How Sega hopes to use Japanese arcades as streaming data centers


If you thought the 3-inch-wide Game Gear Micro was going to be the weirdest announcement out of Sega today, think again. Instead, we give that honor to the company’s announcement of a strange and somewhat amorphous concept known as “fog gaming,” which seems set to utilize idle arcade machines to distribute a new type of cloud-gaming service in Japan.

Details on the initiative are pretty scarce at the moment—the main source of English-language information is a tweet from a Japanese analyst working from a summary by a Japanese blogger (Google translate) of a story appearing in the new print issue of Japan’s Weekly Famitsu magazine. Journalist Zenji Nishikawa was teasing the story last week as a “major scoop” on the level of Wired’s revelation of the first PlayStation 5 details last year, which seems a bit grandiose for now.

In any case, the “fog gaming” concept seems to be centered around converting Sega’s massive infrastructure of Japanese arcades and arcade machines into a kind of widely distributed streaming-gaming data center. Those cabinets—and the decently specc’ed CPUs and GPUs inside them—are only in active use by players for perhaps eight hours a day at a busy location, according to Adam Pratt, an arcade operator who runs industry website Arcade Heroes. The rest of the time, those machines could serve streaming gaming content to homebound players, without the need for an immense, Google Stadia-sized data center investment.

In theory, at least.

A uniquely Japanese idea

This kind of “fog computing” idea—where work is distributed between “edge node” devices rather than hefty centralized servers—isn’t exactly new. Router-maker Cisco has been integrating the concept into its “Internet of Things” devices since at least 2014, for instance. Meanwhile, IEEE standardized an open fog computing architecture in 2018.

But using otherwise dormant arcade hardware for a purpose that extends beyond the arcade walls is a relatively radical new idea for the game industry.

Japan’s still-robust arcade scene seems perfectly suited for this kind of experiment. Sega alone already owns and operates dozens of game centers distributed throughout the country, usually near major population centers. Sega arcade machines can be found in third-party Japanese game centers as well.

(Above: A look inside a modern Japanese game center from our own Sam Machkovech.)

Many Japanese Sega arcade machines are also already hooked up to the Internet via the company’s long-running All.Net platform, which allows for online competition and lets players track rankings, profiles, and high scores across machines throughout the country. Adapting that high-speed connection so the cabinet could serve as a low-latency streaming gaming hub would take some work (and maybe an online architecture upgrade for the game centers themselves). But it hardly seems impossible.

Japan is already relatively bullish on streaming gaming as a concept, too. Back in 2018, Capcom released a streaming-only version of Resident Evil 7 for play on Japanese Nintendo Switch hardware that otherwise would have had trouble running the game. A streaming version of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey hit the Switch in the country a year later. And Square Enix also talked prominently about a new focus on “cloud-native or cloud-centric titles” at the beginning of 2020.

An arcade business savior?

Apart from technical and cultural compatibility, the fog-gaming concept could be a business lifeline for arcades and arcade game-makers who are struggling under coronavirus quarantine rules. “One contact I have in Japan was telling me that [All.Net] has been bombing out with the pandemic,” Pratt told Ars Technica. “Few locations outside of Sega-owned ones were already using it and now they are dropping it… as the fees make it untenable.”

“So, if this allows arcades to serve arcade content when closed, that could be a nice lifesaver for Sega and for the [operators],” Pratt continued. “If it is designed to help operators and has reasonable costs, then it could be a great solution to generating income while closed, which is still an issue for so many in the biz… If ops don’t get a piece of the payment pie, though, they won’t touch it.”

There are still a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the technical, economic, and even game selection issues surrounding fog gaming. For now, the concept still seems to be in the research and development phase at Sega, so it might be a while before we see it rolled out to Japanese arcades. After that, it seems unlikely to be a major initiative in the West, where online-enabled arcade machines are distributed much too sparsely to really make the concept work.

That said, fog gaming as currently described is already one of the most intriguing, outside-the-box ideas we’ve heard come out of Japan’s arcade industry in years. We’ll be watching with interest to see if Sega can make it work in the coming months.





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