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Google Stadia: Cloud & Streaming Video-Game "Ecosystems" in the 2020s

by January 01, 2020
Are Subscription Gaming Services a Good Deal?

Are Subscription Gaming Services a Good Deal?

Have you heard? Cloud gaming is the future! That’s the mantra repeated in the boardrooms of tech companies trying to achieve “Netflixization” of gaming. 2019 was the year “cloud gaming” leaped from business-roadmap to official announcements of Google and Apple with an Amazon announcement expected sometime in 2020. As tech companies enter cloud gaming and publishers like EA and Ubisoft launch their own streaming services, delivery of games is expanding well beyond the traditional game market. But what omen does streaming and clouds bring for gamers?

Gaming Clouds on the Horizon

Three of the biggest brands in tech today also happen to dominate the cloud-computing space, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure and Amazon AWS. All three brands have broad, direct-to-consumer connections they can leverage to bring unique competitive advantages to a subscription gaming service. In other words, for each of these companies, launching a cloud gaming service seems like a no-brainer. Each company’s deep consumer connections provide abilities to differentiate themselves from competitors with unique subscriber perks. For instance, Amazon is liable to roll-out its future video game service into a Prime membership. Cloud technology itself can bring similar value to gaming that it already brings to the normie world of business, by offsetting the cost of storage and computing power to your high-speed Internet service. Through the cloud, gamers can access high-performance gaming computers and a library of games, all that's needed is high-speed Internet and a screen with input capability. Through the cloud you can enjoy the latest triple-A games on a smartphone with a controller attached, much like the happy gamer pictured below.

Stadia Smartphone
 

It’s a neat trick to demo a new technology. But for any gamer old enough to buy at a liquor store, gaming on a smartphone with a controller attached reduces the immersive, three-dimensional sonic and visual wonder that is the modern gaming experience to nothing more than Game Boy nostalgia. The image illustrates the technological devolution offered by “cloud gaming”... a step backwards that solves no pressing problem for gamers while introducing new problems of its own.

Relatively low-cost consumer hardware has been one of the driving forces behind gaming’s growth into the largest revenue segment of entertainment. It’s also one of the main reasons cloud gaming is met with indifference to gamers. For much of the gaming industry, hardware is seen as an inconvenient barrier to getting customers into a market they want to transform to subscription services. Microsoft and Sony would love to skip the step where they have to design and sell Xboxes and PlayStations at a loss, and just go straight to the part where we buy a year’s subscription to Xbox Live and PSN. That's the future of gaming "ecosystems".

As we’ve seen from other media’s migration to the cloud, industry gatekeepers aren’t afraid to diminish user-experience to establish digital distribution. Long-time Audioholics know this all too well when in the early 2000s, DRM-afflicted 128-bit MP3s (and their equivalent) became the ad-hoc standard in the sale of digital music. Apple imposed a significant step backwards in sound quality so we can, as the late Steve Jobs put it, “...carry 1000 songs in your pocket”. To the industry, scalable distribution trumps user-experience every time. But enough of the market was willing to trade sound quality for portability, so if the market is buying, we only have ourselves to blame for normalizing garbage.

The Recurring Revenue Model

The imperative threatening to undermine the tradition of buying video-games as we’ve come to enjoy is the “recurring revenue model”. Its gravitational pull will continue to find clever, and at times insidious ways of manifesting itself in gaming. Cloud gaming itself will just be one more tool to get customers into a gaming service's ecosystem.

Google Stadia LogoCloud Gaming Troubles

Despite Stadia's rocky start last November, there’s no doubt if Google is serious about entering gaming it will be a force in the industry. For now, latency aka. “input lag” and video stream compression will keep the cloud an imperfect substitute for gaming on local hardware for some time. Limited bandwidth and delay are plagues for all cloud gaming services today and not even Google can avoid it. Taking a cursory glance around the Internet to learn how serious gamers feel about Stadia, and it looks to be about as popular as meningitis. But we’re probably only years away from home 5G services, which could solve some of cloud gaming's technical problems. Verizon is already testing home 5G in several cities with the promise of latency down below the 30ms mark with bandwidth in gigabit fiber territory.

Your Personal Data and Google

“A man’s home is his castle.” The same is true of the contents of his hard-drive.

One of the more troubling aspects of Stadia, is Google itself. Google’s advertising business has made it the world’s premiere data collection and surveillance specialist. Google uses everything it can learn about you to find new ways to not only predict but also manipulate your future behavior. So, we probably don’t even want to know the sorts of conclusions Google can draw from our gaming habits. Gamers should use Stadia under the assumption that every in-game decision made, every press of the controller’s button is data that’s being mined and harvested for your personal psychographic profile to benefit its advertising business. We can only guess at the Sith-level mind control tools Google will cook up from our gaming behavior. If Google starts buying or partnering with game developers for its own platform exclusives, we can only guess it will soon be followed by marketers buying targeted in-game ad impressions.

Competition and a “Gaming Golden Age”

As new services bring new money into the gaming industry, we should expect competitive reactions. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have already been busy digging moats around their businesses that are already yielding benefits to gamers. Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Now have rejigged pricing to offer more value and attract new gamers. Microsoft and Sony’s subscription services include libraries of games playable on a PC and lets them attract gamers that don’t even own a console. Microsoft has been working on its ultimate cloud gaming platform, project xCloud while Nintendo is working on a cloud service of its own. But the big three console-makers already own some of the industry’s most valuable assets, intellectual property. Sony and Microsoft will continue buying up games developers to pad their library of exclusive titles and franchises as new competitors like Google, Apple and Amazon attempt to break into gaming.

Golden Age of TVAs the old adage goes: “Competition is good”. New money could bring a boom in games development the way it has for TV. But if a flood of new games start pouring in, let’s hold off on the merry proclamations of a “golden age in gaming”, until we see some true risk-taking. What’s widely held as the current golden age of television only arrived because new money from cable networks and streaming services were willing to take risks that elevated the medium. When it comes to the big-budget, design-by-committee game titles we get these days, bigger budgets make game developers more risk averse. Gaming could do well with some risk-taking before the next go-around on the annual Call of Duty treadmill. There’s an opportunity for a revitalized “middle market” in gaming.

As the industry transforms over the 2020s, there are mile-wide opportunities to seize in serving niche markets with mid-budget games. One specific example is Role Playing Games (RPGs). It has a reliable audience that has unfortunately lost one of its biggest recurring titles over the years, Elder Scrolls. Elder Scrolls’ status as a true RPG has slowly begun to fade. The series has streamlined many classic RPG elements to attract a wider audience, while losing much of its original flavor. From Morrowind to Skyrim, gameplay has been simplified, its open world adapted to shorter attention spans by becoming more densely populated with in-game encounters and a more forced immersion.

Still, Skyrim was one of the greatest games of all time. But the tragedy is that Elder Scrolls 6 will likely continue the trend of streamlining gameplay and emphasizing multiplayer and in-game purchases. But therein lies opportunity for industry newcomers, and not just in RPGs, but other specialized or even all-new types of games that serve smaller audiences in that middle market.

The Long Game for Cloud and Streaming Game Services

Xbox GamePass PlayStation NowBetween cloud services and video game publishers delivering their own services, like EA/Origin Access and Ubisoft’s UPlay+, the industry seems determined to get onto your monthly credit card statement. According to NPD Group analyst Mat Piscatella, the future of video gaming is ecosystems, not platforms.

PSSSST… THE 2020’S WILL BE ABOUT ECOSYSTEMS, NOT PLATFORMS. BY THE END OF THE DECADE I DOUBT ANY COMPANY WILL TIE CONTENT EXCLUSIVELY TO ONE DEVICE. PARTICULAR HARDWARE WILL BE A NICE TO HAVE, NOT A NEED TO HAVE. _(ツ)_/ — MAT PISCATELLA (@MATPISCATELLA) DECEMBER 4, 2019

We can already see ecosystems merging in a morass of subscriptions. An EA Access subscription runs on PC and both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Ubisoft has partnered with Google to run UPlay+ on Stadia. By this time next year, Sony and Microsoft will be into the next iteration of a decades long “console war”, the success of which will again be measured in set-top-box sales. But the real metric of success is slowly shifting from hardware sales to subscriptions. Fortunately, hardware is unlikely to be going away anytime soon. Not surprisingly, Microsoft’s next Xbox (Project Scarlett) has been confirmed to include a disc drive. That's a good omen for physical media as the company that's already invested so much in streaming with Game Pass, xCloud and its first diskless game console, Xbox One S.

Why Gamers Mistrust Cloud and Streaming

The complaint about game subscription services most often heard goes something like this: “I want to actually own my game.” It’s an echo of what audiophiles and home theater aficionados have been saying for years as their media of choice was transformed into online streaming services. But if the recent demand for vinyl is any indication, there’s a market in fulfilling the undeniable, tactile comfort in owning a copy of your favorite media. We humans are hard-wired to collect, we like owning. Even if the alternative is instant access to an incomprehensibly gigantic collection of songs, movies or games for a reasonable monthly fee.

Digital Neo-Feudalism

We accept renting a house or an apartment, we even accept leasing a car. Nowadays, we lease access to our favorite shows, movies, songs, and gaming is moving in the same direction. But many of us still have a nagging feeling in the back of our minds about subscribing, while letting collections gather dust in a closet. That, my friends, is the effect of centuries of the Enlightenment's philosophical conditioning. It’s so ingrained that we take its principles for granted. One of those principles is private property. We've all heard the saying: “A man’s home is his castle.” The same is true of the contents of his hard-drive. The recurring revenue stream has us leasing from rent-seeking lords of industry in short-term transactions for temporary use, rather than a lump-sum purchase for unlimited ownership. It brings to mind medieval serfs, tending fields they don't actually own. Their access to fertile soil was only by the grace of a feudal lord. Subscription service's host our media, making access to that media less reliable than ownership because it's subject to licensing agreements. A show on Netflix today is liable to be gone tomorrow. It gets even more complicated when it comes to streaming game services. Video games are more dynamic than movies and songs, they can grow through updates, downloadable content (DLC) and mods. Accessing them through subscriptions may involve added fees for content updates. Sadly, subscription gaming services are almost certainly going to be the death of most modding communities.

Unfortunately for gamers that demand ownership of the games they’ve purchased, that ship has already sailed. Chances are you already don’t really own many of the video games you've purchased. If you bought any of the 83-percent of games sold through digital downloads in 2018 from places like Steam, XBL or PSN stores, you only paid to enter into a software licensing agreement and don’t actually own anything.

Digital vs. Physical Video Game Sales

 

Video Game Sales

Gaming Service's Feature Translations

We've translated some of the corporate-speak found in the fine print of subscription game services, to help you to better understand the agreement you might be considering.

  • Free Trial: Unsubscribe before billing.

Most “free trials” require a credit card number that will be automatically billed after the trial period. Never complete your “free trial” registration until you’ve done a dry-run navigation through the cancellation process.

  • Service Updates: Removing games from existence. 
EA Access politely calls its elimination of games “Service Update

”, downplaying the real meaning… wiping your game from existence. If you didn't keep a copy of a game you own, you are likely to lose it over time.

  • UPlay+Premium Game Content Available: DLC sold separately.

According to the fine print on UPlay+: “...editions included in UPLAY+ may not include all premium content. Offer subject to change.” In other words, games may be included with your subscription, but DLC is sold separately, or requires an upgrade to the premium service.

  • Unlimited Access to 100+ Games: Conditionally limited access to 100+ games.

Games included in your subscription are accessible only while included in the plan, subject to change at any time. Your access to the vanilla version of the game will change when new tier subscriptions are introduced or the game is dropped by the service.

  • Subscriber Early Access: Subscriber beta testing.

Whatever happened to open beta testing and demos for upcoming games? A feature of “Origin Access Premiere” (EA’s top-tier) provides early access to some new games, which is essentially a form of beta testing or delayed access for non-subscribers.

  • Subscriber Exclusive Avatars and Skins: Announce to everyone in the lobby that you subscribe to the publisher’s service.

Seriously, does anyone really care?

  • EA AccessInternet Connection Required: Always-on DRM. 

Even if you bought the game before you downloaded, you have no rights to the game and your access is subject to change. Ownership of a personal copy of a game with the ability to play in perpetuity is incompatible with a required DRM-check. Internet connection should only be required when the game is online-multiplayer or you're playing from a cloud service.

  • New Premium Tier Subscription Available: Price increase for standard tier.

Premium subscription will soon be required to enjoy the benefits of the standard or “free” tier subscription you already have. This is what happened when PlayStation Plus was introduced as an option for gamers in 2010, along with the following promise from Sony:

The current PSN features will remain free. We are still very committed to PSN as a free comprehensive entertainment service and are certainly not planning on reducing this service following the launch of PlayStation Plus.

The promise crumbled when PlayStation 4 was released in 2013 and a PlayStation Plus subscription ($60 per-year) became a requirement to play multiplayer games.

Subscriber Beware

As long as game companies are selling new titles for an up-front fee, gamers will demand that they at least maintain the illusion of ownership. At best, cloud and subscription services are just a parallel option for gamers that won’t ever impinge on your freedom to play the games that you buy. But at worst, cloud and subscription game services are a Trojan horse for what could become an industry-wide policy of always-on DRM with potentially predatory control of your access to them. DRM is an understandable reaction to piracy and the elimination of scarcity in digital media. But it also presents a presumption of guilt that should never sit well with us. Ultimately, the behavior of gaming companies is up to us as consumers. It’s our job to let them know when they’ve gone too far and no longer provide value by exercising the unsubscribe option.

Streaming Services Doubt

 

Warning to Gaming Subscription and Cloud Services

Xbox One

Gamers can be an ornery lot. They’ve grown up fighting bosses, when not relentlessly fighting each other online over their choice in gaming platform. The vocalized online displeasure over perceived predatory policies can alter the course of business. Just ask Microsoft in 2013, when the company presented its then upcoming Xbox One with a persistent Internet connection requirement. They didn’t say it directly, but Xbox fans assumed that the ambiguous messaging at the Xbox One reveal was code for an always-on DRM designed to kill the used game market and prevent game-sharing among friends. The backlash against Microsoft was so profound that the company relented, giving in to consumer demand and bringing back the Xbox brand's reputation. Gamers have always had the innate ability to discern the most efficient build in complex game systems to mete out the most damage the enemy. This makes them well suited to see through business policies and practices to find the best value for their dollar. Cloud and streaming services are fine as an option and can be a great way for publishers to offer real value to gamers while padding their bottom line for access to older games that aren't selling anymore. Here’s hoping we can strike a balance in the new decade, and that we can happily continue to be Luddites if we choose to buy games that can be played offline. Happy New Year, we’ll see you all in the 2020s!

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About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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Recent Forum Posts:

Wayde Robson posts on January 09, 2020 13:06
shadyJ, post: 1360011, member: 20472
Agreed about streaming, however 5 to 10ms would definitely not be a showstopper.

I'm not sure that small amount of delay would be noticed, even in quick-reaction games. There must be a hard latency number where it's considered imperceptible to a human.

I had a serious Conan Exiles addiction for awhile there, it's an online-only multiplayer game. It probably got me too used to “some” lag, just under 50ms ping to the game's servers was pretty much the best you could hope for. If I was pinging 30-40ms to a server, I honestly didn't even notice any delay at all. Although, it would probably have been in PvP vs another human. I think your brain can acclimate to some, very slight delay, where it's filtered out of perception. That was definitely me in CE.

I never did get much into PvP in that game though. I may yet. It's really a great game!
Wayde Robson posts on January 09, 2020 12:53
BoredSysAdmin, post: 1359874, member: 28046
The discussion per usual Wayde's agenda is somewhat skewed and confusing .
a) The issue of DRM protected digital game purchases
b) game streaming as a subscription

Regarding
a) I am generally ok with Steam and I feel strongly about it, I'd buy only DRM free GOG games
b) Burn it with fire. It will never work perfectly due to network latency. Even 5-10ms latency would be a show stopper for most reaction-based games.


Sorry, I'm not sure what's confusing. But there are a lot of somewhat confusing things covered in the article. I quickly realized I was probably covering too many topics as I was writing it. It started life as an article about Stadia, essentially to talk about how much I hate it. But, I hate the whole idea of Cloud gaming.

I found the whole streaming services more and more interesting as I researched it.

But streaming services or full game access for a monthly fee (not including DLCs/mods etc)… isn't necessarily a full “cloud” gaming experience. Most streaming services, including Xbox's and PlayStation's let you download (some) of their games to play on PC, so latency shouldn't be an issue. The “pure” cloud gaming services, like Stadia, those should be burnt in a fire.

Digitally purchased games - These, unfortunately will often contain DRM too. I use Steam, I haven't actually used GOG, but it seems like a better deal since it lets you purchase DRM-free. I only learned about Steam's “licensing” rather than “selling” games while researching this article. I'd never read the user agreement.

But, the worst DRM-crime IMHO, is when they maintain files required to run the game on the server-side, even if you purchased it. So, the digitally downloaded “copy” of the game isn't the full game. I have no experience with it myself, but I read this technique was used by UBISoft on Assassin's Creed II. The game required a persistent Internet connection even to play the single player campaign. That is just a step too far, it should be considered fraud.

But even Assassin's Creed II has been cracked, some group figured out the server-side game files and wrote something to download them locally so it can be played 100% offline.
shadyJ posts on January 03, 2020 19:42
BoredSysAdmin, post: 1360051, member: 28046
Lan Multiplayer isn't the same thing as game streaming. Your stuff gets rendered locally, only control data is exchanged vs streamed which now has to deal with both video delivery react to controls - essentially doubling the lag.
I get what you are saying, but even if you doubled 10ms, that is still only 20ms which is really fast. But a high-quality, low-latency stream is difficult to do.
Pogre posts on January 03, 2020 19:34
I thought about game pass on XBL but just… I dunno. I don't like the idea of it.
BoredSysAdmin posts on January 03, 2020 19:12
Lan Multiplayer isn't the same thing as game streaming. Your stuff gets rendered locally, only control data is exchanged vs streamed which now has to deal with both video delivery react to controls - essentially doubling the lag.
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