To the surprise of no one, Google announced its entry into the cloud gaming market with Google Stadia earlier this week. It promises, like Microsoft’s Project xCloud, to revolutionize the way we game. But will it really?
In short, the answer is yes. Unlike previous attempts at setting up a cloud gaming service, Microsoft and Google have the means and the will to make it happen. If either is able to turn their promises into reality (and that’s a big if), they are set to turn the gaming industry on its head.
To understand why cloud gaming has a much better chance of catching on now, rather than a few years ago, you have to look at the direction the industry is heading and the ways media consumption has changed in the digital era.
The rise of games as a service
Like it or not, most industries are shifting to a service model. For entertainment, the same pattern emerged as advances in bandwidth and technology allowed. First it was music, then it was movies/TV, and now it’s games. The advantages for companies (and users) of services models are just too great to ignore.
For games, service-based models (read: microtransactions) are frequently adopted because they give developers a way to further monetize their work without increasing base prices. With a large install base, there is a much bigger opportunity to make money over the lifetime of a game, rather than just at release. Microtransactions may be controversial for many old guard gamers, but at this point I’m afraid there is no getting rid of them.
Fortnite is a perfect example of what can be achieved with low barriers of entry
Look no further than Fortnite, the most popular game in the world. It manages to maintain its dominance not by lowering the barrier of entry, but instead by virtually removing it. By making the game accessible to more or less anyone with a screen, the game’s potential audience is enormous. This paid off huge for Epic Games in 2018 — to the sum of $3 billion.
There are a number of other advantages for gamers, as well. In addition to not needing to buy any hardware, you don’t need to take it around with you to use it. As long as you have a good internet connection, you can play your AAA games whenever and wherever you want. With 5G’s incredible speeds and low latency just around the corner, this may even apply when not on a Wi-Fi network — assuming you have an incredible data plan.
The other obvious advantage is that you will never need to upgrade your system. New consoles are released every few years, and the high-end PC gaming market changes even more frequently. By spreading the cost of upgrading hardware to thousands of gamers, the cost of gaming will be reduced significantly. Why pay $60 for a new AAA game when you can pay half that for a month of access to tons of games at 4K quality?
Sure, the experience is slightly worse, but if you think people won’t put up with a small amount of input latency in cloud gaming, try playing Fortnite on a phone. No, cloud gaming won’t compete with your $5,000 battle station, but it doesn’t have to. As long as it offers a decent experience for the masses at a good price point, it will succeed.
Plenty of room at the table
Many gamers see cloud gaming as some sort of existential threat to their beloved console and PC titles. It’s as if this new way to consume games will completely erase the last 20 years of gaming history.
You could compare this again to mobile gaming. When big studios announce a new title in a beloved franchise like Diablo or Command & Conquer, then reveal it’s mobile exclusive, fan reaction is overwhelmingly negative. Never mind the fact that mobile titles are often the only things keeping these older franchises alive.
Mobile gaming makes more money than all other gaming markets combined
The fact of the matter is that the mobile gaming market is already making more money than all other gaming markets combined. The reason for this? Accessibility. There were 2.1 billion active mobile gamers at the end of 2017, and that number is only going to rise. Cloud gaming gives developers the opportunity to provide a console or PC-level experience to this new and growing audience of gamers.
If a big studio like EA has a chance to get at the mobile gaming market in a big way, they will (in fact, they already have). Even better if they can provide a true AAA experience rather than the watered down mobile versions that flood the Google Play Store.
Looking at digital game sales as a whole, it makes up more than 90 percent of the entire gaming market. This means that the jump from Steam to the cloud could be pretty seamless — if you’re someone who has already given up on physical media.
If you want to buy a game on a disc, you can. I still buy vinyl records even though I usually listen to music on streaming services. One is a collectors item that provides a unique experience, the other is pure convenience. There is a place for both in my life.
The bottom line
If Google Stadia or Project xCloud work as promised, they will absolutely revolutionize gaming. The games industry has already embraced games as a service as a way to boost revenue, and the market is ready to shift even further into digital formats. The only difference is that now the console itself is digital, and gamers need to buy one device fewer to access the latest and greatest.
The real challenge now, and the reason Google was at GDC in the first place, is getting developers on board. Once that happens, you can safely say goodbye to your gaming consoles forever.