If Anyone Can Make Cloud Gaming Work In Australia, It's Google And Microsoft

Historically, Australian internet is hot garbage. There might be small pockets of the country with something approximating a modern broadband connection, but for the most part, we're behind the curve. It's why Aussies have never really taken cloud gaming seriously, and why the companies that have offered it have never seriously expanded into Australia: it's a service for countries that don't treat modern infrastructure like a political football.

But eventually progress brings everyone forward. And while previous attempts to introduce cloud gaming to Australians has been forgettable, the upcoming launches of Microsoft's Project xCloud and Google's Project Stream will finally give us a workable glimpse into the future.

The reasoning is fairly simple. Both companies, much in the same way Amazon does with Amazon Web Services, have a huge investment in the fabric of Australian infrastructure.

Apart from their local advertising operations, Google's local data centre business is enormous. It officially launched its cloud services platform (GCP) in Sydney two years ago. That was well behind Amazon and Microsoft, who launched local data centres in 2012 and 2014 respectively, but Google's entrance has already been felt.

For one, there's a good chance you've already played a game on a dedicated Google server. Some of the Australian servers for Apex Legends are hosted by Google's Sydney centre, although Respawn's battle royale also uses servers from Amazon and Microsoft's Azure service (following the diversified network strategy established for Titanfall 2).

Outside of games, but importantly for Google's local economics, the GCP was added to the Australian Signals Directorate's Certified Cloud Services List late last year. In the shortest terms possible, it essentially means that some of Google's services have been given the A-OK by the Aussie equivalent of the NSA, which allows various levels of government to store data and workloads on Google's servers.

Google aren't the only ones allowed to offer those services, of course. But being on the list definitely widens the pool of contracts Google can target. The company's also investing in undersea submarine cables, with a new connection serving Google traffic between Sydney, Perth and Singapore due to come online later this year. That's not something that most of the Eastern coast will care a great deal about, but those connecting through Perth, or those whose data travels through Perth first, could definitely benefit.

Put simply, Google has the infrastructure. They're already making Oz Lotto amounts of money from data locally, and there's plenty of investment to ramp that up even further.

That's the first major hurdle covered. It was something that stopped companies like NVIDIA from bringing their service down under sooner - GeForce Now relies on pulling data from NVIDIA-owned data centres, and even though the company famous for its gaming graphics cards makes about a quarter of its revenue from data centres, those centres aren't in high supply locally.

Compromised experience aside, at least NVIDIA let Australians have a go once the Shield started shipping locally. Sony, on the other hand, hasn't even bothered.

The problem for Project Stream is content. While some major publishers are already on board - Ubisoft being the obvious example, especially since they don't have the infrastructure right now to offer a similar service for their own titles - and talk of Google funding their own games development, the company doesn't have a huge back catalogue to play with.

That's where Microsoft comes in.

Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

Using the Xbox as a streaming device - either to or from - has been on Microsoft's cards for a while. Not long after the launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft officially patched in the functionality to stream from the console to a PC. The company went further this morning, rolling out the Wireless Display app for Xbox One. In short, the app lets users stream any Android or "Windows-based devices" to their Xbox One, which is a neat way of saying you can now stream your PC games to the Xbox in your living room.

Or Real Cricket 18 from your phone, if you like.

But Microsoft have been on this warpath for years. The company's Game Pass service is ridiculously good value for money right now, and it's already positioned to completely reinvent the expectations and experience players have when it comes to the launch of a new console generation.

Instead of grabbing a new console and three or four games to play at launch, it's likely the next Xbox will have a library with hundreds of compatible games, a few of which will be enhanced, and all for the price of less than what a standard retail game would cost.

It's impossible to underestimate the impact that will have across the industry. For one, it's shaping up as a massive kick in the guts to brick-and-mortar retailers. Even if first party publishers don't completely cut the cord (and the cut) from stores like JB Hi-Fi, Big W and so on, the prospect of fewer gamers coming into stores to get a cheap copy of something like Gears of War 5 or whatever the next exclusive is will undoubtedly hurt.

So it's only natural that Microsoft finds some way of making that entire library playable elsewhere. Because while the company has ramped up its bevy of inhouse studios, the value of Microsoft's library isn't really from their exclusives. They're extras on top of an extensive offering of multiplatform games, and if Microsoft doesn't haul arse to get a working solution in time, then Google will - or Amazon.

So, the clock is ticking. But in a similar manner to Google, Microsoft's local cloud infrastructure is substantial. The company is locked in a constant three-way battle with Amazon's AWS and Google for cloud dollars in Australia, and their Azure centres has been housing dedicated gaming servers for titles on console and PC since its launch in 2014. It now has four Azure "regions" in the area, having added two last year after a partnership with Canberra Data Centres.

So in the same way that Google has the backbone to make cloud gaming work, not just in one part of Australia but the entirety of it, so does Microsoft. Microsoft's advantage is that they have a better library of content, and they've got a longer history in working with external publishers in bringing that content to their platform.

And that's ultimately all cloud gaming is - it's just another platform. The functionality and execution is obviously a different beast than a retail game, or a game as a service, but it's still just a platform. Publishers have been doing this dance with Microsoft for decades, especially if you wind back to the days when Microsoft was convincing developers to build exclusives for Windows 95.

And given that many of those publishers - Ubisoft perhaps the most vocal of them all - are thrilled at the ability to expand their product offering into continents like Africa, or parts of Asia that never fully adopted the console market (but absolutely love mobile gaming), we're really looking at the next form of the "console" wars.

It just won't be physical consoles this time. It'll be in the cloud.

The push to the cloud won't just be from gaming companies, but services like Netflix that are looking at gamifying their own content, either through spin-offs or game-like experiences, as seen with Black Mirror recently.

And while it's not a huge factor in 2019, it's worth noting that Microsoft's Xbox Live infrastructure also has always been a favourite locally. The console esports community still prefers Microsoft's infrastructure to this day - ask any Call of Duty pro what they think of the PS4 - and despite the global success and overall base of the PS4 here and abroad, I've lost count of the amount of conversations with in-house PR, developers and executives who have remarked on how Xbox One sales have always performed better than expected in Australia.

Australia loved the Xbox 360, and some of that love has extended to the Xbox One. Sony's made a much better fist of things this generation - not launching a console at $1000 certainly helps - but their server infrastructure and overall performance is still a key frustration for many.

If you're not getting consistently reliable download speeds from your PS4 today, can you imagine what streaming The Last of Us or something like Gran Turismo to your phone would be like?

And that's always been the problem historically for Australia. There's been plenty of streaming or streaming-like services available globally. Most haven't bothered to launch in Australia, either because of scale or a lack of local infrastructure.

That's not a problem for Google or Microsoft. And by the time these services are available, the baseline performance of most Aussie internet connections - either through 5G, or the slow crawl of the NBN - will be sufficient. And I say sufficient, because it's worth remembering the quality of what most people will actually be streaming. It won't be 1080p, 2K or 4K content. More Australians tend to stream at 720p or lower resolutions, either because they've become accustomed to the limitations of their connection, or because they're generally viewing content in a restricted form that makes 720p (with sufficient bitrate) perfectly acceptable.

This, of course, won't mark the end of consoles. Aussies love buying new tech, we love being first adopters, and we spend a hell of a lot of money to enjoy the privilege. And companies like Sony, Microsoft and various PC manufacturers are going to continue selling hardware to countries like ours for precisely that reason. If you've had a sufficiently crappy experience with the cloud in the past, you won't be forced to switch over. The world simply isn't ready for that yet.

But Australia will finally get a reliable cloud gaming service. It might not be this year, and possibly won't be ideal until at least 2020 or 2021, but it's coming. Google and Microsoft have the infrastructure to actually make it work, and the repercussions that has on the gaming industry, and the economics of gaming, will be enormous.


Comments

    The push to the cloud won't just be from gaming companies, but services like Netflix that are looking at gamifying their own content, either through spin-offs or game-like experiences, as seen with Black Mirror recently.
    Isn't the image above this from Stranger Things, not Black Mirror?

    Whether you're streaming at 4K, 1080p or 720 isn't the problem with streamed gaming, it's the latency between what you see on screen and making inputs. If there's even a slight delay then it's going to have a big impact on your gaming experience. I mean, people already have issues with the refresh rates of TVs, so add to that the input lag from internet speeds and it soon mounts up to a frustrating experience.

    Last edited 14/03/19 1:20 pm

      Yes, it's from Stranger Things! Netflix spent years trying to convince Telltale to do a spinoff of the series for them, whether it was through the Black Mirror style or another licensed form, which is why I went with that image.

      Edit: And totally hear you re. the latency. That's why things like Google's undersea cable that connects Perth and Sydney will be huge - it'll provide a much better link for Google traffic for people from WA, since it's inevitable that the streaming service would be run from the Sydney GCP servers initially. The traditional latency between Perth and the eastern states would make a service like that more or less unplayable otherwise, but having that extra infrastructure exclusively for Google traffic could make a huge difference.

      Yeah it's super noticeable even in small amounts. I play WoW with 15ms lag most of the time even if it goes up as little as 100ms the game feels different and I wonder what's wrong. Certain games are more affected by lag than others and even games with lag compensation make for weird scenarios, like being shot by someone who on your screen was facing away from you.

      I'm not a fan of the whole game streaming idea. I feel like it's less about making life easier for gamers and more about controlling what we do. It's like the ultimate form of DRM. You can certainly forget about modding or using cheats/trainers if the game is streaming.

      I think another knock on effect is going to be game longevity. At the moment if you buy a game that's truly standalone you can play it as long as you have working hardware and an OS that supports it. That could be literally decades. With online games we're at the mercy of the company maintaining the servers.

      The difference between now and an all-streaming future is that currently the servers can be pretty low cost affairs. They're not doing a huge amount of work (depending on the game) and they can typically support a lot of users per server. So the profitability ratio is not too bad. 10,000 users? OK we can support a couple servers still. 100,000 users awesome add more servers.

      But think about game streaming (especially if you start talking 4k) the hardware demands per server skyrocket. As a result the cost of the servers skyrocket. Similarly the bandwidth demands for the servers skyrocket and the electricity costs. This means the profitability is going to be lower. So they're going to dump servers a lot quicker and be reluctant to add servers to meet demands.

      It also means that a game with a slow growth may never succeed. Simply because it's making a loss on server costs and never gets an opportunity to actually expand it's player base.

        With game streaming, add in that once everyone is on such a streaming/subscription service, the growth rate is essentially zero. And with less need for new hardware, other industries get effected as well.

        That has repercussions we cant begin to calculate.

          Yeah I wasn't even looking at stuff like the effect on companies like nvidia or intel. Though to be honest, they probably won't lose business, it'd just move more from end-user sales to company sales.

          I do think it's problematic for Aussies too. It's been an uphill battle just getting dedicated AU servers for many popular games. With 4k streaming it's going to be even more important but at the same time less likely. With increased electricity costs, rental costs and labour costs I don't really see it as a viable option. At least not without huge subscription costs.

      I'm going to chime in on this. Input lag is killer. For example, playing Yakuza mini games on a Shield streamed from a 2080 Ti, 9900K PC is too far off to do well, how is this supposed to become the default?

      ugh.

    Still not sure what the benefit to consumers is?

      If it works like it is theoretically supposed to, then consumers get to play games running on very high-spec hardware without having to purchase that hardware themselves. You could potentially play all Playstation, Xbox, Nintendo and PC games all on a single, cheap device just by paying for the subscriptions to the relevant streaming services.

      But yeah, that's the theory. In practice there's no way to completely overcome the latency issue, so it still depends on the player being willing to accept a compromised experience in exchange for the cost and convenience benefits. And that's without considering the implications for game ownership. It's already bad enough when games get pulled from digital stores due to expired licences or whatever, but at least if you already bought it you can still download it. Under the streaming model, you own nothing. When those licences expire, the game gets pulled and nobody can play it anymore - it would be like when a movie disappears from Netflix.

        Thanks for taking the time to reply with such detail, much appreciated. My concern is that we end up being force fed a shitty experience by companies chasing monthly subs. Hardware is so cheap these days i just don't see the point of outsourcing computation. Especially not with all the issues you raised re: latency. Also fragmentation sucks and im sure streaming would make that worse.

          Depends on what you mean by cheap. Have you looked at the price for an RTX2080 Ti + high end CPU? The cheapest RTX 2080 Ti I've seen is still $1800, and most are comfortably over $2000. I wouldn't recommend the highest end CPUs because they start at about $1800 and go up to $3000. But even if you buy a solid gaming CPU you're looking at $500. So we're at $2500 before you add mobo, ram, case, psu, or anything else...

          Remember their goal is smooth 4k streaming games. And if it isn't, then it's pointless.

        I don't think cloud gaming is a replacement tho. It's a addon feature, for convenience.
        If you want best gaming experience (dolby, freesync and any techs future might offer) in the living room, "Games Play Best on Xbox".

        I'd imagine me running my game natively on my Newest Xbox in the living room, on my older Xbox in the office, go out and continue my game session on phones, Alienware, Surface, arm64 NBs, whatever HW architecture and for factors future might offer (thanks to Core).

        For (not really) steaming, that's why MS's investing in techs like this.
        https://youtu.be/7gthYcyhuPs
        https://youtu.be/eNAr1lbqkfw
        and Core, XPA, xvc.

        Well... time will tell.

    "Cloud gaming" is just another way of saying "playing on someone else's computer". No thanks.

      It's actually playing someone else's game on someone else's computer. You won't actually own ANY part of the experience.

    Even if this was possible. (I still say that it'll never come to fruition in Australia), there's no way that we'd be playing all manner of games on a single unit.

    The console creators if anything will use a streaming service to further lock gamers behind all manner of side charges and extra costs. Just imagine having to buy a "Sports Pack" or "RPG pack" that locks you into only playing certain games. Whoever chooses to do an exclusively streaming gaming console will be the "HD-DVD" of the 2020's.

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