The Future of Console Gaming

The Future of Console Gaming (Promotional Image for Google's Stadia. (Source: Google))

Oakland, CAIn the last few weeks, tech giants Google and Apple both announced plans to alter the future of video games as we know it.

The first announcement came from Google at the 2019 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Google introduced Stadia: a streaming platform that would allow users to — at the click of a link — play any game, on any device, without the aid of a console such as an XBox, PlayStation, or Nintendo product, or a particularly high-powered PC.

This means that gamers would be able to take AAA games on the road with any phone, tablet and laptop with a high-speed internet connection, in addition to enjoying games on the more traditional stationary hardware like TVs and desktop computers.

Streaming have been a goal that game makers have been actively pursuing for years, and Google looks to jump to the head of the line by leveraging its cash and existing relationship to gamers: YouTube. Google’s presentation at GDC — and the marketing materials that followed — made it very clear that Stadia will also offer tools tailor-made for video game-focused streamers and content creators on YouTube.

“If you watch one of your favorite creators playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, simply click the ‘play now’ button. Seconds later, you’ll be running around ancient Greece in your own game/on your own adventure — no downloads, no updates, no patches and no installs,” explained Stadia VP Phil Harrison in a press release published on the day of the presentation.

More so than any other genre, live-streamers and YouTubers have the ability to make audiences feel as if they are closely connected to the personalities they are watching, and Google recognizes that. This closeness, and ability to share the fun of video games far and wide, is exactly what Google intends to capitalize on with this feature.

“I’m really excited for Stadia!” said Forrest, the 22-year-old content creator behind the "KreekCraft” channel on YouTube. “I think Stadia will make engaging with viewers really easy and fun! Currently, if any viewer wants to join your game, it usually requires you to add them as a friend, them to join your lobby/party, etc. Having a dedicated ‘play’ button with a built-in queue simplifies the process and makes it super easy for viewers to join in!”

Less than a week after Google’s announcement, while gamers and streamers were still trying to iron out the details of exactly how Stadia will work, Apple announced their boldest move in the gaming space yet: Apple Arcade. The app is, in essence, a monthly subscription service that gives paying subscribers unlimited access to a curated library of video games created for iOS, Mac, and Apple TVs.

“Apple Arcade will give customers the freedom to try any game from its handpicked collection of titles that are all-you-can-play, have no ads, ad tracking or additional purchases, and respect user privacy,” according to Apple’s own press release.

While both of these platforms have the potential to bring more video games to gamers without the need for traditional consoles, and Stadia has the unique opportunity to bolster YouTube’s relationship with its audience, each company has failed to answer important questions about their respective products. Most notably, we don’t know how much either of these services will cost the end user. In Google’s case, we don’t even know whether the user will be charged per game versus a regular flat rate.

Naturally, social media has been buzzing with excitement — and some skepticism — about both services since the announcements: 7312

And despite all the hype, consumers have more than enough reason to be skeptical that either of these services will catch on quickly (or at all). Several other video game streaming services have bubbled up in recent years — among them names like OnLive, GeForce NOW, and PlayStation Now — but none have made quite the splash that Google and Apple are hoping for.

In Stadia’s case, the major obstacle to success will likely be latency issues (the speed at which the controller strokes are reflected on screen) that will be nearly unavoidable on a system that relies entirely on remote servers, rather than storing the game locally on the player’s machine.

Michael Brune, a a Senior Networked Gameplay Engineer at Underflow Studios, explained the issue in more detail via an email conversation with YR Media:

“In locally-installed video games, we simulate the movement and send the [data] packet to move you at the same time... This is a major part of making games ‘feel’ right. Latency is the sort of feeling you'd get when you hit a button and don't get immediate local feedback that the button has been hit. You typically end up hitting the button again because you aren't even sure if the program registered the press.”

Jarred Walton, a journalist reporting for PC Gamer, said he was already noticing latency issues while demo-ing Stadia shortly after it was announced — and that it was costing him in-game lives, even while playing what should have been very simple levels.

As for Arcade, Apple’s introductory presentation made it unclear whether Arcade users will enjoy access to popular AAA games that aren’t designed for mobile devices, or what portion of the service will be populated by indie Apple Arcade “originals.” The titles with the most brand-power confirmed to be supported on Arcade thus far are Sega’s “Sonic Racing and “Lego Brawls.”

Most importantly, any platform looking to be the “Netflix for gaming” will have to convince gamers to spend their money on access to a list of games curated by Google or Apple, rather than on the individual games they wanted to play anyway.

Both Google Stadia and Apple Arcade are slated to launch later this year, which could mean that the future of gaming — one without consoles that need to be replaced every three years, discs that get scratched and lost, and controversial decisions around cross-platform play — may be approaching more quickly than anyone expected.

“They keep trying these streaming services and no matter how well you think you can craft it, in the end people don't buy in,” Brune wrote in a subreddit for indie game developers. “Overall I think the issue is one of direct control... people want control over their games in every way possible. Cloud streaming just doesn't allow for that.”

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