The "Netflix of Games" Future
The Future of Digital Game Streaming
Back in August, Fast Company did an article about how Microsoft was poised to create a “Netflix of Gaming”. A supposedly bold move into the future of console gaming. I had debated writing a post about this then, but the FC article was more of a primer for people who weren’t aware of how cloud computing could function, rather than a detailed description of any particular service. However, yesterday Business Insider created a similarly themed article about Amazon. It feels like maybe it’s a good time to put some thought into this possible industry direction.
Cloud Gaming In A Nutshell
For those of you who may not be aware of this new tech concept in the gaming space, it goes something like this. Instead of purchasing a gaming console that you would regularly buy physical, or download full games onto, the platform would offer a Netflix style service that would allow you to select any game from within it’s catalogue. From a hardware perspective, this could be done in several ways, but the two most prominent would be that you either (1) purchase a hardware console that doesn’t have a DVD drive, and has just the basics of necessary power and storage spave to play the games, or you (2) rent it from a player like Microsoft or Amazon similar to the way you would a cable tv box. Once selected, the game you’re playing would then be hosted on a cloud system and the data sent to your box over broadband, with the console doing the most basic of graphics rendering and operations. In essence, this is a move away from traditional retail game purchasing into a more subscription based system akin to cloud based music and movies.
All Your Games, Now?
This idea isn’t entirely new, and has seen various forms on both PC and Console over the past 15 or so years. Playstation actually currently has a service called Playstation Now, which is built off of two services acquired several years ago. PS Now allows your to play streamed games on your PS 4 from a wide variety of sources, including games that were on previous platforms such as the Playstation 3. This offers a unique way to offer backwards compatibility as well, so that owners upgrading to newer Consoles won’t lose access to the games they’ve played and loved on previous Console generations.
These kind of services could end up being a incredibly convenient way for people to game, never having to order or leave their house to purchase games, with a Console’s entire catalogue being available at any time for every player. It would certainly increase the ease of use of joining your friends for a multiplayer experience no matter what new hot game they’re playing at the moment. It would also dramatically decrease the amount fo physical content that needs to be manufactured, shipped and delivered, and ultimately taking up shelf space. And would create a gaming experience with a set monthly cost, no matter how much or how many games you play.
Are We Tech Ready?
But as with all new tech, there are some foundational issues that need to be taken into account. First and foremost, as with any internet based technology is the accessibility and reliability of broadband networks. Even though the “cloud” is taking care of the bulk of the computational crunching in a system like this, you still need to be receiving fairly large amounts of information to your Console such as character data, map data, rendering information, multiple player locations and actions, as well as sending out your controller input info back to the cloud to make the necessary changes in your game state. Now these systems have become better and better and decreasing the amount of data traveling around, but you’ll quickly notice degradation in graphics quality and performance if your internet line isn’t up to snuff, or the cloud system is seeing large amounts of traffic. This is almost a non-starter for those with bad internet lines, and those who are tech aficionados that are purchasing and demanding the vary best in High Def TVs and performance.
As some of you more astute gamers may have noticed, I haven’t talked about possibly one of the most important considerations, that being game performance. Most games can get away with a little input or video lag, the time it takes between inputs and the resulting action on the screen. For most gaming experiences, anything from 50 to a few hundred Millisecond (ms) response time isn’t noticed to much, and framerate’s (fps) around 25-30 function well enough. But as you more into faster paced, more “twitch” (quick controller response time) based experiences, these numbers start to make all the difference. Many of the most popular titles, such as Fortnite, Call of Duty, Overwatch, require incredibly fast response times from players to play at a high level. The best of the best play on high end PCs with Keyboards and Mice connected directly to the PC using a high refresh rate monitor. This level of play, particularly among ESports athletes, demands response times in the single milliseconds and a framereate of 60fps, where fractional second differences can be the difference between winning the championship, and taking home the larger prize pool.
We Going Digital Yet?
So, what does all this mean for the future of Console gaming? Well, there is still one more consideration I should mention before giving my take. I grew in the 80’s and 90’s, when every Console and game were more or less a stand alone items. You bought a game from a store, brought it home and played it until you were done, and then you either put it on the shelf or let a friend borrow it. Console games didn’t get patches, or downloadable content, what you bought is what you had. Now I bring this up because it also leads to another very important point, I owned the games I bought. Every physical purchase I made, I had and could keep, store, or sell as I wished, with some “retro” games now fetching prices of over $100 or more there was a market for collectibles. In the digital space however, you don’t own anything. Whether you’re streaming the title or buying a digital purchase, you’re in essence purchasing a license to use the software, within the developers Terms of Service, for as long as you either pay, or they chose to keep it available. And that content can be taken away or “pulled” from the service at almost any time. We’ve seen this issue already with iTunes libraries, in which there is no ownership of the content. What happens if someone dies? Can their iTunes library be transferred to next of kin? It’s currently a grey area, with most services saying no.
Ultimately the future of every entertainment medium will be digital. The convenience of not having to physically buy or own something. combined with the vastly reduced costs of not having to deal with phsyical product, has quickly been outweighing the collector mentality of many. In short the economic incentives are rapidly pushing us in that direction. And with many of our traditional devices forgoing CD/DVD drives all together (Macbooks, Nintendo Switch, next Console rumors, etc) in favor of digital options, this is probably a battle that’s already been decided.