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Game streaming has not arrived | Opinion

On-demand tech is everywhere at E3, but there are still more questions than answers

Think of the most personally exciting things you've seen from this year's E3 so far. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that "on-demand game streaming" is not among them.

Despite that, when the E3 show recaps are written this Friday, the push for streaming services will doubtless be among the top stories, right up there with Keanu Reeves and that sequel/remake of that classic game you loved. And when we look back on E3 2019 in years to come, Stadia, Project xCloud, and Orion may be the most industry-shaping things shown here.

It's certainly understandable. The biggest industry shifts aren't always the sexiest ones. I recall no chants of "digital distribution" during the Microsoft press briefing of E3 2005.

"In many ways E3 is about building hype, but streaming is a difficult thing to build hype for"

Of course, streaming is in a different position than digital distribution was back then. It has the potential to be just as disruptive, but it also has deep-pocketed backers, powerful companies putting plenty of money behind their own attempts to disrupt the status quo to their own advantage.

When it came to digital distribution, the big players were comparatively timid. They were publicly ambivalent about how customers would get their games, perhaps in deference to the concerns of retail partners. They tinkered with it as a side business, rolling out Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare not as alternative ways to buy retail games but as entirely separate catalogs of smaller original experiences.

On the other hand, it looks like the streaming companies are going to push more aggressively to have streaming as a direct competitor/alternative to non-streaming purchases for customers. When Stadia launches, it will feature new games like Doom Eternal, Ghost Recon: Break Point, and Borderlands 3. Microsoft hasn't said much about the particulars of Project xCloud, but it's widely expected to integrate with the Xbox Game Pass in some way, which already gives subscribers Microsoft's biggest AAA blockbusters and a selection of indie titles on day one.

Stadia will support loads of devices at launch

Stadia will support loads of devices at launch

It doesn't take a particularly vibrant imagination to see how on-demand streaming could upend the industry. Despite that, I've seen very little actual excitement over the technology this week (outside of people actively building businesses in streaming, naturally).

In many ways, E3 is about building hype, but streaming is a difficult thing to build hype for. For most players, the best-case scenario for streaming is that it feels like playing a non-streaming game. Skipping a tedious download and install process is no doubt a cool feature that could change the way people consume games, but it doesn't get a standing ovation from a crowd of superfans.

"Playing any game, anytime, anywhere, on any screen is huge. But that's not what this batch of streaming services is offering"

The idea of playing any game, anytime, anywhere, on any screen is huge. But that's not what this batch of streaming services is offering right now, and there's no telling how close they will ever get to that.

Any game? Stadia debuts in November and Google announced 31 compatible games in its launch window. Microsoft appears better positioned to deliver something closer to the ideal with its considerable library of titles (and perhaps the Game Pass lineup of third-party games), but it's still far from being a Spotify for games. And the abundance of publishers offering their own separate subscription services (Ubisoft joined that party this week) makes me skeptical that we're going to see any one service bring all the key players under the same tent any time soon.

But even if every publisher was on board with any given streaming service, will all their games fit the model? Do free-to-play games of any sort even make sense in a streaming environment? They already rely on a fraction of users to pay the freight for the creation and live service support on the game. Can those few spenders cover all that as well as the server costs of running a few million copies of games like Warframe, Dauntless or Fortnite and still provide a worthwhile return on investment? If streaming is an accessibility play to eliminate the need for expensive dedicated console hardware, well, smartphones have already done that. And they already work just fine with free-to-play as is.

Anytime? Ok, there's one.

Anywhere? Stadia recommends customers have a bandwidth of 35 Mbps to stream games well at 4K, and the most recent numbers from Speedtest put the average US fixed-speed connection at 96.25 Mbps. Speedtest reports huge variance in bandwidth from country to country, but there are a handful of significant markets where consumer bandwidth does not appear to be a key limitation. So if you're in one of those markets and planted some place with good WiFi, maybe you can make this work.

"My smartphone plan includes 10 GB of data a month. Stadia streaming at 1080p uses 9 GB an hour"

Mobile networks are another issue, and I think it's going to be a long time before kids in the backseat on a road trip will be able to have consistent connections fast enough for an acceptable experience. Even in the US, the average mobile bandwidth is 27.33 Mpbs. And even if you have a fast enough and consistent enough connection, there's still the matter of bandwidth caps on cell phone plans before throttling or overage charges kick in. I splurged for a monthly smartphone plan that includes 10 GB of data, which was the most my Canadian provider offered when I signed up last year. As PC Gamer reports, one hour of game streaming on Stadia at 1080p eats up 9GB. These caps will no doubt increase over time, particularly as 5G networks roll out and apps take advantage of greater speed, but it will be up to service providers how quickly those data caps rise, and how far.

And then there's the control issue. Playing complex AAA console experiences on a cell phone has been possible through a number of different methods in recent years, whether through virtual button overlays on the touchscreen or through third-party controller support. We've learned a few things from these attempts, among them that people like tactile feedback, don't like choosing between controlling the game or seeing the action, and rarely bother playing with external controllers. We've also learned that the places and situations where people play games on their smartphone fit better with games designed for smartphones from the start than those designed to be consumed by players over multi-hour sittings in front of the TV.

Can the smartphone-controller chimera win people over?

Can the smartphone-controller chimera win people over?

These aren't insurmountable challenges, even today. Fortnite has shown people can adapt to a virtual control scheme on mobile, and Switch has shown meaty experiences can still work on the go. But control overlays likely would need to be tailored game-by-game for optimum effectiveness, and the Switch has more in common with handheld systems of the past than smartphones when it comes to how, where, and when people use it. Streaming to smartphones is the biggest wrinkle to the gaming experience the new wave of streaming services offers, but it's one with a limited upside.

Any screen? We're getting close here. Stadia should eventually run on any device with a Chrome browser. And Microsoft has at least said it wants to enable its games to be played on any device, so if Sony and Nintendo ever decide to allow Project xCloud apps on their hardware, that could conceivably happen as well. That would also provide a somewhat unique experience; anyone who remembers playing the first multiplatform Sega games after the company scrapped the Dreamcast and went first-party can probably imagine the surreal experience that would be playing Halo using Nintendo controllers. A Switch app would solve the controller issue for on-the-go gaming nicely, as well.

So how do you get consumers excited about something with so many caveats? Without solving those above problems, I'm not sure.

You could offer games players can't get elsewhere. Google is attempting to do this with original titles for Stadia, but the fruits of those efforts would seem to be considerably far off. (And as Amazon has learned, there's more to ramping up AAA game development than simply throwing together lots of money and talent.) Microsoft isn't going to make its own games unavailable to its existing Xbox or PC non-streaming customer base. As for buying up third-party games as exclusives, Epic has shown it's not a way to win any popularity contests, and I'm skeptical that pairing unpopular business tactics with unproven technology is going to help streaming take off.

A few companies have tried to use cloud computing to create gameplay that couldn't be done traditionally, but early returns on those haven't been promising. Microsoft backed away from its original "Power of the Cloud" plan for Xbox One, Square Enix-backed Shinra Technologies shut down before shipping a title, and more recently Bossa gave up on Worlds Adrift, the first big showpiece title for Improbable's SpatialOS.

A business model like Xbox Game Pass could make for a compelling draw, but it already exists in non-streaming form, and it doesn't require streaming and the technical/logistical issues that come with it. (It's telling that Sony recently added download options to its own PlayStation Now service; streaming may be a nice way to check games out quickly, but downloading still provides a superior experience for players.)

For all their potential, streaming services just don't seem to be exciting to consumers yet. Much like digital distribution, they probably never will be. But they can still reshape the industry if they can find a compelling reason for consumers to adopt them. Digital distribution won players over with a degree of convenience consumers largely didn't even understand they wanted. While I can imagine an on-demand streaming service that re-shapes the industry by doing the exact same thing, the challenges to realizing that imagined service are tougher, more numerous, and some of them potentially insurmountable.

Game streaming is an "on-demand" technology, but anyone banking on it as the next big thing should be prepared for quite a wait.

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Latest comments (8)

Totally disagree with this article. Game streaming may have its hiccups mainly here in the US because of our poor internet infrastructure, especially in rural america but the positives for this new tech are immense. As a game designer and developer not having to worry and or configure your code to fit a gazillion configs, and not being made to design and code to the least common dominator with regard to hardware configs is a game changer. Its the one giant advantage console had/have over PC, consoles have a stable knowable platform, so you know how your game is going to perform ..period. No guessing, hoping. You can now program knowing the hardware is going to be up to par for EVERY user.
As for consumers, its a game changer as well. The days of watching your expensive gaming rig turn into a paper weight are over. No more worry and expense of chasing the latest and greatest in video cards etc.

The change to cloud based streaming gaming will be BIG, just as everything else cloud based is. The cloud is here, its incredible for business applications and has already basically taken over the more important and lucrative business world, and it will do the same for gaming as well.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 12th June 2019 4:59pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 13 days ago
Stadia is hardly replacing the PC, so if anything, there is one more configuration to worry about.

Rather than talking about Stadia, we should be asking why we stopped talking about Steam Link, Onlive, Playstation Now, Nvidia Shield TV Game Stream, and GeForce Now. At least two of which can be used locally side by side on two monitors for a Youtube video that is certain to aggravate Valve and Nvidia, but not because you also filmed it in a public restroom instead of your fake bedroom set. Toilet cooled overclocking of a 2080Ti? Maybe. But questioning streaming services in 2019? Thou shalt not doubt the cloud.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University13 days ago
The hype has arrived. But the cloud streaming hasn't. Always a red flag when too much H precedes a new tech. IF the hype was 1/2 of reality then there would be no need to hype it. Who doesn't want to pay less for better looking graphics with no loading times?

But the reality is they are putting the internet between your controller and gaming machine and between your gaming machine and tv screen. The experience and tolerance for the experience will greatly vary from customer to customer and game to game.

To put it in simple terms, Netflix can buffer. Games can't.

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 13th June 2019 1:30am

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Show all comments (8)
Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.12 days ago
Game streaming has arrived.

What hasn't arrived (at least in the US) are modern billing plans. Data caps are a relic.

Making the claim it must be perfect on every screen before you can say it has arrived is silly.
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Nathan Ruck Programmer, Media Molecule12 days ago
I predict it will succeed eventually, for the simple reason that it will be very difficult to write cheat software for streaming games. (Maybe you could use image processing to write an aimbot... but that's probably the limit of it, and even that would be hard.) Multiplayer games such as pubg will benefit massively from that.
How long it takes before the infrastructure is there though... it's probably still a way off.
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Alex Barnfield Lead Engineer, 17-BIT12 days ago
The kind of enthusiast who has an expensive gaming rig isn't going to be delighted by this, these are people who buy lower res monitors with refresh rates in the hundreds and g-sync/freesync. Image compression and increased input lag just aren't things they are ever going to accept. Even console gamers pick their TV based on gaming mode response times these days.

Loading times are looking to be pretty minimal next gen; assuming you meant install times rather than load times then yes that's a bonus but I'm not sure it's a big enough one for the existing install bases.

I think the more interesting question is will streaming allow games traditionally only enjoyed by enthusiasts to reach a larger audience?
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.11 days ago
"@Alex Barnfield: I think the more interesting question is will streaming allow games traditionally only enjoyed by enthusiasts to reach a larger audience? "

Oh definitely. And at resolutions, image quality and settings that they don't normally have access to. Mac, linux and phone only gamers can really benefit.

But I do think this will benefit even high end gamers. Currently, they cannot take their games on the go. With cross saves being announced for many big games, that opens up a lot of game continuation options for gamers normally tethered to their home PCs.
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Alex Barnfield Lead Engineer, 17-BIT11 days ago
The first point I agree with; I still have concerns as input lag is one of those things that can hamper your experience but not really know why; but tolerances vary wildly.

I can't see the benefit to high end gamers; when I play the switch away from home it's on a train, a plane, or in an isolated vacation home with either spotty or no broadband. The stadia isn't suited to any of these use cases. That and they can never play the game in the ideal way (the other article about streaming echoes this 61% of gamers either have no interest or would have concerns about performance of one form or another). Now if steam allowed you to optionally stream your titles or download them when you were at your own gaming rig at least then you would still have the option of playing under ideal conditions (and guess what was just announced).
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