Whenever I’ve interviewed a games industry executive over the past few months, I’ve asked them what single thing will revolutionize video games in the next five years.
I was expecting a range of answers: game development becoming more accessible, perhaps, or games finding bigger markets in the developing world, or a technology innovation like VR/AR (or blockchain, if the 50 buzzwordy press releases I get every week are to be believed).
But one concept kept coming up: streaming. Whether it was Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, Bethesda’s Todd Howard, Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot or EA’s Patrick Soderlund, everyone wanted to talk about the idea of cloud-tech-powered and even Netflix-style subscriptions that let you play games on any device.
Everyone in the industry and around it seems to be into this stuff. Right after E3, Kotaku reported that Google met with developers at this year’s Game Developers Conference to gauge interest in a streaming platform, code-named Yeti. EA was demonstrating streaming tech at E3 this year, showing its games running on phones.
Game industry execs are universally positive about the prospect of streaming services for games and believe they can expand the audience.
“We will see more triple A games on a wider variety of screens—that’s a huge trend that will continue to change the industry, and we’re also seeing a growing seamlessness between platforms,” said Ubisoft’s Guillemot. “That’s going to make the industry totally different. Today we have 200 million players on console and two billion gamers in total, globally. The games created for those 200 million machines will soon be accessible to the two billion. I think in ten years we’ll have five billion people who will be able to access the game we create. That will totally change the approach of the industry - and the perception of the industry.”
A quote from an interview I did over on the Guardian shows that Bethesda’s Todd Howard is a fan, too: “I think streaming technology is definitely coming, and it’s gonna make people’s access to games infinitely easier. You’ve seen it happen to music and movies, and it’s definitely gonna be happening to gaming, and I think it’s a great thing.”
Xbox boss Phil Spencer was perhaps the most positive of everyone I spoke to about this topic. He talked up cloud-enabled game streaming as something that would make developers’ lives infinitely easier, by removing restrictions on who can play their games.
“What I see on the creative side is that creators have to build per device, because the display capability or power of a phone limits what a creator could bring to that screen,” he said. “Our focus is on bringing console quality games that you see on a TV or PC to any device. I think our hope is that will unlock new customers and engagement, too… I want to see the creators that I have relationships with create huge immersive games, and I want to be a platform to allow those creators to reach 2 billion people, and not have to turn their studio into something that makes match-3 games rather than story-driven single player games because that’s the only way to reach those platforms.
“That is our goal: to bring high-quality experiences to every device possible on the planet… I think we all want to think about how we grow the gaming business, to not create arbitrary decisions on what console you buy or what network you join. [We should be] trying to make sure that we are all pulling in the same direction. The biggest challenge I feel now is gamers’ desire to continue to divide our industry.”
The only platform holder that has said pretty much nothing about streaming is Nintendo: not exactly an entity known for its quick embrace of new technologies.
The idea of cloud-enabled game streaming is not new. Gaikai and OnLive were two services that competed to offer it back at the beginning of this decade; one was bought by Sony and is now used to power PlayStation Now’s on-demand games, and OnLive went bust, largely because people didn’t trust streaming tech to deliver the lag-free high-quality gaming experience they wanted. Nvidia’s Geforce Now, meanwhile, a cloud-powered game streaming service, is in beta - but it’s only designed for PC, Mac and TVs with a Shield box.
There are technical barriers standing in the way of game streaming becoming widespread right now: the worldwide availability of high-speed internet is some of them. But even once those issues are overcome, there is a cultural barrier, too. Whenever execs in the games industry start talking about a post-console future, there is a lot of resistance. People like the box under their television. For some, being an Xbox player or a PlayStation player or a Nintendo player was a part of their identity growing up: a subject of playground arguments and bonding between friends. Millions of people see themselves as PlayStation, Nintendo or Xbox fans as much as gaming fans. The identity of a console is very much bound up in the unique games that you can only play on that machine.
Although vinyl collectors would tell you differently, nobody really had to give up anything when the music industry has shifted formats; few people cared about the brand of their CD player, and few people minded when music shifted online. But for people who play video games, giving up consoles means letting go of a lot of fond memories.
It’s easy to see why games businesses are keen on streaming becoming the norm. It will open up games to more players, diminish the used game market (which currently benefits gamers and retailers, but not publishers or developers), and whoever gets to own the streaming platform itself - ie, whoever gets to be Netflix, taking money for subscriptions and offering other companies’ content - will get very rich. It’s also difficult to argue Phil Spencer’s point that it would make life so much easier for developers, especially smaller ones, if people did not have to own a specific black box to play their game. Players, though, may be less keen if the comments and Twitter responses on articles on the end of consoles are anything to go by, and it might take a lot to convince them. (Spencer, it should be noted, talked about game-streaming during the Xbox E3 briefing but also talked about working on a new console.)
There exists a generation now that has never bought music on a disc, or bought a TV box set. Gaming technology will move forward, and a post-console future is likely to come; I’d even say it’s almost certain. For many people who grew up with consoles, though, it’s going to be a painful parting.