Playing console and PC games through streaming may shift from niche experiment to mainstream reality this year. It’s the biggest gaming news story to watch; if the tech lives up to the hype, streaming will disrupt the gaming industry in a way that many companies will be unprepared for.
Historically streaming’s technical hurdles like high latency and bandwidth requirements have been a barrier to entry, but the latest signs of progress are promising. Google ran a beta of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey streaming through a Chrome browser. I read positive feedback on the experience, even from dedicated gaming sites like GameSpot; we’ll learn more from Google at GDC tomorrow. And while Microsoft’s xCloud streaming infrastructure is under private beta, they are bullish enough on the technology to release multiple splashy video teasers. If there are any two companies with the right expertise in cloud infrastructure to pull this off, it’s Google and Microsoft.
If streaming infrastructure delivers on its promise — viable under an affordable broadband connection, low enough latency to make games tolerable, a wide game selection — the implications are enormous. “High end” gaming limited to consoles and PCs will expand to any hardware with enough processing to stream video: smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs. This removes a big hurdle for a casual audience that wouldn’t spend hundreds on dedicated gaming hardware. And streaming doesn’t just eliminate budget considerations, it’s also a significant time saver. There’s one less box to set up and in an era where AAA games often exceed 30GB, there’s no more time waiting for downloads. This gives a gaming blockbuster like Red Dead Redemption 2 the same immediacy of a Netflix movie.
Granted, streaming has a high bar to make this promise a reality. I’d imagine a narrow selection of games at first. Much of the worldwide market has slower internet with bandwidth caps. Latency could make twitchy games like Apex Legends and Call of Duty a poor experience compared to consoles or PCs.
But I question if any concerns I have are more niche than mainstream. History has shown the tech advantages of convenience outweigh concerns around quality, from music (mp3s on Spotify can’t compare to the dynamic range of vinyl) to headphones (AirPods have lesser sound quality than many similarly priced traditional headphones) to movies (Netflix streams have more compression artifacts than Blu-ray). If latency and bandwidth quirks still allow for a “good enough” experience, the advantages of gaming without the time or hardware investment will entice a huge audience. Besides, a large subset of core gamers will sidestep streaming services anyway. Like audiophiles who invest in vinyl and turntables, the dedicated faithful will happily pay for another console or updated video card to ensure a best in class experience.
It’s for this reason that I think Sony and Nintendo, currently riding high as market leaders, are vulnerable over the next few years. On paper, each console manufacturer enjoys an entrenched lead with strong first party exclusives and a large console install base. All signs show both companies will stick to the exclusives-heavy strategy that’s worked for them in past hardware generations. While this appeals to the existing core audience, once Google and Microsoft start streaming high-end gaming over iOS and Android, the available market changes dramatically. Again, convenience trumps quality; to play Mario or the latest Naughty Dog game, you’ll have to invest in a Nintendo or Sony branded box, but the mass appeal and approachability of other games on streaming should outweigh these factors.
Streaming is standout in what should be a lighter year for noteworthy games. The next cycle of console hardware will hold back many titles to 2020 and most of this generation’s hyped games, from Red Dead Redemption 2 to Anthem, are out already. Admittedly Nintendo will have a productive 2019 with a Link’s Awakening remake and new Animal Crossing, but no individual title will draw an audience the way a new Mario, Zelda, or Smash has in previous years.
It’s not just a lack of buzz around software. I expect next generation hardware from Sony and Microsoft to be uninteresting compared to previous generations. Both companies should play it safe, leaning on powerful x86 based machines that should launch at similar power and price points.
With games and hardware more of a settled quality, streaming remains a fascinating unknown. The technology could fizzle, but based on streaming’s success in other media, it has incredible promise.