In 1997, after being charged a $40 late fee for a Blockbuster movie, a man envisioned a platform containing thousands of movies that could be accessed anywhere, with no late fees or DVD players involved. That man was Reed Hastings, soon-to-be CEO of Netflix.
Twenty-one years later, we’ve seen the rise of move streaming sites such as Hulu, HBO, and Popcornflix along with music streaming platforms including Spotify, SoundCloud, and Pandora. Now, this streaming craze is shifting towards the video game industry. The reason behind the ongoing movement towards video game streaming is the same spark that any entrepreneur embodies: improvement. Any pioneering idea stems from the desire to bring innovation out of stagnancy, to solve everyday problems currently inhibiting the time, potential, and satisfaction of today’s generation. As several mobile and PC game developers announce titles heading to Google’s cloud system Stadia and Microsoft’s Project xCloud among others, it is imperative to understand its potential impacts—both beneficial and detrimental—on the gaming industry.
Pete Hines, senior vice president of marketing and communications at video game publisher Bethesda, explained, “Some folks would like to be into gaming but don’t have $400 or $500 to spend on a console and then another $60 to spend on a game.” Video game streaming completely undermines this problem, allowing gamers to download and play games on any device in any location with WiFi. This ease in accessibility saves people time and cost, and could possibly encourage the rise of conventionally unappreciated games, but at a price; although bulky consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation are expensive, their GUIs and controller usage mechanisms are much more smooth and developed than that of an iPhone or Surface Pro. However, this sacrifice may not be entirely necessary.
Matt Fleming, an engineer in Microsoft’s Project xCloud team, explained that he and his colleagues are working to perfect two different forms of video game streaming: one that is integrated with console controllers, and one that harnesses touchscreen and keyboard input. As of now, his team is focusing on attaching controllers to mobile devices to allow both the ease of console controlling and the transportation of traditional smartphones. Fleming predicts that this form of game streaming will become the most widely used.
Fleming went on to explain that video game streaming is fundamentally built upon virtual machines. The premise of game streaming is as follows: a user starts a game on their phone. An available Microsoft server then hosts that game, replicating a traditional gaming console. The game is continuously streamed from the server to the user’s phone, allowing for portable gameplay. However, this strategy for game streaming introduces a large problem: latency, the delay before data transfers. Consistent latency in game streaming can introduce lags and buffering, which are not only irritating but can affect major aspects of the game such as health, timed task performance, and deaths. Only if this problem is solved will game streaming rise in popularity.
Finally, Hines described that cloud gaming can “unlock potential gamer populations in developing countries around the world, where infrastructure issues may be holding the field back.” Underdeveloped countries with formerly little access to popular games will now be able to take part in this global gaming community, giving rise to cross-continental relationships in a whole new sector.
It is important to also consider that the complexity behind video game streaming can cause mass confusion. As Laine Nooney, assistant professor and historian of video games at New York University, asserted, “There is quickly becoming too many choices, too many products, and we've still seen zero consumer experience. …This might be an example of executives thinking they are solving a problem that no one asked them to solve.” Will video game streaming be the next Netflix—or the next Theranos? Only time will tell.