There is No Console: Is Game Streaming In Our Future?

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In June, Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier put together a scoop surrounding Google's potential foray into video games. One of the open possibilities for Google's business plan is a game-streaming service, similiar to what Nvidia's GeForce Now program (currently free in beta) does in streaming games to your PC or Mac instead of installing them locally. Now comes word from Kotaku contributor Keza McDonald that many video game executives are excited about the future of cloud-powered, Netflix-style gaming subscriptions.

This talk from various company figureheads suggests that gaming's biggest companies are moving away from expensive hardware development, and in turn, away from consumers having to buy high-end consoles or PCs. In theory, this all-streaming future means your more affordable gadgets can run games as well as the original machines could if they were installed on your hard drive. Imagine Doom-on-your-calculator, except it's the more recent reboot of Doom and an Android phone. It's a beautiful utopia where there are no console exclusives and your choice to play games anywhere is actually delivered on. It's a future that we are rapidly hurtling towards, almost seeming inevitable.

In practice, this notion of wireless, streaming, on-demand, device-agnostic gaming seems more inconceivable the longer you think about it. As is, these services and devices, like the Playstation Now or the Steam Link, haven't solved the lag input issue. Slower games like RPGs and strategy games don't suffer too much, but the latency is nowhere near good enough for fast-paced games like Rocket League or Street Fighter V. Current subscription-based services like Xbox Games Pass are only slightly better options because you download local copies of your games to run...so long as you pay to stay subscribed.

The worldwide availability of high-speed internet is another issue: according to Akemai, the average world connection speed is 7.2 Mb/s. That's...not very fast. The issue of slow speeds is compounded if you live in an area where the broadband infrastructure is supported poorly. Internet service providers in the US are still facilitating a digital divide between “those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not.” This isn't even taking into account the fight for net neutrality (which is still being litigated) or what ISPs would need to do worldwide to maintain the infrastructure necessary to support playing big games. You also have to consider the platforms themselves: downloading games and patches even on a fast connection can take hours on PSN, Steam, Xbox Live, GoG, Origin, and others.

Hypothetically, let's say that the games industry somehow figures out the technical and business ends of this proposition. The likely near-term solution will be that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will partner with an ISP like Comcast to make sure online games are not competing with network traffic from TV or Netflix streams, nor counting towards customers' bandwidth caps. What will that cost customers, per month? Will there be gaming tiers of internet access we have to pay extra for? As a recent example of this, the 3G Playstation Vita model made possible through AT&T's network was too expensive and not of great value. 

There are also gaming's cultural forces working against this all-streaming future. People have been buying physical consoles and games for as long as games have existed. Building your own hardware is still not as convenient as buying the manufacturer's box that just plugs in to a TV and works. For as much as we groan when people self-identify as "gamers," we label ourselves as fans of only a few specific companies, name winners and losers of E3, and criticize platforms' sales figures unfairly. Everyone's backlog is a labyrinthe mess of physical and digital libraries, platforms, and publisher-independent launchers that, to be honest, I don't see anyone ever getting to the bottom of and playing all of their games. To add in a new layer of games that may only be playable via streaming won't help matters, especially when the standard bearer currently works so much better.

All of this is not insurmountable. However, I just don't see how a console-less, completely streaming gaming future happens within the next decade without significant costs to players or game developers. When the music industry took music digitally, it became easier to distribute and purchase music...at the cost of audio quality and musician compensation. When book publishing became centered around e-book sales, it became easier to purchase cheap books...at the cost of brick-and-mortar retail bookstores going under, and authors and publishing houses losing a ton of their revenue. When the movie industry became more digital overall, it got easier to watch movies from home...but movie development costs skyrocketed while less people physically go to movie theaters.

In games, the trend over the past two console generations has been for people to buy digital games, which has certainly made buying games cheaper and more accessible, but game development budgets have only gone up, and more games require online connections that aren't always stable. Commercially, promising indie games are not always making their development money back: Where The Water Tastes Like Wine developer Johnnemann Nordhagen admitted earlier this year that he made $0 on his story-based game and had to pay $140,000 to compensate his collaborators. On top of that, think about how Gamestop might be going bankrupt, which might change the used game sales market forever. The current situation is certainly untenable for all, but the future might only make such problems worse.

Maybe these limitations will make for more interesting games that are based on cloud servers, or be delayed ad infinitum like Crackdown 3. Maybe these limitations will lower the economic barrier to playing or developing games, or result in us selling Steam cards for pennies on the dollar forever to compensate the artists behind the games.

With rumors swirling of new consoles in development, it seems like the games industry has one last physical console generation left in it before every company moves to streaming as the next big technology push. If the current technology is any indication, no one is going to be near ready for this future.