Top Gaming People Say Streaming That Frees High-End Games From Requiring High-End Hardware Is The Next Big Thing

Xbox boss Phil Spencer, who says streaming tech that doesn’t require an advanced console or PC will be great for developers (Photo: Casey Rodgers/Invision for Microsoft/AP Images)

Whenever I’ve interviewed a games industry executive over the past few months, I’ve asked them what single thing will revolutionise 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. (And while Nvidia Shield has recently made its way to Australian shores, Geforce Now, much like PS Now, isn't available locally.)

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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.


    The corporate quest for monthly subs rolls on.

      You can just imagine how fractured it would be. MS, Sony, Steam, Google, EA, Ubisoft etc etc all having their own streaming services.

        When exclusive content inevitably comes around it'll be just like video streaming services. It'll be really hard to pirate this unlike videos.

    Its lile XBox has forgotten how much trouble they got when they insisted XBox One needed and always online connection... or how PS and Xbox cant even solve the problem of slow data downliads over their services.

    They barely have a working service now that doesnt fall over the second a DDOS attack starts... and they think streaming is the key. They are way off, they havent even delivered Crackdown 3 and that was suppose to "store and stream" the world and damage simulations to the player. They are way off anything plausible beyond streaming mobile content.

      Exactly. This is the crux of the issue. The entire principle only works once someone has stumped up the eye-watering capital to improve internet infrastructure to be as robust and high-bandwidth as it needs to be to support this concept. For however much we love all things internet, the physical infrastructure is crap: frail and unreliable. THAT is why so many of us still love our consoles and physical media.

    I wonder if the profits from subs will be mitigated by the amount of people who don’t have internet that will facilitate streaming.

    Out of touch much?

      Out of touch says it all hey. They are completely ignoring what consumers actually want. You would have thought Phil Spencer of all people would know better.

      People want control over how they consume their entertainment. The success of the Switch should be informing their decision making.

      Clearly though this is being driven by extremely low margins on hardware sales.

    Can a game be considered 'high-end' if it's got 30ms+ of display latency?

    Availability of high 'speed' internet isn't the issue with game streaming, it's latency. I use remote streaming in my home on a near daily basis, either with PS4 remote play or with steam streaming. All devices are on a wired, gigabit connection, and I've got hardware encoding and decoding enabled. Even with what is affectively zero network latency at all, under perfect conditions you are still left with at least 15-20ms of display latency. That is, the time for the host to encode the frames and the client to decode them.

    For some games, after a bit of time your brain starts to adapt to the latency and simply compensate your movements accordingly. However for anything which requires immediate feedback and responses it just plain doesn't work. I'm not even talking a bout competitive FPS's like CS. Sure, you may not be able to compete with pros on reaction time, but you can still control and aim just fine. But something like Dirt rally, for instance, where you need to apply constant steering inputs and adjustments while flying down a dirt track at 200km/h, with 20ms of latency it is absolutely unplayable.

    So unless the industry comes up with a way to drastically reduce the time to encode and decode the stream, internet bandwidth issues are the least of their problem.

      This is why gaming systems will always exist until latency is somehow magically solved.

      I can see them releasing a streaming service alongside a hardware option but we don't have the technology to completely remove the hardware and likely won't for 10 years or more....and that's if we have internet that is stable and fast enough.

    *looks at nbn*

    Not in my generation this streaming wont happen and I'm only 40... *sigh*

    Gotta say I'm not wild about any kind of gaming that makes the player/customer so reliant on the publisher that they physically lack the hardware to run the game without paying for an additional always-online service. What happens when the local internet goes down for whatever reason? What happens when a service in retired? Do you lose the ability to play the games at all if your cancel your subscription? What about when the service provider decides to change the ToS or charge more? And from what they're saying, it almost sounds like you might not actually own your games. Then there's Todd Howard comparing this whole scheme to streaming music and video, which are entirely different from gaming because those only require a constant download stream and can buffer data because they don't rely on constant input from the requester and, as such, don't have to worry that much about lag and latency.

    This reminds me of something an engineer once told me about the relationship between engineers and architects way back when he first entered that industry, before today's super-strong materials were possible:
    "Engineers hate architects because architects always dream up the most fantastic designs but the engineers have to figure out how to make them work."

    Last edited 20/07/18 10:48 am

      If their business model is similar to Netflix maybe the average punter wouldn't care too much about actually owning the games, their main concern would be a low monthly fee. Dedicated gamers like us might have the option to download, perhaps for a premium fee. Either way, I still don't like the idea.

        Except you can bet your bottom dollar it won't be cheap like Netflix.

    I'm not sure these people really understand what's going to be involved in such a future. Music, videos and other streamed content only work because it's uni-directional and there's a lot of buffering going on under the hood to ensure a smooth stream. Gaming is bi-directional and requires high speed transactions between the client and server which is no longer just about servers in a datacentre. You now have to rely on ISPs and communications infrastructure as well as the locations of your datacentre to reduce lag and ensure an experience similar to what we have now.

    Unless game developers suddenly gain power equivalent to that of a country's leader, there's no way they can ensure that those 2 billion gamers have the infrastructure necessary to play streamed games. Besides, we're talking about an industry that still can't get online multiplayer right and now they want the entire game experience to be over the wire?

      Yup and implementing all of that at a time when CPU's and GPU's are cheap as chips (pun?). There is literally only one reason to head in this direction. $$$.

        Higher performance CPUs and GPUs aren't going to be cheaper than the comparatively light hardware needed for streaming clients.

          Are you including a ~$30 per month service sub in your numbers?

            No, I'm not - because I don't know what a subscription would cost. I'm commenting on hardware costs - and in no universe is a mid to high end gaming CPU/GPU setup going to be cheaper compared to a simple thin client (which could be an iPad or a cheap arse laptop for all the difference it would make).

            Including the fee might make a difference to the value prospect, depending on how often you have to update your rig to maintain the same visual fidelity - but by the same token, you're no longer buying games either.

    It makes sense, but internet performance is going to be a gigantic hurdle to overcome first. That and also the surety that performance will be stable and reliable.

    A good strategy might be to offer streaming and the physical/downloadable version of the game as a package deal. That way I can have, say, Overwatch installed on my PC and play it on the best settings my PC can cope with, or switch into streaming mode and run it at max settings if I'm somewhere where the internet can cope.

    Of course if the streaming service makes my response time too low for the game to be playable, then they can freaking forget it right now.

      Exactly. everybody's suggesting this won't be viable, and under current conditions they're right - the latency simply wouldn't permit smooth gameplay. But if (and that's a big if) it could be solved, this would probably be beneficial. Cheap and thin clients without the need for high performance components, platform independence, cheaper buy in, instant updates - depending on subscription packages it might be good.

      I doubt that big publishers would let it run for any sort of good value long term, and it raises questions of licence ownership, but it does have some advantages. Of course who knows if we really own anything with Steam these days, so...

        Yeah but, you know.....physics and shit.

        A latency free streaming service is pie in the sky stuff.

    I love mouse lag so much I look forward to paying a subscription for a service that will simulate it for me.

    Spencer being all-for streaming is completely predictable. He works for one of the largest cloud and data-centre companies, who would be the backbone of almost all the streaming services.

    Having worked for Microsoft, they have a very "Seattle-first" attitude, which is evident in how they have pushed out Windows updates and they tried to have the XBONE be digital distribution only, that is, they don't understand that a lot of other places have shit internet. Even the free WiFi in the Redmond town centre was faster and more reliable than my FTTP NBN, and I had colleagues living in Seattle and surrounds complaining that they could "only" get 500mbps download and upload speeds where as other apartment buildings had gigabit.

    I hope that MS, and the other companies, take into account that a lot of the world has subpar connectivity before moving to a streaming-only model.

    Yeah... I'm sure my 3 Mbps connection would love this.

    Goodbye to owning games...goodbye to privacy...goodbye to modding.

    If Todd Howard thinks it's a good thing, that is because he is a money sucking leech...end of story.

    Last edited 20/07/18 12:07 pm

      "If you didn't want another Skyrim port, stop streaming it"

    I can see it being available in the next 5 years, but for a majority of the world still languishing with shit, high latency internet, I can't see it supplanting actual consoles for a while yet.

    Pretty sure this all fits in the same category as self-driving cars, if not cryogenics, downloading our brains into robots or clones, or terraforming mars.

    Sure, it's the future... but it's the fucking distant future. So far off as to be utterly irrelevant when discussing the next half dozen generations of consoles.

      Fully self driving cars are in the distant future but partially self driving cars are a thing. It's not like you have to pay monthly for your Tesla or it won't drive.

    Aus Government - "The average user will only use 11Mbps of bandwidth by 2021!"
    - Game developers develop game streaming
    Aus Government - "Shit, how could we have seen that coming?"
    Rest of Australia - "You couldn't, that's why you plan for future-proofing, not meeting the bare minimum you think we will need by then, morons"

    Yeah, game streaming is still a looooong way away for Aussies.

    Last edited 20/07/18 11:32 pm

      And that's not even mentioning the ever-increasing resolution of video/live-streaming...

        I still remember the smug look on Turn bull's face when he was the telecommunications minister. "well if you need faster speeds what are you downloading?" suggesting that only pirate who torrent would need faster internet. This is why old men are thr worst people to run a country. They have no vision.

    If only there was something for Gamers that didn't want to always be connected to the internet......

    Long live the Xbox360!!!

    Phil Spencer: GAME STREAMING WOO
    Aussie internet: Yeah, nah

    Did instantaneous quantum communication go mainstream and nobody told me? If not, then all of these suits are dreaming.

    Can't wait to play all these awesome games with my usual 200ms connections, and 300 - 400kbs downloads (if no one else in the house is doing anything). Woohoo!

    I mean, basic Netflix is unwatchable at my place. What chance would anything else get?

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