If Streaming Is The Future Of Console Gaming, It Might Be Screwed

Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

News of the next generation of consoles has slowly trickled out over the last fortnight. None of the news gives us a clear view of either Sony or Microsoft's consoles — instead we've only gotten teases of each. And those teases have had wildly different focuses. On one hand, you have rumours of what Sony's hardware will look like, and on the other hand, you have rumours of Microsoft distribution tactics.

All told, they paint a picture of a future that will be a natural step up from the current generation, with no grand leaps in technology if you've spied a game playing on a high-end PC in the last year or two. In fact, the most interesting picture painted is with regards to how we'll play a lot of these games. Specifically, it looks like streaming games from some central server farm could be a major component of the next generation of games — and if that's the case, we're really screwed.

Let's go over the rumours as they stand first, just so we're all on the same page. On the Xbox side, Brian Crecente reported at Variety that Microsoft, and major game developer and distributor Ubisoft, both seemed to see the future of gaming in streaming.

Ubisoft's CEO Yves Guillemot was very blunt, telling Variety that, "With time, I think streaming will become more accessible to many players and make it not necessary to have big hardware at home." He went on to posit that "there will be one more console generation and then after that, we will be streaming, all of us."

Microsoft's Phil Spencer, the company's executive president of gaming, was far more coy — never outright saying that the console's days were numbered. Instead, he pushed the recent company line that games should be hardware agnostic. "I care less that people play Minecraft on an Xbox One, but that people can play Minecraft no matter what console or device they have in front of them," he told Variety.

Gaming, he went on to say, is "less about having specific devices to play a certain game on, but having your favourite games accessible on any device you have."

There are certainly a variety of ways Microsoft can make gaming less dependent on the gamer's hardware, but the most obvious way is via streaming the games from a central server — which is something Spencer actually admitted Microsoft was looking into. During Microsoft's E3 press conference, he said the company was developing a streaming service to deliver "console quality gaming on any device."

That doesn't necessarily mean it will be the only route of game delivery for Microsoft, but it definitely indicates that streaming is where Microsoft sees a big part of its future.

Less clear is where Sony sees streaming. But unlike Microsoft, it already has a powerful streaming infrastructure in place. The PS Now gaming service streams games directly to players' consoles, and PS Vue lets customers stream TV.

So, could the PS5 take things further and be a streaming-first device? That's very much unclear! The strongest rumour we have heard about the PS5 is that it will feature AMD hardware. That in and of itself isn't a surprise. The PS4 and Xbox One are both based on AMD CPUs and GPUs.

According to Forbes, the AMD hardware developed specifically for the PS5 nearly derailed the company's PC GPU development cycle. The new PS5-focused GPU architecture, known as Navi, will be based on the 7nm process.

Forbes reports that it will work in conjunction with a CPU based on the current Zen microarchitecture. Whether these two processors will be a semi-custom system-on-chip or structured more like a traditional PC remains to be seen. The former seems more likely simply because that's what AMD has been doing for gaming consoles for years now, and it is very good at it.

So, how does this hardware relate to streaming? Well because of what we know about Navi. PCGamesN has done some pretty significant reporting on the new GPU architecture. First, PCGamesN reported that Navi, while powerful, wouldn't be a super-powerful GPU like the current Vega or the 10-series from rival Nvidia. Instead, it'd be a mid-range GPU.

Then PCGamesN reported that the GPU wouldn't only be less powerful, it wouldn't have the ability to scale quite like Zen. See, Zen CPUs use AMD tech known as Infinity Fabric, which lets AMD pair a whole lot of CPUs together and enables the software running on those CPUs to see the system as a single, extremely powerful processor.

Many assumed Navi would do the same thing for GPUs. But David Wang, the senior vice president of engineering for AMD's Radeon Technologies Group, told PCGamesN that wasn't the case. The conversation is laden with tech talk, but Wang essentially places the blame on game makers, who would have to code their games to see the package of GPUs as a single GPU.

What this means is that a potential PS5 released in 2020 wouldn't even necessarily be as powerful as a gaming PC built now in 2018. That's a problem, because next-generation games are already, according to Arthur Gies for Variety, choking on top-tier PC systems.

Consoles can squeeze a lot more performance out of hardware thanks to the fact that they don't have to multitask as much and that game developers can code to specific hardware instead of designing games to work on a wide range of hardware, but it's still a tall order to ask them to develop for something not even as powerful as a gaming PC built today.

But if streaming is a part of Sony's next console, then the hardware isn't as important. It could direct play some games, while more powerful games could be streamed.

And here's where we get to the big problem. If streaming is a big part of the next generation of consoles then a whole lot of gamers are going to be pissed. Nvidia is already streaming resource-intensive games to its Shield console now, but the experience is ... just adequate. That's because streaming a game — especially one with 4K resolution, or HDR, or at 60 frames per second or higher — requires a lot of bandwidth, and many gamers simply don't have access to internet service that can handle it.

Nvidia's service requires requires at least 15 Mbps for 720p at 60fps and 25 Mbps for 1080p at 60fps. If it could handle higher resolutions, the bandwidth requirement would increase accordingly. Which means getting a game to look as sharp as it does on your PS4 Pro or Xbox One X could easily mean needing 30 to 40Mbps.

According to Akamai, the average internet speed in the United States is just 18.7Mbps, which would deliver just 720p at 60fps. In Australia, the average internet speed is just 11.1Mbps; only 35% of the country had internet speeds of more than 10Mbps.

When those speeds and prices improve, game streaming could become more viable. But as people's experiences with the NBN has shown, consistent speeds can be a problem. Playing games online the same way we use Netflix or Stan, for instance, would also ramp up on the load on the network. And that's not factoring in the biggest problem: if you share the internet with literally anyone else, let alone a family, chances are you're not going to be able to hog it all to yourself for an uninterrupted night of streaming games.

So while the few with pristine HFC, NBN and fibre connections might get the most of out a streaming future, plenty of Australians will be left out. The whole point of a new generation of gaming consoles is better graphics and a better gaming experience. If any part of it relies on robust internet speeds, it's doomed for the foreseeable future.


Comments

    On Microsoft's front they are already sitting with appropriate resources to try and push this in the future, with Azure datacenters across the world, which would give them better reach than any of the current streaming services.

    However, I don't think we will see 'streaming only' become the thing, nor do I think we will see only 'powerful' games be stream only. I think streaming is simply another way to further your reach, i.e. low power laptops, smart tv's, that sort of thing, rather than a replacement of physical hardware.

    Sony & Microsoft seem to be getting comfortable with a 2-3 year hardware cycle with iterative performance increases, so I would honestly expect that to become the thing going forward.

      I think (and hope) you're right. I suppose it's possible in a few years time, or ten or twenty that we may all have ubiquitous gigabit internet everywhere in the world along with massive datacentres in every country. But I don't see that happening for awhile yet.

      I feel like streaming, especially for 4k games (and beyond) has too many failure points in the chain. For a start you need big datacentres in the same country as the player, you need robust internet links to those players and they still need their hardware at that end to be right. Imagine getting the first few steps right only for the person to have shitty wifi in their apartment so the gaming experience goes to hell. Or trying to play and Telstra has yet another outage. Or just trying to play at peak time when everyone else in the neighbourhood is doing the same. Or trying to stream a 4k game while your Mum watches a 4k netflix show, your sister is streaming youtube and your Dad is trying to remote into work.

      And of course that's ignoring the fact that only popular (profitable) games will remain available. What happens when that awesome game you love stop making money for Sony/MS/whoever? They'll reduce it's server share to start, then eventually it'll be removed. Boom no more game. While this already happens with MMOs and other online only games, if *every* game is streaming then it'll also affect your single player games.

        Oh and I didn't mention the hacking/griefing potential. All those DDOS attacks on WOW and the PSN were brutal, but at least you could play something else. Imagine how enticing a target for hackers they'll be once everything is streaming. And how devastating a good DDOS or hack will be.

    And here's where we get to the big problem. If streaming is a big part of the next generation of consoles then a whole lot of gamers are going to be pissed.
    Which is why it probably won't be, or if it is it will just be an option like it currently is for Sony.

      Definitely won't be. Imagine going from 4K graphics on the PS4 Pro to maybe 1080p streaming on the PS5. 4K streaming would require 25Mbps (according to Netflix). Not an option for the majority.

        yeah, the MS and Sony aren't idiots. They wouldn't want to limit their consumer base to users who meet a baseline bandwidth.

    There will always be a hardware option or they'll lose the majority of their player base. This might work 10-15 years from now, but right now very few countries have the infrastructure to connect everyone wanting to play games to a game streaming service at any sort of reasonable speed.

    If it worked, it'd be great - no constant upgrade cycle, less potential for local hardware failure, cheaper buy in cost, limited maintenance, true multi platform support with very little effort... But it won't work right now. The client side infrastructure simply isn't there. It'd be a massive step backwards and an inferior experience.

    It might be a solution down the track though. There is potential on offloading tasks to the cloud, but we're a long way off it being viable.

      In an ideal world with perfect infrastructure and altruistic companies I think it'd be great. However, that's not the world we live in and it's unlikely to ever exist.

      I can see the companies loving it, true software as a license. No clientside ownership of anything. Some horrible side effects for the customers if done wrong. MMOs already prove what will happen bans at the companies whim. Sometimes legitimate (hacking/cheating) sometimes accidental. Forced upgrades, forced obsolescence and so on.

    This is exactly the same conversation that took place at the end of the last generation, and a lot prophesied the end of consoles. That didn't happen, hardware and software sales were great. The sign up numbers of subscription game stream services is terrible. Nothing will change, again.

    It will be a LONG time before streaming consoles take over standard hardware.

      I disagree, I think there is room for the market if Sony came out with the PS5-Lite vs PS5-Pro. The lite version is for casual streaming play, low initial costs, everything in cloud, and then pro for the other players. I think giving people the option would be really nice.

      Imagine being able to travel around the world, taking your PS5-Lite and playing in hotel rooms killing time.

        Personally I don't think that would work in Sony's favour at all & they will most likely lose money like they did with the similar experimental failure that was the PSTV. Hell they won't even release any figures on their current game streaming service PSNow which we all suspect isn't doing gangbusters either.

        And to be honest if I'm going to do any type of Hotel Gaming I would just bring my Nintendo Switch with me. Which not only gives me plenty of casual games to play, but also fully featured AAA titles.

    On the plus side, if game and console-makers want the future to be streaming, at least it won't be consumers who are screwed... Well. Not directly, anyway.

    Maybe indirectly, as the creators pump wasted time and funds into that total dead-end, either shutting down after losing their shirts or ramping up the exploitation techniques to cover it.

    I don't see how this is ever going to be that great, using steam link over ethernet still has issues that are easy to notice such as occasional blockiness due to the fact you are compressing video and then transporting it.Its also just not quite as responsive.

    If it doesn't work for me from a PC across the room to my TV I don't see how its going to work streaming across the country.

    "there will be one more console generation and then after that, we will be streaming, all of us."

    haaaaaaaaaaaaaaa omfg please tell me hes heard of australian internet. Ill be surprised if even 20% of this country is @ or above 100 megabit by then.

      I thought THIS was supposed to be the last console generation? Didn't turn out that way, and the next one won't be either.

    I'm on 100Mbit NBN... and I can see this type of streaming working beautifully...
    as long as it's between midnight and 7am.

      Switch to Aussie Broadband, while my mates on the same street choke at about 5pm onwards, I get no slowdown. I got sick of the post-work slowdown on MyRepublic and switched. It was a little more expensive, but my god the performance is so much better.

    Yeah no.

    Which ever company debuted a streaming only console would instantly lose like Microsoft did to sony in this generation. Possibly even worse.

    A mamjority of people dont have the internet connection worldwide to support such a console.

    Streaming? No thanks.

    I'm more worried about the increased latency than the bandwidth requirements. There are twitchy games where you need to respond quickly that could definitely be affected by even a +10-20ms ping. Dark Souls, or competitive fighting games for example.

    Wasn't there a rumour last gem about how they would have no physical media? They all start with big ideas that get whittled away with reality.

    The biggest issue is not bandwidth but latency unless they are going to be installing the servers in every city and maybe even major town the latency could be enough to make most games not playable. As for HFC I doubt very much that it could even get close to being able to do this. As HFC is a shared cable between your neighbourhood run you are limited in total bandwidth and could introduce more latency. Streaming is good in theory but in practice it is a long way from being ready for the masses.

    This article is a little bit bleak.
    The reality is that despite what console manufacturers would like to do, they ultimately want to make money. They will do the research and if buyers are likely to be put off because their ISPs cannot provide the infrastructure to stream games fast enough, they will need to adjust accordingly. They are NOT going to release streaming only devices, only to see them sat on department store shelves.

    Bleh, having streaming as a sole source of access to games also opens up licensing issues. Imagine turning on your system to find the publisher of your favorite licensed game just lost publishing rights.

      That's kind of their wet dream, though. Makes licences more valuable. I mean, fuck customers, publishers don't give two shits about customers.

    Well its not a suprise, if any words could sum up gaming in the last decade they are anti consumer

    The division on my stupid expensive 25mbps internet could barely run amd constantly dropped from the server, what you want to bet streamed game will have even worse server issues? How much progress will be lost every time the server drops? How much fucking time will you waste having to get back into the game only for it to drop connection 5 minutes later again

    Because thats how it is with some modern games, that arent streamed, so i do not hold out hope for game streaming working well at all in the future

    Please god, no! That would be a nightmare in Aus.

    I can barely watch a YouTube clip above 360p quality with my iiNet connection. It also constantly drops out to the point where I often just rely on the bandwidth on my phone plan. I hate any sort of reliance on connectivity which stops me from playing when I want to.

    My biggest concern by far would be when they decide to turn off the streaming servers, then guess what, your (for example) offline single player game no longer works.
    I can still go back and play RDR on ps3 for example today. Hells I can go back and play anything from the past that wasn't a dedicated online multiplayer game.
    In this new streaming world, how long until they arbitrarily decide that not enough players are playing a game (based on some unknown metric) from a couple of years ago and suddenly that game you payed full price for just recently will no longer be playable as they have decided to turn the streaming servers off?

    Let me guess, once you have paid pull price for the game, there will be an option to "extend your access to this game for just $10 per month!"

    Australia NBN can't keep up with demand that people want of the internet, I don't see a fix coming until 1Gbps connections are/were as common as the old analogue copper phone system. Say 50-100 years time because BAD politics is going to make it take that long!

    Given quite a lot of gamers care about the latency from their console / computer to the screen, I don't see them being cool with adding network latency on top of that. So I don't see this whole "streaming games" thing happening at least until they crack the "quantum communication" issue.

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