC gaming was that, historically, one required fairly expensive hardware in order to play most anything of note. Because of this, many users were locked out of playing certain games, simply because they didn’t have a powerful enough system. It was this precise issue that led to the birth of cloud gaming – or Gaming-As-A-Service.

One of the first companies in this new field was an organization known as OnLive. Launched back in 2010, the company allowed its subscribers to stream virtually any game of their choice – without having to worry about software conflicts, hardware requirements, or space. There were no discs, patches, or downloads to speak of – people could simply select a game and play.

In essence, it was gaming’s first true cloud platform, and one of the first systems in gaming to be truly hardware-independent. Unfortunately, though it was a revolutionary venture, it was also one that was doomed to fail. Poor marketing, mismanagement at the upper levels, and just a bit too much ambition – you’ll find few who’d disagree the company was ahead of its time – led to the company’s near-dissolution in 2012.

“OnLive’s problem was that it failed to find a unique hook that would make consumers go ‘I have to own that service'”, industry analyst Nicholas Lovell explained to The Guardian. “They were pitching convenience: no more physical discs, no more downloads, just fast instant games, whenever you wanted them. The problem was that those fast instant games were games that you didn’t want.”

“They were going up against Sony, which had exclusive titles like Uncharted and Little Big Planet, and Microsoft, which had Halo and Gears of War, and Nintendo, as well as PC gaming with titles like World of Warcraft,” he continued. “They were going up against those platforms with no exclusive content.”

“Their marketing didn’t appeal to the consumer’s rebellious nature like PlayStation does. Instead, it was: spend a monthly fee to get a whole bunch of games, but not modern ones, and not the ones your mates are playing. A rational message appealing to the logical brain, but without follow through.”

With the failure of OnLive – and its subsequent acquisition by Valve – it seemed as though Gaming-As-A-Service was dead in the water. And for the time being, it was. It would be two more years before the seeds planted by OnLive would truly bear fruit.

Sony And Gaikai: A Match Made In Heaven

Shortly after OnLive’s failure, Sony announced its intent to purchase the company’s rival, Gaikai. At the time, no one was entirely certain what to make of the acquisition. Aside from a vague promise by SCE head Andrew House of “unparalleled cloud entertainment experiences,” there wasn’t a great deal to go on.

Then, less than a year later, Sony dropped a bombshell on its users, announcing at E3 2013 that it would bring Gaikai streaming to its PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 consoles in 2014.  On the latter, this service had a very interesting – and very important – use: it emulated the operating environment of the PlayStation 3, allowing past-generation games to be played on the new system. This venture would soon evolve further, giving birth to PlayStation Now,

In essence, it’s exactly what OnLive tried to be four years ago. Not only does the service provide instant access to games from previous console generations, it will allow games to be streamed to TVs, Smartphones, and a whole list of other devices.What’s more, thanks to advances in networking hardware and infrastructure, PlayStation Now is actually viable, suffering from none of the problems that caused OnLive to crash and burn two years ago.

Speaking of OnLive, it’s gotten a second lease on life too – again, thanks to new networking technology.

Gaming In The Clouds

The cloud has changed gaming in much the same way as it’s changed so many other industries. Gaming is faster, more mobile, and more portable than it’s ever been. Not only that, thanks to services like PlayStation Now, hardware has essentially become a non-issue.

It’s only going to get better from here, too. As the cloud becomes more widespread – and the technology driving it more advanced – services like OnLive and Gaikai are going to become increasingly common. Before long, it won’t matter which device you’re gaming on – Windows or Mac, high-end or low-end; the only limiting factor will be your Internet connection. That future may still be some time away, but it’s inevitable all the same.

In other words, the cloud’s inarguably changed gaming for the better. The industry’s becoming more open – and more accessible than its ever been. It’s a bright future, and one that’s only going to get brighter with time.