It was All a Stream: The (Possible) Future of Gaming
When Netflix’s streaming service started taking off in the late 2000s, it would go on to change the film industry in a big way. First it targeted video stores, then they began to go after movie theaters and TV networks by creating their own original content. The industry took notice with streaming platforms, such as Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Crackle, and the upcoming Disney+ and Apple TV+, that are all following in their footsteps. This streaming business model has no doubt shaken up the film industry, but the idea of streaming content is not just important to movies and television shows because it’s also trickling over to other industries.
Last week, Google announced that they were getting into the video game business, competing head-to-head with the big juggernauts of gaming: Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and PC gaming. They didn’t announce a console, like the PlayStation or Xbox, but a streaming platform more in line with Netflix. It would allow you to stream your games across your TV, computer, smartphone or tablet seamlessly over the Internet. This is an ambitious idea; one that others have tried in the past and failed at. The difference this time is that it is backed by Google, which is a company that has the money and the resources to pull this kind of thing off.
One of the big concerns about something like this is latency. While watching something on a current streaming service, we’ve all encountered times where the connection wasn’t that great— having to wait a few seconds for a show or movie to buffer. This is a far bigger deal when dealing with video games, especially multiplayer games. One bad hitch in a connection could mean an instant death, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting killed in a game because of a connection issue. There are also certain genres like fighting games that might not work through streaming because of their absolutely precise timing when landing moves.
Google hasn’t mentioned how exactly people are going to be paying for their games either. Will it be a subscription like Netflix, or will you pay per game— or both? They hinted in their press briefing at there being an online store, which leads one to believe you will be paying per game. I think part of the reason the public got behind video streaming services is because you’re paying monthly for access to all of the content; it’s like belonging to a club. I think if Netflix’s model had been that you had to pay for each movie/TV show individuality without the ability to download and watch them offline, then it would have been a much harder pill to swallow.
To further prove that video game streaming is going to be a big deal, Apple recently announced that they, too, will be releasing their own service called Apple Arcade. It’s too early to know for sure, but it seems like Apple might not be aiming to directly compete with the other companies. While Google seems to want all third party games that will be coming out on consoles on their service, Apple seems to be taking a different approach. They seem more interested in creating their own games by recruiting famous game developers, such as Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of Final Fantasy) and Will Wright (creator of The Sims). The look of the games they presented at their conference has more of an indie feel to them than the big budget games Google seems to be aiming for. I think some of the games Apple showed looked really neat, and I think they fit their style of products. If there’s one thing to take away from these new competitors entering the video game arena is this: despite some of the downsides, companies like Google and Apple are giving developers opportunities they probably wouldn’t otherwise have to make the games they want.
If the streaming for these new services (more specifically Google) work as advertisements, it could make video game consoles be a thing of the past. There’s already talk of new consoles releasing next year, but who would want to pay $400-$500 on a PlayStation 5 or a new Xbox when they can get games that are just as good, if not better, on devices that they already own? When you tell a kid today that you used to have to go to an arcade to play a video game, that sounds so archaic to them. Imagine in twenty years, telling our kids that when we were young we had to plug a box into the television to play games… If this streaming stuff catches on, then that’s going to sound just as insane to them as the arcades.
Google is a company notorious for putting out new services, and then shutting them down if they no longer benefit them. Some of those services include Google Glass, Google Buzz, Google Wave, Google Health and Google Reader. There will be another to add to that list as Google+ is shutting down in April; Google’s answer to Facebook and Twitter. It’s funny when Google+ first came out I thought, “If anybody is going to be able to take down Facebook, it’s going to be Google.” These are the same thoughts I’m having now except replace “Facebook” with “game consoles.” So, what if five or so years from now Google sees that the Stadia isn’t as profitable as they thought it was going to be? Are they going to shut it down like they’ve done countless other products? That would mean all your games would be gone if Google shuts off the servers. Although, I think Google is dumping enough money into the Stadia that they are going to see it through, but you never know. I also would think that Google is a smart enough company that they would come up with a way for people to still be able to play the Stadia games even if they shut the service down. I mean think of the PR nightmare if they didn’t. Still, it’s hard for me to want to invest heavily in the Stadia ecosystem when Google has such a rotten track record for shutting down its products.
Another concern with all of this is what happens when a game needs to be removed from circulation? Just last year, Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment stopped selling Lego: The Lord of the Rings and Lego: The Hobbit on online stores because the license they had for both of those properties had expired. Of course, if you have already purchased the game physically or digitally you still have access to it. Yet, what happens when something like this happens on the Stadia? Do you just loose access to that game even if you purchased it? Do they refund you all (or a portion) of your money? Or will they stop allowing new players from accessing it, but if you already bought it you can keep playing it? Even if they did the latter option, over time I can see a situation where Google sees they’re still running this old game on their servers that only a small portion of players have access to. At what point do they decide it’s not worth it to keep it running, and pull the plug on it? Maybe this turns out to not be a big deal, however, these are the kinds of things you have to consider when one company has full control of all your games.
At the end of the day, there are some really cool possibilities here. Being able to play any kind of video game across any device regardless of power is something I’m totally for. I also think that’s something the industry has been building up to. It removes basically all of the barriers of entry and allows everyone to play games anywhere. Nonetheless, there are still concerns; I worry about Internet speeds, I worry about not being able to play games offline, and I worry about one company having full control of my gaming library. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, and I’m interested to see how the other major game companies respond to this (Microsoft is supposedly announcing a streaming plan at E3 in June), but for now, I will remain both excited and uneasy of where this could all go.