The Future of Cloud Gaming

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The gaming industry is no stranger to niche hardware implementations and devices that have failed to capture consumer attention. The most obvious example of this is the repeated failure of 3D gaming to gain traction with consumers. The earliest version of 3D tech that I can remember was Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console. Years later we saw 3D implementation in everything from television sets to portable consoles like the Nintendo’s 3DS. Even without the need for cumbersome 3D glasses, the feature failed to capture consumer attention. With each iteration, the hype eventually dissipated, and the tech failed to gain mainstream adoption.

Like 3D gaming, cloud streaming of videogames has been tried before. Services like OnLive allowed consumers to play PC games via high-powered computers located in the cloud. The service, though it showed promise, failed to capture consumer attention. It is possible that Stadia, Project xCloud, and the other cloud gaming derivatives could follow the same path.

Cloud gaming is now beginning to see native implementation into TV sets. Philips has announced that they will be releasing a lineup of TVs with a native Stadia app that would allow consumers to play console games directly from their TVs absent a Chromecast or any other kind of added hardware. The advantage that a service like Stadia or Project xCloud has over 3D is that it is absent additional hardware requirements like the cumbersome glasses that were a requisite for 3D viewing when it was implemented in consumer television sets.

Cloud Gaming Services

Cloud Gaming schemes like Goggle’s Stadia and Project xCloud have their own unique sets of pitfalls. All cloud gaming platforms suffer from additive input latency, which means that there is a delay between when a player pushes a button or moves a thumbstick and when that input is displayed on the screen. How severe this input latency is can depend on a user’s internet as well as their distance from a data center. For those with rural internet, or internet service providers that are unreliable, cloud gaming will currently not be an option.

Even under ideal conditions, there will still be added input latency, but it is unlikely that your average casual gamer will be able to tell the difference. A video released by youtuber ESO featured a demo of Stadia next to a normal gaming console with only the screens showing. Most consumers could not pick which game was running locally in a blind sample test. Hardcore and competitive gamers will no doubt be able to spot the difference, but the ability to play PC and console games on any device will no doubt be attractive to gamers who do not wish to pay the upfront cost for a game console or a gaming PC.

Game streaming services are also acutely sensitive to networking hardware issues as the games are run on a high-power computer in the cloud and are subsequently streamed back to your TV via the internet. As the game inputs are all recorded in real-time, the cloud cannot pre-load portions of the video feed like Netflix can do with streaming video. Any brief hitch in a user’s network will translate on-screen as game stutters or a drop in visual acuity.

A properly implemented local wireless network should have no problem streaming Stadia with minimal hitching. Still, wireless interference and hardware issues can be difficult for users to diagnose. For the best experience, users of cloud gaming services should run a dedicated wire to their main cloud gaming platform, be it their television, computer, or whatever they use to play games. If a prospective user has bad wireless network hardware, and cannot connect via Ethernet, they will have to pay the additional upfront cost to purchase a new dedicated access point or router. Google’s Nest Wifi hardware has a dedicated Stadia traffic shaping option that ensures that Stadia traffic receives priority over downloads and other streaming services. Nest itself costs around $200, though it is not required to use the base Stadia service.

Despite these issues, game streaming services have a lot to offer. With Stadia, users can move seamlessly from device to device without having to reload a save or restart a game. A user can begin a game on their TV and seamlessly resume gameplay on their phone, tablet, or laptop independently of their hardware’s ability to drive gaming platforms.

Microsoft’s Project xCloud currently only allows users to stream games to compatible Android devices, but this will likely expand as development moves farther along. Sony also offers a game streaming service called PlayStation Now that allows users to stream PlayStation games to either their PC or their PlayStation game consoles. Nintendo is reportedly considering entering the cloud gaming foray, and there are reports that Amazon, EA, and even Valve are trialing game streaming services.

Neither Microsoft nor Sony have opened their entire games library to their respective streaming services. The only service that currently does this is Stadia, which bills itself as a console replacement. Which of these modalities wins out, either Google’s console replacement or Microsoft and Sony’s console supplement strategy depends on general adoption by consumers. As such, it is not clear whether cloud gaming will be at the forefront of consumer gaming experience or whether it will survive as an additive feature tacked onto existing hardware platforms like the Xbox or PlayStation.

Stadia is currently the most feature-complete cloud gaming system, as it allows play across a wider variety of devices than either Sony or Microsoft’s services. As TV manufacturers are already implementing Stadia support, it seems likely that we will see a strong push towards native implementations with several different television manufacturers as there is no onerous hardware cost for native Stadia implementation. It could also be possible to add Stadia support to existing TVs via a software update.

If console-free game streaming either from Google’s offering or Amazon’s upcoming service begins to see adoption, the competition for the cloud streaming market will likely push Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft to expand their cloud streaming services to include their entire game library, as opposed to their currently limited streaming libraries.

Consoles, particularly during the early iterations of their life-cycle, are typically sold at a loss. It is not a stretch to imagine the big console manufacturers ditching physical consoles if the market shows a strong movement towards cloud-gaming adoption. This assumes that infrastructure issues have been solved, and consumer opinion, which currently views game streaming with suspicion, shifts into the positive.

The convenience of streaming-only services like Stadia is a boon, but whether Stadia can survive depends on Google’s ability to secure quality platform exclusives and to address the negative press that is pervasive with Stadia reporting. If cloud gaming takes off in a big way, the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 could be the last dedicated gaming consoles that we ever see. However, it is also possible that, like 3D gaming, game streaming will fail to capture consumer adoption and gradually fade out of existence.

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