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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!

 

About the author:
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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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tonyspizza posts on October 16, 2020 10:45
diskreet, post: 1425345, member: 91365
For someone like me that doesn't have the time to game a ton, it was great.

Now that I can play even more top tier games both on Xbox and on mobile, it's phenomenal value. If the rumors are true there's one more big acquisition announcement coming (Sega, something else huge?) then it's going to be a no-brainer for anyone that wants access to a ton of different games they wouldn't normally buy.

I think its fair to pay $15/mo for tons of games and a couple times per year spend full price on a couple additional AAA or indie games I absolutely want to experience right away. (Cyberpunk 2077 is on that list for me).

This is a viewpoint that is consistent with those who are willing to be the subscription service. I agree, it is nice to have access to tons of games.

The caveat, is that you don't own any of the titles from subscription. They are ‘rented’. This is one reason why I still buy hard copies of games that I enjoy. I can put it on my shelf, or sell it and not infringe on copyright. You can never sell or ‘resell’ your digital games.

I think the industry needs to be more transparent and call the subscription services what they really are, temporary rentals.
tonyspizza posts on October 16, 2020 10:41
diskreet, post: 1425648, member: 91365
@Wayde Robson you're hitting on what I've heard called the sharing economy. I too worry about the economic impacts my kids will face when the record with inequality causes effects on every facet of their life. This was a wake up call for me, and our policies since this was published in 2016 appear to me to accelerate further inequality:

If I'm thinking of the same thing, I've heard it called the ‘gig’ economy. We are of course starting to deviate from the OP and I don't want to assist too much with it. However, the continued polarization of wealth is going back to historical norms. i.e. The way its always been in modern human history, except for short periods of time.
Wayde Robson posts on October 15, 2020 20:00
diskreet, post: 1425648, member: 91365
@Wayde Robson you're hitting on what I've heard called the sharing economy. I too worry about the economic impacts my kids will face when the record with inequality causes effects on every facet of their life.

Glad I'm not the only one. Sometimes I think maybe I'm deluding myself connecting so many dots. But at the same time, I see basic values shifting ever so slightly among the younger millenials, according to different surveys I've read about among college students. I wonder how much longer Americans can be said to value concepts like “private property” and all that it entails, including free speech, rule of law etc. Not sure how it all connects exactly to the “new economy” we're facing, but all of these values would seem to me to be a package deal, IMHO. Anyone from my generation, GenX, pretty much unanimously agrees on these as basic cornerstones in what we call a liberal democracy.

When young adults basically own nothing, and rent everything, what do you value exactly? Who knows, maybe there's some other kind of awakening coming that we can't even imagine yet.

Will definitely check out those links, thanks for the heads up!
diskreet posts on October 14, 2020 22:59
@Wayde Robson you're hitting on what I've heard called the sharing economy. I too worry about the economic impacts my kids will face when the record with inequality causes effects on every facet of their life. This was a wake up call for me, and our policies since this was published in 2016 appear to me to accelerate further inequality:
https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/12/09/504989751/u-s-kids-far-less-likely-to-out-earn-their-parents-as-inequality-grows

You also describe a concept that I find fascinating around people owning less. On one hand an economy of rent extractors will damage entire generations from ever having any forward mobility (which were already getting deep into, see link above). On the other hand there are huge efficiencies to be gained from reducing the unused time of high-capital investments like vehicles. As a car enthusiast it pains me, but it clearly makes sense. Here's a great dive into Rifkins theory around the upcoming Third Industrial Revolution:
QX3M8Ka9vUA

With much of that inevitable I just see more and more evidence we need extremely strong leadership to navigate our society through these problems. I watch in horror as the increasingly old and out of touch politicians in the US fail to rise up and tackle even the easiest problems, let alone the enormous ones.

As for your kids, maybe the view capitalism as I do: great for non essential services when it is well regulated. But the rampant crony capitalism is obviously not benefiting average Americans. Everyone loves to mock millennials for being lazy or ignorant. The truth is they can actually define socialism, understand how a social democracy benefits the whole society, and have a deeply personal understand of how out-of-control capitalism does wonders to reverse robinhood every penny out of the least fortunate.
Wayde Robson posts on October 14, 2020 10:58
BoredSysAdmin, post: 1425356, member: 28046
a) Digital “ownership” and/or The first sale doctrine
b) Cloud gaming (as in rendered in the cloud, delivered as video streaming)


I'll explore those links, thanks for the heads up.

I think several years ago now, I had this epiphany about the way software and “ownership” seemed to be going. I worked/work in software most of my adult life. Mostly in marketing but that got me working alongside brilliant people from CEOs of startups to software developers who are so talented they can instantly switch sides in our local software hotbed here in Waterloo, Ontario Canada. But the way I saw it is that the recurring revenue stream is the golden goose everyone is looking for out of their software company. I've mostly worked for B2B companies looking to extract monthly/annual licensing or support fees. But it's really become obvious to the general public in B2C subscription services.

What I didn't expect to see start to metastasize was that workers (generally starting out, low skilled work) would obtain a form of employment from the same model, think Uber Driver, and maybe even Amazon/Shopify retailers.

The epiphany was the kind-of the philosophy behind it and what it might be doing to our society or what we think of as a society where “ownership” isn't really a thing anymore, we just “rent”, and employment becomes a different condition as well as we become more of a “gig” economy. That “gig” economy exists at both the low and high levels… as I've seen among brilliant developers who are able to switch high-paying jobs at the veritable drop of hat. I've also spent years working gigs myself in marketing, although not as well paying as the really brilliant software engineers.

Maybe I'm too fascinated with about reading medieval history, but I see a correlation between this kind of life and serfdom of the past, particularly where it applies to the “low end” of the gig economy, renting everything, even entertainment people used to “collect” as records or movies on tape or disc. I don't know if I like it all that much. But I use it, I subscribe to Netflix, but still retain my own local music and movie collection, maybe I'm just old fashioned.

I just wonder what the future holds for the classic American ethics of private property, freedom of speech and maybe even capitalism itself. In modern political discourse, it's easy to find populations for whom the very word “capitalism” represents all the evils of society, rather than the vehicle that has brought untold prosperity to the most impoverished nations on Earth.

But at the same time, I don't want to dismiss the “millennial” complaints against what they see as “evils” of capitalism, as I see the future for my own children in a first world nation where kids are coming out of University with mounds of debt, little hope of home ownership as Chinese money causes spiraling housing costs in our cities, and then either relying on questionable government “health care” or having none at all as in the US. I think we have legitimate problems to solve here. I just wonder how these new ethics forming around technology are going to play out.
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