Cloud gaming is upon us, and on the surface the likes of OnLive seem a great idea. But there’s a chance it could present some unique legal issues to gamers and games companies alike, as BeefJack’s Yuliya Geikhman explores…
Cloud gaming is in right now: everybody’s doing it. There’s OnLive, the little cloud gaming service that could – when the rest of the world thought it couldn’t. Following in its footsteps is Gaikai and a number of other game streaming programs. Services like Happy Cloud let us play as we download (or is it download as we play?), and even MMOs are jumping on-board, starting with Dragon Nest Japan’s G Cloud. And really, why shouldn’t we embrace gaming in the cloud? It promises freedom from the shackles of physical and computer space, RAM, and system requirements.
The problem arises when you realise that being in the cloud does not put you above the law. How laws relate to games is a relatively new issue, one that is only now becoming questioned and defined. So it stands to reason that cloud gaming will bring with it a whole boatload of legal issues.
Like lag, for example. Cloud gaming requires a solid internet connection to keep lag an a minimum. That may be true for online games in general, but in the case of games like MMOs there are plenty of factors on your end that could cause a lag spike. When playing on the cloud, though, you are relying on the cloud service’s servers. A hiccup on the server can lead to lag, which in turn can lead to you losing a battle or an item, or missing a crucial moment in the game. To most of us that just sounds like an inconvenience, but to some it’s an opportunity: a server-related lag problem can open the game company to lawsuits.
To decrease lag, cloud game streaming services can move the servers closer to the players. When that’s not possible, companies like OnLive use “tricks” to cheat the system and cover up lag. “From a legal perspective,” writes a Pillsbury Law media advisory, “the move to the cloud could bring such ‘tricks’ into the realm of patents held by the gaming company OnLive—patents which cover ‘twitch gameplay’ over a cloud-based system.”
Lag is only the beginning of the potential trouble, and the problem with having all your game data stored online is probably more obvious. Need I remind you of the chaos surrounding the Sony PSN security breach? Cloud gaming poses a potential privacy and security issue. No online gaming company wants to deal with a data breach, and not just because of the inevitable mass lawsuits. If a company’s data is ever breached in a way that affects others, they are required by law to notify those affected… required by 50 different laws, actually, in the US alone.
If the cloud service you use is international, you may find yourself following laws that are not even from your country. For instance: what if the US government wants to use the Patriot Act to get information about a European player? According to Microsoft, they can. And Microsoft’s not the first game company to decide that way: two years ago, Blizzard shared a wanted man’s IP address with officials, which was used to trace the man to Canada.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented if the government were to poke its nose into a cloud game, either: games like Second Life already have FBI agents sniffing around for trouble. That’s almost expected in an online social game. But every game you play in the cloud is online. Videogame lawyer James G. Gatto tells Fast Company that “communications between players – an important part of cloud-hosted multiplayer games – could be subject to government investigations if, say, criminal activity or potential acts of terror are discussed.”
Even high up in the cloud, Big Brother is watching.