The Video Game Streaming Wars Have Begun

The massive increase in engagement across music, movies, and TV shows all have one thing in common – convenience.

From CDs to MP3s, Walkmans to iPods, and dial up to broadband access, music is now with us always – on demand via streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music.

A similar story exists for movies and TV – instant streaming with Netflix, Hulu, and others have made access to thousands of options taken for granted.

The constant barrage of media is no longer a privilege, but expected.   

And soon, this transition will begin with video games.

Buffering for Now

buffering graphic

Quite a few barriers are in place that stop a total conversion to game streaming: high speed internet access availability, latency, data caps, and an acceptable amount of ISP choices for consumers to name a few.

It’s simply not feasible for millions to take advantage of the fledgling technology.

But the benchmarks of today show promise for the services of tomorrow. And this is the bet that Sony, Microsoft, Google, Nvidia, and others are making.

Advancements in network infrastructure by way of 5G, gigabit speeds, and the improvements yet to be seen have the potential to make game streaming as commonplace as Netflix in 5-10 years time.

What exactly is 5G? In simple terms, it’s the successor to 4G. It promises gigabit speeds, sub-1 millisecond latency, and a much greater capacity for bandwidth. All of this, of course, achieved wirelessly.

The stubbornness of data caps will need to buckle as the adoption of 4K TVs continues to rise, cloud computing unfolds, and general computing meshes with the internet.

The truth is, it’s already starting to occur. Streaming cable over the internet used to be a pipe dream, and now, consumers can begin within minutes with services like YouTube TV.

Conventional providers like Comcast have even started integrating streaming platforms within the past few years.

The steps towards an entirely cloud based infrastructure are small, but it’s the sum of these changes that will ultimately turn the tide down the line.

Landscape on the Mend

Available data centers for Microsoft’s Azure cloud infrastructure.

In 2019, there is no single dominant force in the game streaming market – there are a few that are serviceable and nothing more – but the remainder of this year will see the segment begin with the likes of Microsoft and Google solidifying their offerings.

Phil Spencer of the Xbox division has already made it clear that we should see xCloud, Microsoft’s platform, unfold sometime later this year. In fact, many strategic moves aiming to mold the Xbox brand into a more malleable platform will take effect.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced Microsoft Game Stack, a suite of development tools available for all platforms. Furthermore, the company announced that Xbox Live will be coming to Android and iOS.

Where Nintendo and Sony aim to build an insular ecosystem of thriving exclusive games, Microsoft aims to extend the Xbox division in a platform agnostic manner.

Google, on the other hand, has already rolled out a beta for their service, Project Stream, allowing individuals to play a cloud based version of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey via Chrome.

The megacorp recently went on to formerly unveil the platform, called Google Stadia, at the 2019 Game Developers Conference.

I personally got to try Stadia in beta form, and was taken by surprise. It worked incredibly well on my setup (Verizon Fios via WiFi, Nighthawk Router, wired Xbox One controller, and Acer Nitro 5), providing both acceptable fidelity and input lag.

Input lag is noticeable, but for a game like Odyssey it’s hardly a crippling element. I’ve played on TV’s that introduced far more of a hindrance when latency is concerned.

For those with a fast connection streaming looks to already deliver a great experience for games that don’t prioritize latency. I wouldn’t want to stream Apex Legends or Battlefield V, but I’d be more than willing to dive into more methodical single player games.

If Google’s service is anything to go by, we are at an excellent starting point for the tech. Services like OnLive saw an eventual cloud based future but were unfortunately out of an era.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGdecNDDr9g
A service truly ahead of its time. The original unveiling for OnLive at GDC 09.

Microsoft aims to battle one of the biggest fault points of streaming, latency, by introducing a hybridization of local hardware and cloud computing.

Want to see what kind of latency you might get using Microsoft’s Azure servers for game streaming? Fire up the speed test.

Researchers at Duke University and Microsoft Research worked together on said solution, dubbed “Kahawai”, which allowed for game rendering and computation to be done with a technique called “collaborative rendering”.

Kuhawai enabled a smartphone’s GPU to aid cloud infrastructure during game streaming, ultimately cutting down on bandwidth and reducing latency.

The start of the final transition in gaming will most likely become fully realized decades from now, but it’s the prospect of more than serviceable streaming independent of device or location that offers new opportunities for millions that’s most exciting.

An Ever Pervasive Playerbase

local gaming > everything

Let’s face it, hardcore gamers that cling to the likes of Dota 2, PUBG, Rainbow Six Siege, and just about any other competitive online game aren’t going to transition to cloud gaming in the short or mid term.

Personally, I wouldn’t touch streaming with a ten foot pole when it comes to input reliant favorites of mine like Gran Turismo Sport, Battlefield V, and Apex Legends. And I’m galaxies away from being a Shroud protege.

But the most exciting prospect of streaming games isn’t a take over of heated multiplayer, it’s the expansion of the casual and putting grandiose experiences within the reach of those who would have otherwise looked away.

Microsoft has already started laying the groundwork for a subscription based future with its Game Pass service. I currently have a 2 month subscription running, and Crackdown 3 was recently added to the catalogue.

Would I have ever bought Crackdown 3 outside of Game Pass? Absolutely not. It would be a hard sell below $10.

But since it’s “free” with Game Pass, I have already downloaded and played an admittedly very average game for a few hours.

There’s nothing lost for me, the gamer, and everything to gain for Microsoft. Statistically speaking, quite a few people are either going to go on to renew their subscription and/or spend money that they wouldn’t have within the Xbox ecosystem.

In Microsoft’s case, Project xCloud will most likely be an extension of this philosophy. If Statista’s statistics are to be believed, 66% of the US population were video game players in 2018.

In comparison, the market penetration rate was 58% in 2013, 5 years prior. And when it comes to platform preference by developers, the top 2 slots go to PC and mobile devices with Xbox One and PS4 trailing just behind.

Services like Google Stadia and Project xCloud are aiming for further growth by tapping into platforms in the hands of billions and offering experiences that would otherwise have been impossible for this undeserved demographic.

The average Joe may not have the right hardware to play an upcoming title like Halo Infinite, but what happens when the barrier to entry is as thin as loading an app on his phone or computer?

Console gaming is as cheap as ever, but consumers still need to drop an excess of $200 in order to enjoy some of the biggest games on the market. And this doesn’t include the cost of games, online gaming, and accessories

Streaming services, in contrast, will most likely take after video streaming platforms and the already existing Game Pass service. Pay $10-20 a month and enjoy an all you can eat gaming buffet on any of your devices.

The two biggest detriments to experience for core gamers, input lag and picture quality, are far less important to very casual players and non-gamers. Good enough becomes highly desirable in a world where millions play their consoles on horribly calibrated TVs with obscene amounts of input lag already.

In terms of sheer reach, there are very little downsides for both the gaming market and companies like Google and Microsoft.

The Race to Retain

the race to retain subscribers

Subscription services are already pervasive in gaming with EA, Microsoft, Sony, Humble Bundle, and more offering competitive services. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses dependent on respective libraries and related features, but the overall goal of retention remains the same.

And therein lies the threat to core gaming – homogenization and dilution as a means of casting the widest net.

In many ways, streaming and download based services have the potential to be a boon for both core gamers and those on the outskirts of the market, but the implications of this type of delivery becoming the dominant hand are far from utopian.

Netflix is the perfect example of how a streaming based subscription service can lead to an overall dilution of quality. The big players like Google and Microsoft will need to consistently release content to keep players engaged, and the sprint to capitalize on IP is sure to unfold as it did with TV and movies.

Engaging the most amount of people as possible is goal number one, and an overall homogenization of genres is another side effect of the trend.

Creating service based games is an obvious means of creating artificial desire among a subscriber base, but it’s this type of twist on traditional single player genres that could potentially kill interest in the minds of core gamers.

The ballooning costs of AAA development along with this need for player retention opens up quite a few strategic possibilities and outcomes (some good…some terrible):

  • Creating multiple avenues of player attachment
  • Prioritizing a larger quantity of smaller sized game productions
  • Creating episodic experiences
  • Supplying the post launch period with additional “missions” and “quests”
  • Developing a constant stream of substantial content

Whether or not gaming companies offering subscriptions ultimate find balance between retention on one end, and quality along with variety on the other, will have a large impact on gamers’ opinions over the long term.

The prospect of streaming is exciting in many ways, especially with 5G on the horizon, but it’s also a leap of faith for consumers and companies alike.

Today’s gambit is tomorrow’s reality, and the time in between is going to be one hell of a ride.

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