Yesterday I pumped out a quick post recapping the sales points of Google’s Stadia streaming service, with a few postscripts on concerns that I had about the service. I haven’t significantly altered my views on things between then and now, but I wanted to talk about the ramifications of not just Stadia, but the fact that all of the big tech players are betting their respective farms on game streaming as the future of our hobby.
Sony has had Playstation Now in operation since 2014, making it the first of the Big Platforms to actually push this kind of thing. Among my circles, I don’t know anyone who subscribes, although Sony claims somewhere around 700,000 paying customers who are using the service to stream Playstation back-catalog games. Recently, Sony and Microsoft have announced a partnership that would, among other reported benefits, possibly bring Sony’s streaming back-end into Microsoft’s Azure data centers.
After the two established or soon-to-be established players, then, is Microsoft itself, rumored to be working on “Project xCloud” which is — wait for it — their own Xbox game streaming service. Because money is apparently no object, there are rumors that Amazon is getting into the streaming-game (literally and figuratively), and in an uncharacteristically last place position, Apple might even be working on a service of their own.
Trying to determine where the tech world is going is like reading tea leaves. When they’re scattered across the surface of the water, it’s anyone’s guess (like VR), but when they orient themselves into a conga-line like they seem to be doing with online streaming, then it means one of two things: either everyone is afraid that someone else is going to crack a particularly solid nut first and win all the customers, or that their corporate fortune-tellers are forecasting the next big trend.
Innovation is a complex situation in 2019 because it’s no longer just eggheads in an R&D space pumping out love-it-or-leave-it products for the consumer to choose from. The Internet is a conduit between producers and consumers, for good and for ill: producers can get immediate feedback on their decisions, and consumers can — and most certainly will — make their desires known about what they will and will not spend money on. Somewhere in between these two awkward kids on the junior high school dance floor is the spirit of mutually beneficial outcomes. Producers need to make the project profitable, and consumers want as much as they can possibly get for as little money as they can be expected to spend. Obviously, in order for a product to reach the market, something somewhere has to give when these forces of nature go at it.
Each side of this commercial equation has pros and cons.
For the producers, game streaming means no more R&D into improving hardware that needs to be manufactured at scale. No more having to deal with faulty consoles or vague error messages relayed by confused parents. The devices needed to connect the experience to a TV in the home have been long established by Google, Roku, Amazon, and Apple, can fit into the palm of your hand, and usually cost less than $100 USD compared to a next-generation console which usually launches upwards for $500 every five years. With streaming, the power is in the back-end. Data center clusters can be upgraded with newer processors, more memory, and better video chips in the dead of night, and consumers will never see an interruption of service as a result.
Until they do, of course. Unlike now when XBL or PSN goes down and only prevents players from shooting each other in the virtual face, when a streaming service goes down it takes everyone’s hobby down with it. There’s no more physical disks, no offline play. It’ll be a hard sell for these companies who want to make their service the de facto way to play when the specter of “losing everything” is at the forefront of consumer’s minds. As I stated in my earlier post, Google of all people has a habit of deep-sixing services they no longer want to support, and since Stadia would be essentially a side-project from Google, whether it lives or dies is inconsequential to a company that has a whole segment of the internet locked into it’s other, more profitable ecosystems. The same might be said for Amazon and Apple. For MS and Sony, this would be far more concerning, because if they go all in on this idea, then they might not produce a failsafe console for those “rainy days” when the service is down and would suffer irreparable harm to their brands if their services were subjected to internal failures or external assaults.
For consumers, then, the benefit is the ubiquity of gaming. Streaming services could very well be the armistice in the Console Wars that we’ve all been dreaming of. Sony’s recent acquiescence to allow cross-platform play for Destiny 2 and Dauntless shows that their icy heart is thawing when it comes to bringing players together. Traditionally it’s been the hardware that’s forced gamers to choose a side. Consoles are expensive and infrequent, making them investments. People have to commit to a platform, and because it’s human nature, feel the need to defend their decision to do so. If the streaming service only needs a TV dongle that costs less than $100, why not buy the Xbox device and the Playstation device? We’ll only be limited by the number of HDMI ports on our TVs, really. Add to that the potential for PC, phone, and tablet clients. There’s no need to be 100% loyal to a platform when you can play the next The Last Of Us game on your iPad, and then switch to Fortza Whatever on your Android smartphone. Platform tribalism becomes a thing of the past.
But of course, we have to circle back to the technical aspects of streaming services. We’ve mentioned that downtime could hurt a brand, but there’s always the basic fact that not all internet connections are equal. In cities in the wealthier nations, fast internet is a given. In the suburbs, it’s anywhere from pretty good to a resounding “meh”. Beyond that, in rural areas, or where ISP’s meter connections, how will streaming services play out? Stadia claims that only 10Mbps is needed to stream 720p video, but in order for Stadia to make the most money, they need to capture the Pro-capable players who want and can get 4K streams. If some/many/most consumers can only breach 720p on account of their Internet pipe, it’d be stupid for them to pay for a resolution they can’t hope to achieve. They might as well stick with PC gaming and Steam, or the late-model consoles from the current generation. It’s also not been addressed (by Google, so far) how multiplayer will work. It could go either way here. We could adopt an open-borders stance with this new advent of streaming services, or we could see an extension of the walled gardens favored by Amazon, Apple, and Google which have been insanely profitable in their mobile platform businesses.
The success of streaming services really depends on the consumer. They’re being asked to fork over the cash and the faith that these companies will be able to deliver on their promise of a fast, attractive, reliable on-demand game streaming service. From my experience with Stadia, it is entirely possible to get fast and attractive service, but I have a decent data pipe, and the milage of others will certainly vary. Reliable is one of the big questions because ideally not even Google can play fast and loose with the future of their platform once people start building a library (although I’m sure their EULA will attempt to cover their asses in this regard). Sony has had a number of issues with DDoS attacks on their networks that have become near-legendary, but they never completely prevented people from playing their games. If such an attack were to hit Stadia or xCloud, the results would be catastrophic. Consumers know this potential and there are a lot of people out there who don’t seem willing to buy into a product with such a massive boogeyman lurking in the shadows.
The benefits, however, lie in the laps of the producers. We wouldn’t see this comical “everyone trying to get through the door at the same time” rush to scaffold these services if it was the consumers who reaped the most benefit. Not having to worry about researching and producing hardware, or even printing physical media has to have some benefit for them. MS, Google, and Amazon already have ginormous data centers and know how to manage them. They understand the economies of scale, what it takes to upgrade without downtime, and so on paper, they can make it work at what we have to assume is a lower cost than the historic console-refresh cycle. They also have a lot to lose, but if we’re looking at an all-streaming future from these big players, consumers are kind of screwed when it comes to the choice of technology; we can either sign up with the service we prefer (or all of them), or we can not play at all.