E3 has so far been a rollercoaster ride, with exhilarating highs and disappointing lows. Companies are busy showing their latest games, both coming very soon and still inexplicably bewildering, in an attempt to capture the hearts, minds, and money of gamers. But while these games focus on the near future, some companies are already alluding to what’s coming in the long run. A few giants, namely Microsoft and EA, have just joined the choir singing that streaming is the future of gaming. They might have actually hit the nail on the head, and that’s what makes it even more frightening.
It’s one thing for game developers like EA to push for making streaming the de facto way to get your gaming fix. But when companies like Microsoft, Sony, and NVIDIA advocate a business model that would, to some extent, make their hardware less relevant, you might think they’re on to something. On a technical, and even legal, level, game streaming definitely makes sense. The world, however, doesn’t always make technical sense.
At its core, game streaming solves the problem of making games accessible to a wider audience. Imagine being able to play a game, no matter your device, no matter its capability. That’s pretty much the holy grail promise that game streaming is making.
With processing, rendering, and all resource-intensive operations happening on the server, the processing power of your own device matters less. You don’t need a hulking and expensive gaming PC or the latest gen console to play the most photorealistic title. You can even do so from your (relatively recent) smartphone, which definitely appeals to the fast-growing mobile gaming market.
To some extent, game streaming also solves one of the biggest problems game publishers continue to have for decades now: piracy. Simply put, there is no local copy of the game on any device to pirate and run the game. There is also nothing to authenticate locally since the game is running off a remote server all the time. It’s a win-win situation right?
Unfortunately, the gaming utopia promised by streaming relies on the one piece of technology that isn’t available equally to all: a fast Internet connection. A “decent” connection might be OK for turn-based RPGs, but in games where even the slightest lag can mean victory or defeat, “decent” won’t be good enough. Steam Link’s mobile streaming requires a 5 GHz Wi-Fi, and that’s for something running on a local network only. Imagine the issues that will crop up on even 4G LTE.
Beyond technical considerations, however, there are also legal and practical concerns that game streaming has to address. There is, for example, the question of ownership. To be fair, you don’t actually own the game you buy anyway. At most, what you have is the license to install and play that game. But especially with physical media like discs and cartridges, you do own access to that object and have more freedom to give or sell it away as you wish.
The question of ownership, however, also becomes more complicated for game developers. They might own the copyright to a game they made but as far as distribution is concerned, it will be the streaming service who will call the shots. That relationship is already true for some developers who sign deals with publishers but it becomes even more restricted when your only distribution option is streaming.
And then there are the publishers and distribution channels, the Netflix-like companies who will be our main access to games in a streaming-centric future. They will decide which games will remain online and which ones have to shut down. Sometimes, those decisions don’t make sense despite a game’s popularity or infamy. Game developers, especially small ones, won’t have much choice other than go their own, old-school local install route. And when your device is only powerful enough to stream games, you’re pretty much out of luck.
At the end of the day, game streaming puts publishers in almost complete control of the ecosystem. Is it any wonder that Microsoft and Sony are so supportive of this model. In a future where game streaming is primary, maybe even only, way you can get games, players will have access to more content and developers will have access to more gamers. They might, however, also have less control over the market’s future.