Game Hardware is Dead, Long Live Game Hardware

Matt Spall wants to play any game, anywhere and on any device he chooses

It's been inevitable for some time that physically distributed bits of plastic carrying software that's basically out of date the moment you get it ("you must download a 750Mb patch before you play this game") would die away and be replaced with online services. As broadband speeds increase and storage of those digital assets becomes ubiquitous and, essentially, commoditised, ease of access, choice and pure laziness win out. Music suffered for it with the switch from CD to MP3, and thankfully is being saved by the likes of iTunes, Amazon and Spotify, as well as loads of new ways to discover new artists feeding out through services like SoundCloud. TV can be consumed pretty much exclusively online now through all manner of devices from smartphones to internet connected smart TVs. Films are getting the same treatment with simple availability of almost instantly streaming content from Love Film and Netflix, delivered to built-in devices or accessories costing little more than £50 and offering all kinds of other cool media services.

"The death knell is ringing for boxed software, and the next target to be consumed by the digital revolution are the bigger bits of plastic that you shove the boxed software into"

So what's with the headline? Well it's simple in my eyes, the death knell is ringing for boxed software, and the next target to be consumed by the digital revolution are the bigger bits of plastic that you shove the boxed software into. And if you need it spelled out for you, dedicated game hardware you own to play games on is over - we're already hearing all kinds of rumours about new hardware from Sony and Microsoft, and Nintendo has already shown its hand with the Wii-U, but really, what are these machines for in world with little or no physical product?

So here's the prediction in nutshell; the next big gaming platform we see won't be a shiny new bit of game-centric hardware from the creators of the devices we all know and love, but games and computing delivered as a service, to these devices and many, many others. I'm talking about services delivered to devices we probably already own, or devices we'll buy for a nominal charge (or even free) for signing up to a subscription. Utility computing based services, or as I cringe at every time I hear the words, cloud computing.

At this point I can already feel hackles rising, and these thoughts are ones I got roundly flamed for when I originally made the prediction three years ago at the Develop Conference, but here's the basis of my thinking:

Broadband Speed versus physical media

I've been a video gamer for over 30 years, starting with the Atari 2600 and yearly visits to the Margate arcades. Likewise I've been a subscriber to online services from the early days of CiX and Compunet through 2400 baud modems. On this basis I can probably be considered an 'early adopter' and have experienced first-hand how data delivery to the home has improved to now be properly on a par with the memory and delivery speed required for contemporary content.

The past couple of years have seen exponential growth in the speeds available to internet users, as well as the way broadband can be consumed. This is going to get easier and easier with services like fibre to the home, proliferation of IPTV, shared services like Fon, municipal WiFi, uncapped 3G services, and now 4G LTE.

After a blip in production a few months back storage prices are also falling through the floor, at the time of writing, a 500GB hard drive is running at little over £50, that's 10p per Gigabyte. So storing your 10GB game isn't an issue either.

What this adds up to is that, in a lot of places, you can download and install a game in less time than it takes to get it from a shop, or wait for it to arrive from an online retailer, and in a lot of cases, for less money.

The march of silicon

Computer hardware is getting a lot cheaper, that's a fact. It's not uncommon to be able to buy a relatively well-specced laptop with an installed OS for less than £200 and basic systems running early versions of Android for £80, 'smart' blu-ray players for £70, set top boxes that deliver services like iPlayer and Netflix are £50, and the Raspberry Pi (when anyone gets one) is £25.

"You can download and install a game in less time than it takes to get it from a shop, or wait for it to arrive from an online retailer, and in a lot of cases, for less money"

These are all capable devices, often able to deliver full HD video, web services, and importantly, hidden away in them, really good quality gaming performance that the majority of people will find more than acceptable.

Of course, those that want awesome graphics capabilities can buy or build the latest multi-processor fire breathing machine, but it's highly unlikely the console manufacturers will have any chance of keeping up with the changes in hardware, releasing systems with GPUs that are already lagging behind the moment they hit the shelves.

What's acceptable as a satisfactory game experience?

So, this is a pet subject of mine and one I'll try not to harp on too much about here, but really, what is it that gives a user an acceptable gaming experience?

At a recent conference I heard the phrase "triple A gaming" said more times that I was comfortable with. There's no denying the success and money made from epic AAA franchises like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect and others. But there are other games doing equally well that get little or no recognition on charts because they're not considered "triple A" or can't be tracked by individual sales of units.

Games like Bejewelled, that can be consumed pretty much anywhere, skill games from the likes of, the plethora of hidden objects games from casual portals like Big Fish, top sellers and top grossers on mobile devices like Draw Something, Fruit Ninja, Kingdoms of Camelot, and the ubiquitous Angry Birds.

These aren't games that can be categorised as 'AAA' or blockbuster, often games that have been put together on shoestring budgets by groups of only a few people, but what they are doing is attracting gigantic audiences, not hung up on graphics power, and immersive 3D graphics, but on what really makes people play games, and not worry about paying for it, and that's gameplay.

It's hard to properly predict where this is going, and guesses are all I've got, but based on the evidence of the past couple of years, I can see the total commoditisation of the console and the games market moving quickly toward a solution where the consumer is able to buy and play a broad range of video games on a broad range of hardware from a broad range of services. But what will happen, is that there will be little or no differentiation of whose games you play, on what hardware, wherever you are.

"There will be little or no differentiation of whose games you play, on what hardware, wherever you are"

There's no reason today, given an average internet connection, why I can't play the simplest block puzzle game, right up to the most amazing first-person shooter on pretty much any machine I choose to, from a £25 bare bones single chip computer plugged into a 16 inch portable TV, to a £2000, overclocked, liquid cooled mega PC running on a 50 inch HDTV (or a Wii, PS3 or Xbox 360 in-between).

Services like Onlive and Gaikai will let me stream amazing quality images to pretty much any machine, and if I'm unsatisfied with the experience there, it's my choice to spend money moving the power away from the server side to my end with faster processors and graphics hardware.

Where cloud game services fall over is with the gamophile, the gamer that must have the hottest hardware, but there's room here too. How long is it before I can buy a device that specifies a certain level of performance, the same way I can buy a TV or HiFi based on my needs and have the parts of that product that rely on certain aspects to be executed or processed where it's best done?

So really, the only reason now to have any specific game hardware is to be able to play the games that the hardware manufacturers spent a small fortune on building to get you to buy their hardware, but in reality, 95 per cent of the games that are released, and do really well, are available on all of them. So why not expend the effort and cost of developing new hardware on a system that lets me play a game on the best of breed on hardware I've already got, and offload the heavy lifting to things I can stream?

So, video game hardware is dead, long live video game hardware, in a form that lets me consume games the way I want to consume them, on the equipment I want to consume it on.

Matt Spall is a games industry veteran and current consultant for Tenshi. Tenshi's group of games industry consultants are providing regular opinion pieces for GamesIndustry International.

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Latest comments (19)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
Currently the best example of services that are portable across devices are email providers such as Gmail.

It is obvious that Microsoft are moving to do the same with as much as possible. We are heading for Microsoft phones, consoles and desktops being extremely cross compatible with all sorts of applications running transparently and seamlessly between them, with the data held in the cloud. Games are a prime candidate to thrive in such an environment.
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Matt Hewitson Senior QA Technician, Crytek UK5 years ago
The UK's average speed is 2Mbit. Your 10GB game would take ( 10 * 1024 * 8 / 2 ) seconds ~= 11 hours. Not to mention that a lot of these services run with monthly usage caps.

I'd welcome digital-only delivery of games if everyone had fair access to a fiber-optic line or similar but the reality is that, for most people, walking to a shop is still going to be faster than downloading.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
The game does not have to be installed on the device it is being played on.

Look at Runescape. It was successful way back in 2001 when there was a lot less bandwidth. It has 10 million active accounts per month and 156 million registered accounts.

To put this in context there are only just over 60 million PS3s in the world in total.
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Show all comments (19)
Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 5 years ago
I think the Wii and the DS are the best argument against this. Moving to a model where every game has limiting factors upon will have several implIcations:

1. Development budgets will explode to make sure that everything can be tested and optimised for all systems.
2. Some of the greatest expansions in the gaming audience have come down hardware specific design: wii, DS, buzz, eyetoy. We need this around.
3. The amount of players in the distribution of these services will have to be small to make it a benefit for the consumer or worth while as a business model. For the market as a whole it's a very bad monoculture.
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Nick Parker Consultant 5 years ago
Matt is right, streamed content to dumber connected local clients will happen; the question is when not if but it won't be anytime soon as the bandwidth, certainly in the UK, is not there yet. We shouldn't be discussing what we can achieve now but prepare ourselves for how we shall be playing within five years.
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve5 years ago
Agreed Nicholas, even as a "core" gamer, I'd be happy to play all my games from a dumb terminal that streams data, IF it can match the experience I have today, with acceptable latencies and no ugly artefacts from compression. But for this to happen we have to have better connections, they can't come soon enough.
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Brian Smith Artist 5 years ago
If gaming goes this way I'll eat my avatars downloadable hat.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.5 years ago
South Korea has the best average Internet connection speeds on Earth and even they are still buying packaged goods instead of moving to only streaming online services.

And the rest of the world has a long way to go to catch up to South Korea's speeds.
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Harry Holmwood CEO, Europe, Marvelous AQL5 years ago
But you don't need to download all that 10GB in order to start playing. There's no reason why even the biggest games can't happily be distributed online, with today's infrastructure. They just need to be built to be delivered that way.
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Mike Wells Writer 5 years ago
A lot of truth in here, but distant truth. If you live, like me, in the countryside (but only a few miles from major towns - not up a mountain or anything), then there is no cable, lousy broadband and dodgy cellular coverage. That is the reality and don't expect to see much investment from the providers to change it during an extended recession. Downloaded or streamed, games designed to the lowest common denominator so that they run on "any" platform, or that rely on nice "urban" connectivity, will only have one outcome for a lot of people - they'll drive them away from gaming and back to reading books and watching movies. But hey, maybe that's not so bad...
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Rob Craig Instructor / Writer 5 years ago
Specifically to the point about internet infrastructure, and to join Jim Webb's point ... the US is a very big place. City dwellers have fast and cheap internet. I'm talking about Chicago, New York, San Fran., Seattle, etc. But the red, white, and blue has as many gamers in less-metro areas. These people groan when patches and updates are queued - usually finding another task to do while their sluggish internet connection downloads the patch. Some simply do not have any internet options - no wireless, 4G, nothing. Once you research the infrastructure of the US and other places outside of your own zone, you realize that things just aren't the same everywhere. I examined this topic during my master's research and concluded that 100% streaming gaming will be defacto some day, but if it is attempted now, you lose half of the US. By the way, this is the same half that can't stream netflix, hulu, etc.
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Pete Thompson Editor 5 years ago
I have to agree with Mike Wells, I also live a few miles from a big town, and we're limited to "upto 8mb" with BT. And while BT are now happily advertising that Infinity 2 is available we're still on ADSL and my local exchange has no upgrade date listed.

Also, Im quite happy to continue playing on a console, but I keep getting analysts telling me that I want to move to downloadable games, maybe if they were to listen to gamers they would realise that not everyone has issues with the way things are setup now! My consoles (x360 & ps3) do what I want them too, and thats play games, and because of Sony inclusion of bluray in the PS3 we're now seeing "games" consoles evolving into entertainment systems, Something that Im personally against, I have Sky+ HD if I want to watch tv.

I've tried Onlive, I was at their launch at last years Eurogamer event and had access prior to that via a PR supplied unit, and although the dashboard looked good the service was dire where I live, so its not been used since I got it..

Also, a 750mb patch!! those are not very common, so that must be for either a PS3 or BF3 and bundled with dlc that then only needs a 108k download to unlock it, Most games patches are small, and X360 patches are normally no bigger than 4mb..
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Stephen Richards Game Deisgner 5 years ago
I used to agree with Matt's view on onlive and gaika, but now I'm not so sure. The core of the issue is whether improvements in broadband infrastructure can overtake those in cpu and gpu power. For most of us, we can currently get a better experience on consoles than streaming from onlive. Internet speeds are improving, but so are the processing speeds of our consoles. My own opinion is that streaming will narrowly miss the window it requires to be mass-market viable. By the time we all have sufficient broadband speeds, we'll already have invested in the next console generation, as which point any minor graphical differences will be neutralised by the increased input lag.

Digital game sales are a separate matter. They have many advantages for those with high internet speeds but that doesn't mean the end of the boxed game. The two can live side by side.
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Saehoon Lee Lead technical artist, Kuno Interactive5 years ago
We shouldnt forget that there are still many people who wish to own a physical copy of whatever they buy. Kinda similiar to some people still prefer paper book over digital one. I think there is some human nature to that as well. This could change over generations however..
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 5 years ago
I think we've seen with iTunes vs. CDs how quickly the supposed desire for a physical copy can vanish.

Any book I can download rather than buy is a big win by me, to the point where I'd pay a premium for a (non-DRM'd) downloadable version over a paper copy. Then again, I live in Japan, where finding space in my apartment for books is a serious problem.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 11th May 2012 6:47am

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"There's no reason today, given an average internet connection, why I can't play the simplest block puzzle game, right up to the most amazing first-person shooter on pretty much any machine I choose to"

Yes there is, (even if we would accept the premise of large enough coverage of sufficient internet connections speeds globally) it's called latency. This is very difficult PRACTICAL issue to overcome globally. But of course if we toss all this practicality nonsense out of the window, I also predict we will have flying cars in the future. There is just this bitch called gravity.
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Tim Hull Co-Founder, Stuntpigs Ltd.5 years ago
I remember back in '95 older chaps at ad agencies looking at our web video advertising technology saying

"no one is ever going to buy things over the internet",

we were too avant guard for them and connections were not too great for video even if we had got the ads down to 1MB.

About 5 years later and most webizens were related to someone who had made an online purchase and Music downloading was commonplace.

It took another 5 years before web video became just as commonplace.

Now about another 5-7 years on the max data in games is no heavier than a BDROM which are already compressed and downloaded with the same popularity as was found with music back in 2000 via Napster.

Anyone who ignores the current trend in gaming will have missed the next digital boat.

The dumb terminal / mainframe computing relationship is returning.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Hull on 11th May 2012 2:57pm

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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.5 years ago
Tim, the difference is that for those that still don't have a solid connection, you can go to the store and buy your movie. The physical medium still exists.

In the scenario pushed above where hardware is just a client device for streaming content, you kill a huge portion of your market because you no longer have the physical medium option.

Say your market consists of 100 million potential users. If only 60 million have solid connections (at launch), you just eliminated 40 million, or 40%, of your potential sales base. And even out of that initial 60 million, not all will want everything digitally. So you lose a further portion of your market.

Without a physical medium to complement the digital medium, you kill a huge portion of your market. Will some of that 40% obtain a solid connection in a few years? Probably. But do you want to risk billion of dollars on a probably?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jim Webb on 11th May 2012 6:23pm

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Doug Paras5 years ago
4mb songs are a far cry from a 30gig game when it comes to downloading.
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