TL;DR Companies want streaming games to be the future but I don’t think it will be viable for years to come.
The game industry, perhaps more than any other, latches onto an idea and soon enough every company is chasing after it. Paying for online play, iterative console upgrades, season passes, Day One DLC, the FPS craze during last gen, and the battle royale one during the current gen are all examples of this. Well, at E3 this year, we may have caught a glimpse of the newest games industry trend: game streaming. I’m not talking about the idea of streaming games on Twitch for people to watch but the idea that a game could be streamed (like a show on Netflix) to any device. At E3, both Electronic Arts and Microsoft announced that they were actively working on streaming services. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot has repeatedly stated that the next console gen will be the last one which leads me to believe that Ubisoft is also working on a streaming service. All of these announcements point to the fact that the largest gaming companies are suddenly very interested in game streaming. Although there are a few potential benefits to streaming all of our games in the future, there are many downsides that people should be keep in mind.
First off, the question that needs answered is: Why are all these companies suddenly interested in streaming? The answer is really quite simple, I believe. There are billions of gamers the world over and most of them don’t game on consoles or even on PCs. They use their phones. The success of mobile gaming (despite most of the games released on there being crap, in my opinion) has led to traditional gaming companies trying to come up with ways to tap into that burgeoning market. Simply put, they want a piece of the pie that generates billions of dollars a year. Streaming would allow companies like Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, and Sony to bring their biggest games to mobile devices and allow them to reach a bigger audience which would lead to more money for them. They want to grow their business beyond just consoles and PCs to tap into the lucrative mobile market that has been growing for years (particularly in developing nations).
The potential benefits of streaming games are game-changing. You know how all those pesky updates keep you from immediately playing the new games you just bought from the store? Well, I would assume that you wouldn’t have to wait to download new updates anymore since that would happen on the server end instead of on your console in your house (this is a theory I have, I’m not an expert on the tech by any means). And what about the consoles themselves? They usually cost hundreds of dollars and that cost keeps many people from playing some of the latest and greatest games (especially exclusives). Streaming services would allow many people, who couldn’t otherwise afford the expensive hardware, to experience games they wouldn’t have been able to if those titles were still on hardware. I’m not entirely convinced on this point but we’ll discuss that more down below. In addition, streaming games could make it easier to continue your save file at a friend’s house or while you’re on vacation somewhere since your saves will presumably be in the cloud. All three of these scenarios would be great for consumers.
Despite all of these potential benefits, I have many concerns about streaming games. For one, internet connections and streaming speeds are unreliable in the best of times and places. Even in big cities, internet speeds are not always constant and (just ask any Comcast or AT&T customer) the internet could crap out for no reason at any time. Most of the time I can’t watch Netflix or YouTube without incessant buffering slowing it down or the visual quality slipping. If I can’t even watch a video with full quality, I can’t imagine what streaming a game would be like. This doesn’t even take into account data caps and people living in rural areas or third world countries. Most major companies (at least in the United States) have data limits for home internet and I can see that becoming a larger issue in the future if everyone has to stream their games instead of using a console in their house. As for rural areas, it may come as a surprise to some but video rental stores are still open in many small towns in the United States. This means that many people would rather drive to a place of business to rent a movie instead of streaming it in their own homes. I can only surmise that their internet isn’t the best so they feel it is better to have a physical disc than risk inferior visual quality through streaming. If games become a streaming only affair, people in rural areas would be left outside of the gaming world. Maybe the big gaming companies don’t care about losing their customers in rural areas. Who can say?
As for the accessibility aspect of game streaming I mentioned above, I do think there is a big downside to this that most aren’t thinking about. It would reduce the initial cost of getting into gaming (due to not having to buy an expensive console) but it would probably cost more over time. This is because most (if not all) of these services will be subscription-based which means you will have to pay per month to access the games. Even though you will be saving money from not buying a console and the games, you will have to keep handing money over month after month after month to keep access to all the titles on the service. Not only this, but it is more than likely that each and every company will want a streaming service of their own. Sony already has a streaming service, PS Now, and Microsoft and EA are actively working on theirs while Ubisoft probably has one up their sleeve given their CEO’s recent comments. As you can see, the exclusives problem won’t go away. Each company will have their own service and therefore you will need to subscribe to each one to access all of the games. This may work to some gamers’ benefit as they can pick and choose which service to subscribe to based on which companies they like the most. I still think this represents a major obstacle for game streaming and only time will tell if my fears are unfounded.
This brings me to perhaps the biggest problems with the game streaming idea: game preservation and the ability to play old games in the future. What happens when a gaming company with a streaming service goes bankrupt? Or if a game is continuously updated and it’s many iterations are lost? Or even if a beloved game receives an update on the streaming service and changes many of the aspects that made it beloved in the first place (like visual style or actual gameplay)? Since you no longer physically have them in your possession, the answer is you’re f#@*ed. Congratulations, you can no longer play that game in its original form or at all since the service has been shut down or the game was updated. I know these two concerns won’t stop a major corporation from implementing a potentially moneymaking “innovation” but it is something to keep in mind if you enjoy playing old video games.
Game streaming services seem to be the new fad that the gaming industry wants to fawn over and chase after. Sony already has its own streaming platform while Microsoft, EA, and Ubisoft will likely follow suit within the next few years. Although streaming has a few potential benefits such as no more waiting for updates and the ability to make games more accessible, data limits, download speeds, and the fact that every company wants its own service for its own games remain huge obstacles to an all-streaming future. Not to mention the huge downside of losing your favorite games due to a company going bankrupt or the games simply being removed from a service. Despite all of these potential problems, all the major game companies seem determined to make game streaming a reality in the near future. I can only hope it works out well for the consumer and the concept of game preservation in the end.
Thanks for reading and sorry for missing Tuesday this week! Tune in on Friday for a post that will hopefully make up for me missing Tuesday!