Streaming is the future. That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. In the film and television industries, streaming has become one of the major, if not the major outlet for content. The likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are vying for subscriptions, producing original content and providing millions with viewable material all with an ease of access needing only a stable internet connection and a monthly cost.
Streaming works a little differently in the video game industry though. It isn’t as simple as video content because video games require user input and interaction. It’s a key difference with numerous issues and for that reason, the video game industry’s uptake on streaming has been slower.
Now, the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Google and even Nintendo are dabbling and experimenting in streaming. They’re all trying out ways to get streaming done right, and soon it may very well be like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, only with video game companies vying for your subscription.
The first major attempt at video game streaming was from Sony in the form of PlayStation Now (aka PS Now). PS Now grants subscribers access to a library of over 500 PS2, PS3 and PS4 games to stream on demand whenever they want at $19.99 per month.
A recent update to the service now allows games to be downloaded and played offline too. This saves on internet and bandwidth restrictions and it prevents the common streaming problems of lag and latency. However, PS3 games cannot be downloaded to a PS4 console because they comprise of different architecture.
In many ways, this is now the PlayStation equivalent to Netflix. It provides a similar service, allowing the streaming and downloading of content and thanks to cloud saving, you can pick up and play your games on different consoles, just like having Netflix on different devices. The downside of comparing PS Now with Netflix is that the monthly price is significantly higher (almost twice as much).
The service also has some issues that need ironing out before it can become the standard for PlayStation gaming. Upon release, PlayStation recommended an internet connection of 5mbps for a stable stream, which is on the higher end for streaming. In comparison, Netflix can stream standard definition content at less than 2mbps. This means that to stream PlayStation games, a better than average internet connection is required.
Even if you have a capable connection, there are still drawbacks. Speaking in 2014 about streaming via PS Now on Bravia TV’s, Sony Computer Entertainment America social media manager Sid Shuman stated that ‘you’d expect, “minor concessions in the visual department, such as compression artefacts, consistent with high-quality internet video or gameplay streamed via PS Vita Remote Play” are also present for the time being.’
These concessions mean that streaming video games simply isn’t the way they’re supposed to be played. More so now, when developers are pushing for 4K, HDR content. The problems are caused by the way in which the user input and interaction are received and then interpreted. Lag and latency is the result of poor internet which in turn impacts how responsive the game is and how well it runs. For the casual gamer, this can be misinterpreted as a glitch or a bug rather than as a network or server issue.
Adding to these issues, PS Now isn’t available worldwide yet. Large portions of Europe are still without the service, although a BETA is arriving for those locations sometime in 2019. Its biggest competitor, Xbox Game Pass also provides subscribers with Xbox exclusive games on the day of release, something PS Now doesn’t do.
Clearly, PS Now is not without its problems. The ability to download games onto a console and play them offline certainly fixes and addresses the problems of streaming, but it also highlights the limitations of it. With a higher price and fewer perks in comparison to competitors, PS Now needs tweaking in order to become the PlayStation streaming service every PlayStation gamer needs or wants.
However, according to a Q3 earnings analysis for each publisher, PlayStation Now constitutes 52% of all subscription-based revenue, ahead of rivals, EA Access and Xbox Game Pass. This is a significant number which suggests that the service is being used and utilised by consumers. Despite the current limitations with the service, it’s a success and with the increase in video game subscription services, it’s currently in the lead, demonstrating how streaming, at least for Sony PlayStation is the future.
On the Xbox side of things, there isn’t yet a streaming service. However, there are numerous rumours surrounding the next generation of Xbox consoles and what they may entail and feature, including streaming capabilities.
According to Thurrot, the next Xbox could arrive as early as this year (2019), and it may be disc-less. This would mean that the only way to play games is via downloading them or by streaming them. At the same time, this price-cutting, rumoured console is said to not be a part of the Scarlett family of consoles that Xbox is reportedly developing.
While a typical, next generation Xbox console is rumoured to be in development as part of the Scarlett family, a streaming box is also said to be in the works. This streaming box is said to focus on game streaming, be of a lower price than the standard console and it will work alongside a streaming service that Xbox is developing.
This streaming-only console/box will have a limited amount to compute controller input, image processing and collision detection. Microsoft has however claimed to have solved the issue of latency in video game streaming, giving them a potential edge in the market. By running part of the game locally, on the box, and running part of the game from a server, elsewhere, the cloud can stitch the game together. Like PS Now though, a reliable internet connection will be the key to this working smoothly, if at all.
Unlike PS Now though, Microsoft’s cloud platform reaches around the world. This means that any potential Xbox streaming service will be available worldwide at some point or another, but it could also suggest that the games may be streamable across other devices too. With Xbox exclusives currently available to play on both an Xbox console and on a computer, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine this happening. More so now that we know Xbox Live is also coming to the Nintendo Switch and mobile devices.
The big problem here is that this is all hypothetical as it’s based on rumours and gossip. In time, Xbox will most likely have a streaming service for its games, perhaps connected to its Netflix like service, Xbox Game Pass. With the next generation of consoles reportedly on the way as soon as this year, E3 2019 looks the likely announce date.
One thing we know for sure Microsoft is working on is Project xCloud, a video game streaming service which could link into and connect to the Scarlett devices and future Xbox consoles and plans.
Project xCloud is an initiative focused on getting console and PC worthy games available to stream across numerous platforms, including mobile devices. The aim is said to be to provide gamers with new choices in when and where they play games, while giving mobile-gamers access to experiences they haven’t been able to partake in before.
Microsoft has experimented in streaming technology for several years now, but the price and cost of such hardware was too much for a serious investment. It wasn’t until Microsoft Azure, when they began to explore the economics and possibilities in more depth and detail. With Microsoft Azure available in 140 countries, their version of video game streaming will be available to a large audience once ready.
In order to address the issues surrounding the streaming of video games, Microsoft believes it has found a solution. Rather than streaming the entirety of a game from a server, they instead plan to take a hybridized approach, featuring both cloud-based and local processing. The latency sensitive aspects of a game would be handled locally, while other parts such as graphics, would be backed up by the cloud.
Project xCloud isn’t available yet though. There isn’t firm, public evidence suggesting that the service works as expected or will work as expected. It may be that further advances in network technology is required first, for example, the move from 4G to 5G networks. Phil Spencer has championed the service and suggested that it may merge with Xbox Game Pass, the Xbox game subscriptions service, akin to Netflix (but without the streaming). This all suggests confidence and determination, but time will tell if Project xCloud turns out to be the revolutionised streaming service it’s being hyped up to be.
Sony and Microsoft aren’t the only major gaming companies dipping their toes into streaming. Nintendo has also investigated it a little.
In Japan, Nintendo made Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey available to stream on the Nintendo Switch. The problem with this though is that it was only available in Japan. Without having servers capable of streaming the game worldwide, the audience and reach of the game was very limited. Even if a non-Japan based gamer can connect to a Japanese server; at such a distance, the connection would no doubt suffer from serious lag and latency, making the game challenging to play at the least.
Prior to this, Resident Evil VII: Biohazard was also available to stream on the Nintendo Switch, again, only in Japan. For $20, gamers could stream the game for six months via a 45MB client. While the game worked, neither Nintendo or Capcom were able to overcome the usual issues surrounding the streaming of video games and by limiting the streaming to only one country with renowned, good internet connectivity, it wasn’t an accurate or realistic expectation for wider video game streaming.
The other major company getting in on video game streaming is Google. In 2018, Google unveiled Project Stream, a streaming service that allows gamers to stream video games via Google Chrome on Windows, macOS, Chrome OS and Linux. However, as of February 2019, the only game that has been available to stream was Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, which was only available for a trial period.
Reviews and impressions of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’s stream via Project Stream were primarily positive, citing visual fidelity and low lag. Given Google’s access to cloud technology, mobiles, computers and more; and considering the success of Project Stream, one can assume that Google is poised to tackle streaming in a larger way in the future. More so with the rumoured Google video game console, codenamed ‘Yeti,’ potentially on the horizon.
In conclusion, no video game developer or company has yet to truly figure out video game streaming. PS Now is undoubtedly the most successful of the video game streaming services, given how long it’s been available. However, Microsoft and Xbox are poised to give PS Now serious competition with Project xCloud and a potential integration with Xbox Game Pass. Other companies like Google and Nintendo have only just entered the fray, so it’s too early to fully judge their efforts.
Looking outside of video games at the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, it’s obvious to see that streaming is now the dominant form of video, film and television consumption. With so many video game companies and developers looking into a video game counterpart, the future is undoubtedly in streaming.
Digital sales are growing, physical sales are decreasing. We are in the digital age and streaming is the next step. Limited internet access is a major problem for streaming, especially when there are large areas of the world where the internet is poor, or simply not available. Until problems like this are addressed, streaming will be limited.