Do we need cloud gaming?
While the tech giants are rushing to create a ‘Netflix for games,’ it still remains to be clear if there is actually a large appetite for cloud gaming.
Broadband speeds have not increased in the US (and elsewhere) as rapidly as many hoped, a real problem considering even a small amount of latency can make a video game unplayable. While a user can just pause a traditional passive video stream and let it load, in a game there needs to be a constant back and forth between player and data center.
Lag metrics are poorly defined, but it is generally accepted that more than 50ms of latency is noticeable to players (20ms is seen as ideal, above 150ms as unacceptable). When you add in the other causes of latency – processing time, controller latency, display latency, and multiplayer connection latency – the amount of time left for the cloud streaming service is a fraction of that.
This means that the data center has to be close to the user, and that everything has to be going well, with ideally no one else in the home watching Netflix or equivalent. With Stadia, despite Google’s vast sprawling infrastructure, the reality has proved mixed. Many, despite meeting the alleged minimum bandwidth requirements, have struggled to play a game at sufficient quality.
The other issue is price. Cloud services have pitched it as a sensible alternative to spending thousands on a PC gaming rig. There are several problems with that analysis.
One is that those most likely to try out a new platform are the early adopters who are willing to invest in their hobby. Another is that people with faster broadband speeds are statistically likely to be more affluent. Then there’s the fact that gaming consoles aren’t prohibitively expensive for many, with Microsoft’s cheapest new system retailing at $299. Current gen consoles are cheaper still, and second-hand models and titles are even less (plus they can be resold later).
The other sales pitch is convenience, where there is some validity. We’re used to being able to watch a YouTube video on our phone, move over to the couch and watch it on the TV, and then pick it up later on a PC. Why shouldn’t we be able to do that with gaming? Why do we have to be tethered to a console box or PC?
There’s a limitation to that analogy, though. While splitting a 10m video between my phone and TV isn’t a major hassle, the more immersive nature of gaming generally leads to longer continuous engagement, so you’re less likely to engage with it in the same way. You might bring your phone into the kitchen to continue watching a movie while you cook or wash up, you might not do the same with a game.
Another convenience of cloud is the promise of no lengthy downloads or updates to games. Again, there’s truth to this, but with caveats. Game downloads are annoying – but they’re less annoying to the high-bandwidth users cloud companies are targeting – and smart downloading systems that update games while you’re asleep, or preinstall titles before they officially release has made the experience easier.
But none of these reasons are the real causes for cloud gaming’s soft debut.
It’s about the games
This is so obvious that I barely have to say it: Gamers need games.
For all the talk of the ‘Netflix-of-games’ it’s curious that cloud gaming companies don’t seem to understand what makes Netflix popular. It’s not the platform, it’s the content. Having a platform that can stream videos is the bare minimum to compete, but people come back for the content. Crackle offered video streaming years before Netflix, but people do not Crackle and Chill.
With Stadia, and possibly with Luna, they seem to be making the mistake of believing that by solving the technical challenge of cloud gaming they have guaranteed success. The technical challenge just means that people can play on your platform, it doesn’t mean that they should.
It’s why Nintendo (which so far has no cloud gaming aspirations) has managed to sell consoles that were technologically inferior to its rivals – it created games people wanted to play.
Microsoft also knows how to make games people play, and will likely prove successful in making Xbox games, offering them on cloud, and slowly converting players to it as broadband speeds increase.
But they’re not going to make a game that embraces the cloud. Ironically, this is where Stadia and Luna have more opportunity. Microsoft’s focus will be on games that run on Xbox, so even if cloud fails they will be fine.
Unburdened by the limits of a single console, Stadia and Luna have the opportunity to make games only possible on cloud. It’s something Stadia hinted at when they launched last year.
“We will be handing that extraordinary power of the data center over to you,” Google VP and GM Phil Harrison said at the time. He joined the company last year from Microsoft, and previously spent a long time at Sony Computer Entertainment. “With Stadia the data center is your platform, there is no console that limits your ideas.”
Unique games only possible with cloud gaming could change the playing field, finally giving consumers a reason to shift to it. There’s a lot riding on that ‘could’ though – countless platforms have languished waiting for that killer app to turn things around. And, currently, there’s no indication that Stadia or Luna are putting the money into finding those unique titles.
Should it happen, or should the slower ‘console plus cloud’ approach of Microsoft, prove successful, however, it would mark a stark change for gaming.
The data center would be the next console.