Convenience will either kill the living room, or let it live

There has been some buzz on the Yotube and  with few of the bloggers and news sources I follow about how traditional consoles are going the way of the dodo, and how the PC and console markets are going to merge and die in their traditional form ever since Google’s Playdia… no that was a Bandai console. …Ever since Google Stadia started making rolls in the media. I had to wonder how this has become a thing just recently, when we can pin point the two moments in gaming history where the difference between console and PC became blurred permanently, and when the home consoles, and even the PC itself, began to lose their status and position. Slowly for sure, just as I’ve been told that physical media will be gone and everything will be digital for some fifteen years now. It’ll probably happen, but unlike physical media being replaced, decentralisation of the home’s living room has been working its magic for a long damn time now.

When the DS hit the market, I questioned why do we even need home consoles at this point. It was like a portable home console. When the PSP hit the market, and had the support to play the games on a home telly, I further questioned the need for any home consoles when you could just plug-n-play wherever you wanted. While this wasn’t PSP most advertised element, you could make an argument that PSP did work as a hybrid of sorts as well, though it lacked the whole separate controllers thing. You had to attach the cables to the bottom of the system and be tethered all the time to the television itself. Still, worth noting. We were on a good road to making the first genuine hybrid that would physically function in both standalone and portable forms with the Switch. The Big N just took few steps with the Wii U, which is still one of their major failures despite making pretty sweet DS emulator machine. and Sony effectively not learning jack shit from the PSP and repeated all the mistakes they made with the Vita and then some new ones. The Vita might have a rabid fanbase defending it like the console was their Hive Queen, but the reality is that despite the initial promises and its ergonomics, the system has woefully poor library, especially when majority of its games were ported to other systems. The first, and in many ways the definitive deathblow to the system was when Gravity Rush jumped to PS4, effectively telling everybody who had Vita that its time was over.  The rest of the system’s lifespan was artificial at best with the minimum of support from its own makers. No wonder Nintendo managed to turn 3DS into a small success despite the extremely rough first years. A good showcase how a rubbish library breaks a console, but it can be saved by improving the library.

That’s where the whole mixing PC and console really steps in. While modern gaming media and  through this many of the consumers want to see these two rough ecosystems as the same, they’re two separate markets that are not in direct competitions with each other. PC VS Console fights are very much just a cultural phenomena, and if we’re completely frank, the games were at their core completely different. Were. PC always excelled with slow as hell strategic games that required tons of reading and were more like chess. IN the 80’s and even early 90’s you couldn’t have fast paced games with good scrolling, because computers just couldn’t do it properly. Screen-by-screen games were the thing, like Prince of Persia. No, not Sands of Timei, the very original. That game might have good animation, but everything happens in one screen at a time. It wasn’t really until Super Mario Bros. made it widely achievable. It was developed as the ultimate Famicom cartridge game anyway. Consoles and arcades where the places where you could find smooth scrolling due to the hardware, and PCs just stuttered behind, not really knowing how to achieve the same level of smooth scrolling. Smooth being the keyword, there were many PC action games with atrocious scrolling, and MSX even had a cultural thing surrounding it about its choppy scrolling. It wasn’t really until the 1990’s when PCs could do as smooth scrolling as Super Mario Bros., and that alone limited a lot of the designs. Consoles and arcades were the places where things happened now and instantly, where you had to rely on your senses and guts on how to act in that very moment in game’s play. For PC, you mostly could take it back and just enjoy the slower pace. PC games, the culture around them, is like a methodical board game with time to spare. Arcades on the other hand were the opposite, more like sports events with tight time limits and challenges that required both physical and mental action to be fast and accurate. With consoles, we have and excellent golden middle path. The Legend of Zelda is, by all means, a mix of Ultima with Robotron. A hybrid of RPG and Action.

We don’t have that triumvirate nowadays, and the distinction between console and PC games is long dead. A rough starting point, where we could see no real difference in games between platforms, would have its roots in Europe, where loads of Amiga games got ported to the Sega Mega Drive. The whole European Platformer or Action genre that was a thing at the time was because most, if not all of them, where designed to be played on an Atari or Amiga computer first. Things trickle a bit, and you can argue shit was ported even before that, but before this point it was almost impossible on practical terms due to the sheer difference in controls and hardware. It was easier to port an arcade game to a PC, seeing everything was made from the scratch to fit that platform, but not as easy to backwards. The Mega Drive had enough oomph to it.Of course, the two main points where we further lost the middle ground between PC and consoles are the PlayStation and the Xbox. PlayStation for offering enough storage space for FMV shit and Xbox for effectively being a Direct X PC in a consolified form. Like how a Steam Machine is effectively a physical version of Valve’s digital game console.

The main change between Classic Era of Electronic Games, from 1970’s to mid-1990’s and the Modern Era of Gaming from that Mid-1990’s to current date of whatever date this post goes online, the biggest change is the lack of third in the triumvirate and constant movement to change the video game console into something else and melding PC and console software into one boiling pot. Yet the user cultures have been kept separate to this date by the sheer fact that PC and console gaming are not the same thing. Oh you have your Halos and Call of Duties on pretty much every platform there is, meaning Steam, Xbox and PlayStation, but everyone will tell you that playing a FPS on a controller is retarded. It will never have the same feeling or ease as keyboard and mouse. This is right, of course. You can get skilled with a controller, but its just so much better with KB+M because how the genre was practically designed from the grounds up for them.  Similarly, however, you’re seen as an idiot of you are using KB to play a game of Super Mario Bros. or any other console game. KB+M will never have the same tactile feedback as a good controller does, not even with the most expensive springs and shit under your key. After all, gaming on PC is an afterthought. A keyboard is a device for inputting text first and foremost. This is why you have to concentrate on having all sorts of Gamer peripherals and specific input devices made, because a keyboard really is pretty shitty for gaming that wasn’t designed around it. One of the many reasons why PC gaming culture likes stuff like Civilization and console culture bends more toward Devil May Cry.

If you have a game like Devil May Cry or Nier Automata on a PC, you’re still playing a console game. Then again you need Steam for both, so you’re running a digital console anyway on your PC so there’s that.

So where are we going with this rabbit hole? I’ve said it a thousand words ago; to the death of the living room.

While the Xbox as a console won’t die out, as much as I used to say so, Microsoft is taking the more sensible route and diversifying where Xbox as a brand is going. Halo collection is coming to Steam among other platforms, because why not. The general acceptance seems to be that everything should be available on every platform so the consumer could choose whatever fuck they play with whatever hell hardware they own, and we effectively make the concept of having any consoles or specified hardware moot. Except with Nintendo, because Nintendo sees that they will be able to stay afloat, because they recognise the fact that a unique library is a console’s lifeline. You say its anti-consumer not to have everything on everything, I say that’s bullshit and you know it as well. Competition is the key, and if we lack from the very foundations of consoles, we might as well kill both Xbox and PlayStation. Have everything on Steam and GOG. A PC is enough to be the very core of the living room nowadays, it can only do everything. Except be decentralised.

Hence content streaming.

Streaming games will not be third in the triumvirate. It is mobile console gaming once again. Stadia and pretty much everything else that has been in the mainline advertisements as the definitive game streaming experience have always showcased a gaming controller. I bet you are able to use KB with many of them and so on, but even Google recognises how PC gaming is dead despite its culture and habits still persist and offer that controller. While few people are probably nerdy enough lug a keyboard of sorts with whatever mouse controls you can to play Stadia on the go, most people will be satisfied with a controller. Most, if not all showcased Stadia games, are either arthouse shit or downright designed for a controller first, then adapted to a KB. That’s what modern ports really are, just seeing how you can change controls from KB to a controller or vice versa. Long gone are the days of ports like Section Z. The game industry has become too bloated, has been for two decades now. The chasing of higher fidelity graphics, real world actors modelled in, more and more useless power under the hood to run unoptimised games because the mathematical skills and creative drives have been effectively culled because everything’s too big to fail. Except Nintendo. When they lose, they lose a little. When they win, they tend to win big. Ever since the 1980’s Nintendo has been prophetised to fall and die, especially people like Trips Hawkins who simply don’t understand the console gaming economy. The fact that the Wii and the DS are one of the most selling consoles in the gaming history shows what the consumers value in a console. Yeah bit the Wii has shit games. And that would matter worth jack shit when the console and its library had great value. We don’t have any real rules for the mythical good game but we have everything to determine games of value, and the Wii was a console with shittons of games with value. Cold hard sales numbers trump over subjective opinions.

What does this have to do with the living room dying? If you remove the console and the more powerful computers, you lessen the price the consumer have to pay to access their wanted products. Just have him to buy a subscription account and then a price for the games for him to stream. Most people who are in good area for reception will probably enjoy streaming whatever games they like despite the lag. Buying a new console is an investment after all, and it would not be terribly unpredictable if Sony and Microsoft would allow streaming each others’ content to another’s platform, with Steam and the rest of PC ecosystem being in the play. Nintendo, on the other hand, will be in a position to leverage their own library however they want against their competition.

It is kinda pathetic if MS and Sony would begin to cross-stream their contents. It would only show that their libraries have so little to offer apart from each other that they can’t convince consumers to the other direction, despite we can assume the deepest of the Red Ocean market probably already owns all three consoles. PC gamers of course are on that pathetic high horse due to their cultural background, so they’re excused for this. They spend on upgrading a PC worth few consoles every other year anyway.

We have a screen on our pocket, on a device that can be used to stream those games. If the future is in streaming content, we’ll be playing games everywhere wherever we can access that account, have a controller of any kind and a screen. While I highly doubt consoles will die outright, streaming content might become one more way to play the amalgamised electronic games we have now. PC people with phones will be happy, people who want mobile gaming with their big AAA titles will be happy, people who want a portable console that isn’t the Switch will be happy, and people who don’t lug a laptop with them but still want something else but gacha will be happy. Maybe.

Streaming game content will take its place among mainstream media forms to consume. Google’s push will make that happen, at least for a time being. Only when it has been a success for some years we can make proper and definitive estimations whether or not it will replace dedicated systems, or even PCs, as the main form of game consumption. However, as long as Nintendo is around to sticking their guns in what they know best, there will always be at least one physical manifestation of a console, and if it doesn’t have any competition in the same form factor, it might lead to a very hard split between Microsoft and Sony, and Nintendo. Even larger than what we have now. That’s all speculation and bullshitting really. Time will tell, just like time has now told me I’ve run out of whisky form my glass.

What we do know is that convenience will make the difference. It doesn’t need to be the best or the bleeding edge, it just needs to work well enough at a convenient price point. Whether or not the game streaming technology has matured enough to become mass entertainment is yet to be seen. Will it be more convenient to stream games with some lag than have a physical console? Currently an open question with no real answer. Just like how modern TVs forced a slight game design in how games are designed control-wise, as CRT tellies have effectively instant response time while every modern flat screen lags behind and thus animation management has become a key to many games to get around this, games can be designed to work with the lag from streaming. It just takes a bit of work. Nevertheless, the issue of only sections of the global market being able to play streamed games at any sensible rate will stay an issue, in which the whole point of having a dedicated machine that sits in your desk, console or whatnot, is the best and most convenient solution. It is more probable that streaming games, specifically Google Stadia, will take Sega’s spot in the “hardware” market. They’re not Sega, and whatever unique games Google will have, they won’t be pushing the envelope as much or innovating as Sega’s titles used to be. That’s multiplatform gaming for you.

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.

Games as products

With Google coming out with their version of cloud gaming with Stadia, they really went all-out with selling multiple concepts as something completely new despite in reality most of them being already existing. For example, they were selling a Share button as something new, despite the PS4 controller already having it. The function and connection might be unique to Google and how it’s tied to Youtube and such, yet at the core it is all about the whole sharing pictures or video with whatever social media or video site you use. Another example of course is the whole concept of gaming on demand itself. Vortex has offered this sort of service for some time now without any separate consoles or devices needed. OnLive officially launched with a tiny receiver console back  in 2010, and closed its doors when Sony acquired its patents in 2015. Sony did the same thing for Gaikai 2014, and PlayStation Now is supposedly a thing. NVIDIA’s GeForce NOW and NVIDIA GRID are both offering cloud gaming to users. Microsoft already told us last year about Project xCloud that it’d be some sort of cloud gaming service. Even EA has its fingers in the model as well with upcoming Project Atlas. France has Shadow by Blade SAS Group, which spread into 19 US states and at least intended to spread further. LOUDPLAY is another gaming on demand model that was showcasing 5G in partnership with Rostelecom and Huawei, and mostly seemed to stay in Eastern Europe.

The only true difference with Stadia and all previous models is that Google has more money to throw at it, probably a better infrastructure to make streaming games a better experience. However, what Google and all these other companies want to sell you is the idea of games as a model of service rather than product. They’re of course mixing the language a bit here, as a product is whatever you sell to the consumer. A product can be goods or a service. Nevertheless, all that money thrown at the infrastructure will probably mean it’ll be the best kind of gaming on demand to date, that’s their ticket to make themselves stand out. Even with this they still need games for people to play, games that they can’t play anywhere else. Well good thing Google announced their own game studio, as it seems to struggle to get other companies on-board. All we know that it’ll have an Assassin’s Creed game and the upcoming Doom Eternal, both of which you can play on other platforms as well. You don’t sell a service without content. What Google is doing is selling you a really nice looking string and nail for you painting, promising that there’s gonna be a really well made frame and picture later on.

As much as the recent debacle of Epic Game Store doing stuff to get exclusives to their platform, exclusives still are lifeline for different platforms. While many think that if you need PC to play a game, then it is a PC game. Of course this isn’t the case, Epic Games Store is as much a digital console as Steam is. Real PC gaming wouldn’t need to be tied to either one of them to any extent. Nevertheless, while there has been a kind of cold war between GOG and Steam, Epic has made it heat up. There are numerous people who don’t use Epic because their game library and friends are on Steam, and they don’t want to begin using a new service. This is brand loyalty at its core though, as if there was no limitations with PC gaming any and all services would already see people logging in. If PC Gamer is to be believed, about 40% of Epic Game Store’s users don’t have a Steam account.

The PC gaming market is a market space of its own, separate from the console space. The differences are not only in methods and software, but in business models and devices as well. GOG, DLSite, Steam and Epic are all in this one space battling each other, with the likes of Vortex doing something different, but I doubt many have even heard of Vortex. Stadia’s entering this space with bold new steps and they’ve got nothing to show for. Technology will take you only so far. Even in console space the device with the least power of the major players has seen the most sales, and often the largest library. While some will argue against this with saying the Mega Drive was weaker than the SNES, they always forget the X32 and Sega CD exist. Then you get to a debate whether or not you only count base consoles only or if add-ons are applicable. For the sake of argument, and reality, all the updates and upgrades should be taken into account for the most whole picture possible.

Nevertheless, what will decide the success of any of the platforms, be it in console or computer space, is the games. Your service will be worth jackshit nothing if it doesn’t have anything to offer. Hyping Stadia because you could be playing games anywhere with Chrome and Google devices? At this point in time, you only have two options. Certainly there will be more in the future, but without a doubt most options will be the same as on other platforms. Stadia, in order to succeed over its competitors in computer space, requires to offer content you can’t find anywhere else.

That’s the rub though. Not the games or the like, but that it requires Chrome or a Google device. Google exclaimed to high how this product is for everyone, putting down all consoles and their games, but not all people use Chrome. Chrome may have the largest market share at 65%, but that’s excluding all the people who still use IE, people who mainly use FireFox or its forks like me, Edge, Safari or Opera. There’s also Brave Browser, which you really should check out if you’re into data safety. Their bold claim for this product to be for everyone rings hollow, as with cloud gaming all the cards and choices are in Google’s hands. I guess people are willing to give complete and total power over the goods and services they buy nowadays to the provider, and have effectively very little in return. You can expect for exclusive games to appear on Stadia in the future, and after their license has expired in a way or another, they’ll vanish altogether, never to be played any more. Digital-only will always meet that fate, and we’ve already lost more than enough games  to this.