E3 2018 is in full swing, and, as expected, all’s quiet on the hardware front — but the future has been teased with one word: streaming.
Streaming not in the Twitch sense, where you watch someone play a video game for fun, but rather an à la carte style of selecting a game and being able to play it in seconds without waiting for lengthy downloads or installs.
It’s a great idea, but even with streaming, you’ll still need something to play the game on, and streamed games won’t signal the end for consoles. Microsoft announced at E3 that it’s officially working on the next Xbox (codenamed “Scarlett”), and PlayStation will likely follow suit with another console, so that war is far from over. The difference is that the next generation of consoles will be designed for streaming from the start.
The streaming advantage
From a user standpoint, streamed games work the same as regular titles, except that the heavy lifting of the gameplay is done in the cloud, not locally on the console. You’d select titles as normal, but you wouldn’t need to install much more than an alias on your console to play.
The advantages are numerous: Besides there being no need for big downloads, your console’s processing power is freed up considerably. Also, streamed games are much more suited to be cross-platform (at least theoretically) — able to run on consoles, phones, tablets, PCs, and more.
While lag is always a concern, networks have more or less caught up with game-streaming demands: Typically, graphics look sharp, controller input has a fast response time, and, ideally, there’s little latency. Of course, the fundamental requirement here is a fast broadband connection and a server farm capable of supporting the game.
It’s not like game streaming is brand new. OnLive and Gaikai pioneered the idea, and they were acquired by PlayStation. PlayStation Now, launched in 2014, is Sony’s current game streaming service, with around 650 titles. The devices the service works on are limited, though — only the PS4 and some Windows PCs meet the requirements (the now-discontinued PS3, PSVita, and several Smart TVs were compatible, too).
Sony isn’t alone. Nvidia’s GeForce Now lets you play games powered by a cloud server farm. There are around 50 titles accessible on the Nvidia Shield streaming box, and GeForce Now is in beta on the Mac. Like PSNow, the number of supported devices is limited, with just the Shield, some PCs, and now Macs that are compatible.
What’s holding game streaming back
The need for massive processing power in the cloud is one of the big reasons game streaming hasn’t expanded further. To run a reliable game-streaming service, the company behind it needs a giant cloud, with reliably fast speeds. Sony has been growing its cloud with PS Now, but slowly, and even though Nvidia makes chips for a living it still needs to limit the number of devices that connect. Any other company looking to enter this sector will need a substantial backbone.
The Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, confirmed at E3 that Xbox planning for a streaming future, saying, “Our cloud engineers are building a game streaming network to unlock console-quality gaming on any device.” With its Azure cloud, Microsoft has the backbone to support an optimal gaming experience at scale. Other companies can always use Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud Platform, but they won’t quite have the end-to-end control that Microsoft has.
EA also has its eye on game streaming, and the company talked about its planned streaming service at its E3 keynote. Again, device compatibility is a big goal here: The service would support the latest consoles as well as mobile platforms like iOS.
Fortnite, made by Epic, isn’t a streamed game per se, but the experience is a helpful model. Epic Games has managed to release the title for consoles, computers, and mobile phones, offering pretty much the same experience to everyone, while scaling it for massive multiplayer scenarios. That serves as an excellent roadmap, except a true streaming experience would ditch the big downloads and may even add more device support.
With streaming, the full game experience won’t be limited to just PC owners or those who shelled out for a $500 console. Now cheap streaming boxes, iPhones, and even nontraditional devices like wearables could get in on the action.
For now, the most significant obstacle is internet connectivity. Yves Guillemot, co-founder and CEO of Ubisoft, said to Mashable, “Streaming will totally change the way we create and play games … [it] will also require time and technology improvements with bandwidth, connectivity and computing power.”
It’s also not like there’s no lift at all on the developer side. They’d still need to figure out how gameplay changes from a personal touch-enabled device like a phone and a controller-based experience on a console or PC, mapping the controls for different inputs.
But while they may disagree on exactly when, the big players agree that streaming will guide the next generation of game consoles. The future of gaming is definitely in the cloud.