The price of digital freedom

Just as I put out last post about how Stadia will be pushing game streaming further, Google’s Phil Harrison was interviewed about the price of games at Eurogamer. In addition to a subscription fee, with free model coming out sometime 2020, games would cost your normal game price. He is right in questioning why the games should be cheaper on Stadia compared to any other digital console platform. Streaming games is not the same thing as streaming video. Forcing television or movie model unto games has never been all that successful, and this applies doubly on the whole market side of things. While it is easy to use Netflix as a point of comparison while talking with Stadia, it is also relatively inaccurate. It should be compared to other games streaming services, and seeing only Sony’s has some moderate success with it despite having issues outside PS4, there really isn’t any reason for streamable games to be any less expensive than their other digital counterparts. Google’s PR department just uses this as a point of comparison, because game streaming has not been mainstream consumer product before.

After all, in both scenarios you’re paying for bits and bytes and only. With streaming, you don’y even need to put money into building high-end rig. Just stream it to your Android phone or similar, and you’re good to go. Harrison’s theory isn’t all that applicable about the quality of their games. I have serious doubt any Stadia version of any multiplatform game will be the highest possible quality. Let the PR do its job there though.

Xbox Game Pass and Sony’s PS Now are more like Netflix model, where you pay a monthly free to access slew of games. The consumers who use these two have already gotten used to the idea, as has other markets with Netflix’s style subscription model. However, it is more apparent that Stadia has been modelled after Steam, if anything. After all, with gaming Valve has been the one to push the digital-only model further and further with Steam. Stadia is mostly just the next natural next step in this. First consumer didn’t have to own the physical item, owning the digital data was fine. Then it moved to subscription license, no need to own anything. With Stadia, even needing space for that digital data is unnecessary. While people applaud moving towards digital-only environment, most of them have ignored the loss of ownership in all of its forms. With Stadia, you’re giving all control to Google on the data you’ve purchased, i.e. subscribed to.

Digital-only solution like Steam took nice roots because of its easy availability and unnecessary bells and whistles. Well, there aren’t much compared to it and buying a game from a store, but people are really goddamn lazy at their core when it comes things like this. Having a digital option is just more convenient at the cost of ownership and freedom. That’s where Stadia wants to compete in. Spell doom and gloom for Stadia, but as long as it has ease of use and convenience, people will pay that money for Google’s service. Steam, Bandcamp, GOG, Netflix, and so on and so on. The main reason they’ve become success is because they’re convenient and easy to use.

Of course, some games are going to be free to play and some games will have lower subscription fee. There’s no “buying” as such in digital systems like Steam and Stadia, despite the term used there. Valve could’ve already overtaken this market by making moves towards using streaming for some titles, but as envelope pushing as Steam was, it now has become more or less the tried and tested example to use as a basis rather than anything else. Much like how the NES or Atari could be described for consoles. There is, nevertheless, an overlapping market between Steam and possible Stadia users. Some people who are enthusiastic about the whole streaming thing will jump on the wagon as soon as possible, and the rest of the consumers who find enough value in theoretically fully mobile super computer via Stadia with them all the time. I admit, the idea of throwing a small device to a television on a trip to play a large library of games akin to Steam’s does sound attractive, but the principle of ownership removes me as a possible consumer for Stadia.

Stadia is one of the next steps in digital-only gaming. We’re on full-course to a world where consumers have very little control over their purchased goods withing the digital landscape. Maybe the service model in itself completely acceptable, but the delivery still isn’t. You know my old song at this point already; the ‘net infrastructure to deliver the promised high-end content isn’t there yet, or is available to extremely limited amount of consumers in comparison. High-end Internet connections are still relatively costly outside large population centers, but maybe that’s an issue that doesn’t matter. Perhaps the convenience just beats the slight lag and drop in visual quality will trump the need to have a gaming computer or a console to play these games.

I don’t predict doom and gloom, or success, for Stadia. No system has been great at the start, though NES had Super Mario Bros. in the US and Europe. No, it is far more likely that if Stadia will become success, it will be after a period of hardship and adjusting to the market demands and needs. People want to play the games, those are there. Now the rest just has to find its niche to expand from.

Heads in the clouds

Cloud gaming making some waves again, with Sony and Microsoft announcing collaboration with each other to explore solutions with their own streaming solutions. At least according to official statement from Microsoft. Despite being rivals within gaming market. We should always remind ourselves that out of the Big Three, only Nintendo deals exclusively with games. Both Microsoft and Sony have their fingers spread elsewhere, with Sony having movie and music studios, Microsoft with Windows and whatnot and so on. While Sony does rely heavily on the profits their gaming department is making (to the point of relying most of their profits coming from there seeing everything else has been going downhill for them), Microsoft doesn’t as much. I’m not even sure if Microsoft is still making any profit on their Xbox brand and products, considering neither the original box or the 360 saw any real profit throughout their lifespans. It’s like a prestige project for them, they gotta have their fingers in the biggest industry out there. The more competition, the better though. This does mean that neither Amazon or Google can partner with Sony for similar venture, but perhaps this was more or less a calculated move on both of their parts.

It does make sense that the two would collaborate to support each other in cloud and streaming venture though. Sony already has an infrastructure for streaming gaming content with their PlayStation Now while Microsoft has the whole Azure cloud centre set up. The MS Azure contains lots of features, from computing  virtual machines and high density hosting of websites, to general and scalable data management all the way to media streaming and global content delivery. Safest bet would be that both MS and Sony are intending to share their know-how of content streaming, but it is doubtful if the two will actually share any content. Perhaps Sony’s music and films will be seen on Microsoft’s services, but don’t count on the games. However, I can’t help but guess if multiplatform games between the two could be specifically designed and developed for their combined streaming efforts. That’s a bit out there, as the collaboration is to find new solutions rather than build a common service the two would use. This is, like Satya Nadella said, about bringing MS Azure to further power Sony’s streaming services, and that’s completely different part of market from games at its core.

This does seem like Enemy-of-enemy like situation. Google’s Stadia is touted to be the next big hitter on the game market. It’s not unexpected for the two giants pull something that would weaken Stadia’s standing. This, despite Stadia already having boatloads of obstacles already, ranging from control latency to the quality of the streaming itself (end-user Internet connection still matters, especially if you live in the middle of nowhere surrounded by dense forests) to the very content itself probably being less than unique. Let’s not kid ourselves, cloud gaming is not for everyone despite what Google’s PR department wants you to think. Not everyone has the money or infrastructure to have a proper connection for cloud gaming. Anecdotes be damned, but there are lots of people living around here who have to rely on wireless Internet for everything, especially up North, because the population is so spread apart that putting data cables into the ground would not be worth it. Early 2000’s modem speeds are not unexpected, they’re a standard. If early reports on Stadia are to be believed, there’s some serious lag and latency on standard Internet connections. It’s not going to play well with someone who doesn’t put a whole lot money into their Internet connection, or just can’t. If we’re going to be completely open about this, only a fraction of the world can handle cloud gaming. 10.7 teraflop computing power and 4K resolutions for Stadia? A pipe dream at best.

Steaming interactive content like video and computer games is not easy. Music and video, that’s comparatively easy, just send that data to the consumer and you’re pretty much done. Gaming requires two-way communication at all times, and on top of that the service has to keep tabs on what’s going on at both ends within the game. No matter how robust the data centres are, no matter what sort of AI solutions are implemented, it all comes down to the whole thing about latency between the data centre and the end-user. Perhaps the best solution would be split the difference in a similar manner how mobile games have partial data on the phone whole syncing with the server side all the time. That, of course, would be pretty much against the whole core idea of cloud gaming, where the end-user would just hold an input device and a screen.

Cloud gaming has been tried for about a decade now. It’s still ways off, but it’s very understandable from the corporations’ perspective why they’d like it to become mainstream and successful. For one, it would remove one of the biggest hurdles from the consumer side; getting the hardware. You could just use your existing computer or smartypants phone to run things and you’re set. Maybe have a controller, but you can get those for twenty bucks. No need to pay several hundreds for a separate device just to run separate media software. Cloud gaming would be the next step in digital-only distribution, which would also offer better protection from piracy. Control is the major aspect of cloud gaming, where the end-user would have effectively none. You would have no saying in what games you have access to. One of the well marketed modern myths about streaming services is that everything is available 24/7, when in reality everything is determined by licenses. Star Trek vanished from Netflix for a time being, because the license ended, for example. This happens all the time. I’m sure there’s some list of lost media listing somewhere about digital-only films and shows that were lost due to publishing rights and licenses expiring. Lots of games having vanished from both Steam and GOG because of this, and if there are no physical copies floating around, pirating is your only option. For something like the Deadpool game, you can only get second-hand or newold stock, as the developer’s and publisher’s license expired few years back.

Will cloud gaming be the future? Probably at some point, but the infrastructure is way off still for it to become any sort of standard. It is, in the end, another take on the decentralised gaming Nintendo has going on with the Switch, moving away from the home media centre that the smartphones brought to us. Cloud gaming will take take firmer hold once they beat systems with local storage in value and performance. For now, enjoy the screen in your pocket.