Streaming into the future - Part 4: Games
There was a time, believe it or not, when you had to use a cassette tape to load a game onto your computer. I can remember connecting a cassette tape player to my Commodore 64 and waiting, and waiting, and waiting… for the game to load. How will the growth of streaming media affect the gaming industry?
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In the early days of personal computing (sometimes referred to as the dark ages) we had to load our games from a cassette tape. A large game could take over an hour to load!
Today, however, it is increasingly the case that games are not sold on physical media. Buying a console game (for an Xbox or PS4), in a shop, is likely to be offered to you as a code to allow you to download the game. With the rise of computer-game distribution services, like Steam or the Epic Games Store, you don’t even have the code; you simply download the games to your computer and your licensing data is stored (in the cloud) with the service.
However, all of the above are still a download model. You ‘own’ the game or have purchases access to the specific game. Like music, film and television, there have been some major moves to bring streaming media into the mainstream of gaming.
The little one gets the ball rolling…
While the console gaming market has been dominated by a very small number of companies (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo) for quite a long time, having seen off competitors like Sega, Atari and others, it was an unknown company that brought streaming to the games industry.
In 2009, OnLive (a Mountainview, California company, founded in 2003) announced the OnLive Game System. Using a small ‘console’ and a game controller, users would be able to access games that they didn’t ‘own’. Instead, they would subscribe to access a library of games that they could play over the internet.
When announced, there was a great deal of scepticism about whether such a technological feat, relying on the quality of internet connections, was even possible. However, when the service was launched to the public in 2010 the response from both journalists and the public was quite positive.
Most found the experience to be close enough to console gaming that they couldn’t tell the difference. The monthly subscription model, which gave users access to a library of titles, was already becoming accepted through the rise of Netflix.
In 2012, OnLive announced the OnLive Desktop; a service that would allow users to play games on their computer. For many, this was a revelation. You didn’t need to buy a game to play. You could play PC games on a Mac. And, your monthly subscription was generally cheaper than buying one of the ‘triple-A’ (produced and distributed by major companies) games. Soon, the service was accessible via mobile phones.
It looked like the future of streaming games had arrived.
The patents that were held by OnLive were estimated, by some, to have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but this wasn’t enough to keep the lights on. In late 2012, the company was closed and in 2015 its assets were sold to Sony Entertainment and all services were shut down.
I guess the future hadn’t quite arrived.
And then big guns come out…
Around the time that OnLive started to have difficulties, Sony Entertainment announced that they would be launching their own game streaming service on the PlayStation platform. PlayStation Now launched in 2014 on PS3 and soon expanded onto the PS4.
Unlike OnLive, which was not tied to a specific game company, PlayStation Now provides subscription access to only the games available on PlayStation. Given the size of the PlayStation catalogue of games, this is not really a restriction. As of 2019, PlayStation Now provides PS4 owners the opportunity to play over 600 games for about $15 per month.
Sony, with PlayStation Now, is the first of the major console manufacturers to have successfully entered the streaming market, but they are soon to be challenged by Microsoft. Recent press articles have begun to talk about the impending release of Project xCloud and describe it as a ‘Netflix for games’.
Project xCloud, at least in some of the press stories, sounds a lot like OnLive, in that it aims to make games available on consoles, computers and mobile devices. According to Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, "It's really about reaching a customer wherever they are, on the devices that they have.”
Video card and graphics chip manufacturer, Nvidia, are currently testing their gambit in streaming games; GeForce Now. Unlike the subscription-based services, Nvidia’s offering is intended to allow you to play the games that you have bought, on your computer (via services like Steam, Uplay, etc.), on any other device. Their service is aimed at allowing you to have the same game playing experience (high quality graphics, smooth gameplay) on low power devices, by having their cloud-based servers do the heavy work of rendering and calculation.
Google has recently announced their entrance into the streaming games market, with Stadia. This new service challenges the way we may play games in the future, by allowing users to play Triple-A games over the internet through a standard web browser.
While reports from early testing of Google’s service sound promising, there is still a great deal to be revealed. Google does, however, seem to be jumping into the market quite seriously. They have also announced the formation of a game development studio to support development of games for their new platform. If Google’s service succeeds, there is every chance that gaming will be transformed. The prospect of playing those Triple-A games, through your Google Chrome web browser, means you won’t need special hardware and the days of the console may be coming to an end.
And, the winner is…
Just as music, film & television and podcasting have shifted to a streaming model, it seems highly likely that gaming will follow suit. With Sony, Microsoft and Google already committed (and rumours that Amazon and Apple are moving into games streaming, as well) we may have already crossed the line.
Who will be the big winner, or which will be the most popular, is most likely going to be a question of where your current gaming is done. PlayStation owners will probably stay with PlayStation Now. PC gamers are likely to opt for Project xCloud. Those who are a little more ‘platform agnostic’ may go for Google Stadia.
As with music, film and television, the availability of different services gives users a choice. And, like Spotify or Netflix, the real ‘game-changer’ is the fact that you’ll be able to play hundreds (if not thousands) of games.