The Future of Video Game Streaming

Throughout history, humanity has sought entertainment. Primitive humans found entertainment in the form of cave paintings. Entertainment has evolved throughout the years and so has art and the medium of art itself. We now have art that is entirely digital. If you let’s say, go back to the Renaissance and attempt to sell a flash drive with a piece of art in it, you probably will not find much success no matter the quality of the art. This is assuming no one in the Renaissance has a USB port lying around. Digital art would be way ahead of its time. To some extent, this is the same problem with cloud gaming. Granted, this is quite an exaggerated comparison. A more close-to-home comparison would be Netflix’s on-demand DVD service which showed little promise at first but eventually blew up when DVDs became common in the US. Steve Jobs had a similar problem trying to convince companies to invest in his personal computers but look at computers now, they are an essential part of practically every company there is. There is a time for everything. Something that is not in demand presently may become the most popular trend a decade later. Cloud Gaming is like this too. It is in demand presently but not really practical. The potential impact cloud gaming has for the future of gaming, however, is difficult to ignore.

Games used to be a lot simpler once upon a time. Gone are the days where you would ask your mother for some pennies so you could play Virtua Fighter in a SEGA arcade machine. Ever since Pong, the technological complexity of videogames has been growing. Unfortunately, this growth comes at a cost. Videogames are now in the expensive spectrum of hobbies. Not only do modern games cost a fortune but the platform itself is expensive. To make matters worse, exclusivity demands people to buy multiple platforms now. It is very obvious that streaming videogames are a response to the ever-growing expense of playing videogames.

In cloud gaming, you send inputs through something such as a controller. A gaming device owned by the streaming company which are called datacentre processes this input to generate an output that is sent to your display device. This way buying expensive equipment is not a necessity. All you need is a compatible input device and an output. This is nothing new. PS Now has allowed PC gamers to stream a growing library of 750 Playstation games and counting. However, several users have reported massive input lag and poor resolution. Among the streaming services available at present, GeForce Now has shown the most promise. It has comparatively lower input lag and the service itself is free for now.

What E3 had in store for CLOUD GAMING

In E3 2019, two big contenders are entering the cloud gaming market, Microsoft and Google. Google have been showing off their Stadia for a while now but latency is still a major concern. Early testing by Digital Foundry has shown the latency to be around 166ms which frankly is a lot better than I had initially anticipated it to be. This, of course, depends from person to person. With increased traffic after release, the latency is expected to worsen. Fortunately, the general reception with Stadia has been positive for now. The quality of image is of course not as good as locally rendering it, neither is the input lag but it is still better than playing it on weak hardware.

While we are yet to learn much about Microsoft’s xCloud, I feel Microsoft here has the upper hand due to their already existing Azure servers. According to an article by Kareem Choudhry on XBOX wire, Microsoft has deployed custom Project xCloud blades to datacentres across 13 Azure regions. However, their ultimate goal is “supporting gamers in Azure regions around the world”. In their E3 conference, Microsoft has announced xCloud will be available to the public starting October. An interesting feature about xCloud is that XBOX owners themselves can turn their console into their personal xCloud server.

STREAMING The gaming of the future but not the present

Although cloud gaming will probably be a major platform for gaming in the future, it shows little promise in the present. Currently, there are three major hurdles cloud gaming has to tackle.

Firstly, input lag. Currently, I would say Stadia only shows promise for casual single player games such as the recent Plague Tale: Innocence. I find it hard to believe fast-paced games like DOOM will provide an enjoyable experience on Stadia. Sure, Google may show DOOM being playable in their beta but I have my concerns whether the game would still be playable for the average consumer when it finally releases especially with all the traffic. And for those who aren’t average, they shouldn’t require Stadia at all. I already addressed cloud computing is a response for people who cannot afford expensive gaming devices but if the internet itself is as hard to come by as the device, then there is little benefit in Stadia.

Another problem with cloud gaming is data usage. PC Gamer has calculated the data usage of Stadia to be around 9GB per hour for 1080p streaming and 15.75GB for 4K. That would account for a total of 1TB data usage if played for 113 hours in 1080p. For those who have a data cap, Stadia is essentially impractical if you intend to play for more than 3 hours a day. As for those who don’t have one, don’t get your hopes up just yet. As much as I’d like unlimited bandwidth to be a thing, it’s still just a fantasy. Your internet speed would most probably be throttled down once it reaches a limit. Also, keep in mind, this data usage is only considering Stadia and not anything else. If you intend to use your internet for anything other than Cloud Gaming which you most probably do, you will hit the cap even faster.

Lastly, the price model is a big deal. We already know there’s a subscription fee and it would essentially work like Netflix except for some games, especially the newer ones wouldn’t be free even if you are subscribed to Stadia. Several publishers may not even be willing to support Stadia which may prevent them from ever being free. Another argument is how exactly will the publishers and developers of the free-to-play games profit from it. The obvious answer is the publishers will receive royalty for the number of hours the game is streamed for. This may sound like a viable solution but this would mean shorter single players games would be at a disadvantage. It could be done so that the number of players that have streamed the game would affect the money publishers receive but then games with a small but dedicated fan-base will be at a disadvantage. Maybe it could be a mix of both. There’s also the problem that if Stadia ever stops its service, you will lose all your games. It is unlikely Steam will ever shut down but digital stores like Steam have already got that covered. If Steam ever does stop, Steam will let you play a patched version of the games you own which does not require the client. The same feature is not available for cloud gaming. All your data is stored in Google’s datacentres, you are just streaming what they output.

I think the above facts are enough to understand that the world is still not ready for cloud gaming yet. Let alone 3rd world countries, even certain first world countries don’t have the internet quality required for cloud gaming at a large scale. Australia is apparently notorious for having poor internet. If the expense of gaming is your major concern, I feel you’re better off buying a budget PC than resorting to cloud gaming. For 3rd world countries, you can throw cloud gaming out of the window. That said, I can’t help but imagine the impact of cloud gaming when the availability of good internet improves in the future.

CLOUD GAMING Ten years from now

Just like Netflix and Apple, cloud gaming too definitely will be successful in the future. Perhaps, a decade from now, Stadia may soon start to replace consoles and PCs. Let us for once ignore the cost and the internet problems and discuss the possible changes that cloud gaming can bring under an ideal environment. One important feature of cloud gaming can bring is mobility. Desktops are stationary and can’t really be moved around. Consoles are a bit more manoeuvrable but still, you’d need a supported display device. A solution to that is laptops. However, one thing to consider is that gaming laptops are stupid expensive. Some of them also have a problem with running certain games. They also get heated up very easily. Stadia does not have this problem. We have already seen in GDC 2019 how seamlessly the display device can be changed while in the middle of a session. Of course, all of this is considering your source of internet itself is mobile as well, but let’s just hope that won’t be a problem in the future. So the only thing you need to worry about is just to make sure your boss doesn’t see you when your furtive self is cloud gaming in the office.

Stadia will also support other services from Google such as YouTube. You could just post a link to your session which people can click on to join. Imagine you’re playing the latest FromSoftware game and can’t get past a boss so you just share a link with your friend, and he joins in the session to kill the boss for you. Now that I think of it, session links could become an alternative to summon signs. Gold coloured links for sunbros, that would be pretty neat.

EXCLUSIVITY The elephant in the room

Remember back when we did not have Epic exclusives or Netflix exclusives and we actually had the freedom to choose which service or store we want. Now that is impossible for a growing number of games and TV shows. You have to subscribe to multiple streaming services or have multiple game stores set up just because the service provider convinced the publisher to sign an exclusivity deal. A somewhat similar thing can happen with cloud gaming. With the growing number of competitors wanting to enter the field of cloud gaming, we may start seeing games that are exclusive to one service. I can already see Google preparing exclusivity contracts like that.

After all, take all of this with a grain of salt. These are all of course just speculation and is in no way a reliable prediction of the future. Cloud gaming could either be a titanic success or a colossal failure. It all depends upon the public’s reaction. The public till now has never been a big fan of something requiring constant internet connection. Microsoft received severe backlash when people learned XBOX One would require internet connection. Perhaps, cloud gaming could change that. As for me personally, I don’t see myself getting into cloud gaming anytime soon especially considering the quality of internet connection it demands and its heavy usage of data. Despite that, there is this one thing I am looking forward to and it is that sweet Stadia controller.