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.

The Current Format War

The last physical format war was HD-DVD versus Blu-Ray. HD-DVD met a rather quick defeat compared to the previous format wars, where you had more than one format existing side-by-side for different reasons. VHS vs. Betamax VS. Laserdisc was and interesting and long era, where only VHS and LD really had any place due to their nature of media. Way back in 2012 I had a post about what sort of role OVA had on the format war overall, and looking back at this post I should revise it a lot. Interestingly, history tends to rhyme and we’re seeing some of the same stuff taking place with the current format war, which isn’t between physical media, but between streaming services.

Unlike with physical media, digital streaming services are relatively easy to make. The standard for it is already there, embedded video that’s streamed to a device. Looking at the amount of streaming service there are, pretty much any larger company has one, from A&E to YouTube Red. Of course, Netflix is the most successful and well known of the bunch, and is expected to corner to market on the long run due to its overwhelming global popularity.

However, we are talking about a delivery method that does not require the purchase of a separate player and dedication to a form of media. The paradigm shift from television and prerecorded material to decentralised television and all-access services has transformed television as a concept altogether to something most traditional channels probably can’t handle without large shift in their business plans and structure. While physical media will not be phased out as fast as commentators and industry insiders have thought (we’ve been told the last fifteen years that in few years nobody will purchase physical media anymore), it has gone down progressively alongside abandoning the living room centric television. This has affected video games as well, as we’ve discussed, and is one of the major factors why the Switch is a successful console on its own right.  Everybody has a screen in their pocket, everyone has a television in their pocket.

Format wars have been won by having the most stuff on your format as well as capabilities that are not offered by your competition. Laserdisc was a great format for film enthusiast who wanted quality, but the sheer size of the discs and the costs over Beta and VHS later down the line were higher. BETA may have been better than VHS in quality, but it was more expensive and had Sony’s proprietary tech that cost more to license than VHS. VHS ultimately became cheapest option as mass manufacturing took root and home recording became accessible for the general audience like never before. The old tale of porn winning the format war for VHS is not exactly wrong, as it allowed so many small-sized studios and independents to release their products. YouTube and other similar sites that allow and partner with user-driven content creation would be the modern equivalent. However, this is a paradigm shift in itself, and user-created content, be it home mobvies, indies or recording stuff off the TV, ultimately has less to do with winning the format war this time around. It’s all about what professional content you have.

Shows like Star Trek Discovery, Devilman Crybaby, and Cobra Kai are all shows that were made to drive views and sales of a streaming service. CBS did not go and aim to make a great Star Trek show for CBS All-Access, they aimed to make a show that would drive subscriptions, and considering they’ve greenlight the second season and have boldly announced best results ever, it seems to have worked. World wide, Netflix was the one with STD under their belt, but unlike most other streaming services, they’ve been bringing original animation to the forefront more.

While a site like Crunchyroll streams and simulcasts cartoons from the far orient, Netflix has put more money into original creations, most of which have been largely popular. The aforementioned Devilman Crybaby raised quite a bit of buzz and gained some subs for Netflix, and the same thing can be said of their Castlevania adaptation. Netflix and Crunchyroll have a niche cornered. The only thing that can really affect the amount of money made is how much ads get blocked on free streaming sites and how well the consumer is treated. It’s not exactly rare to hear Crunchyroll shitting on their costumers or dropping the streaming quality for all users, including the paying subscribers, without earning. A site like them should know to keep the front and back of the counter completely separate, but with the advent of social media era, it’s seems to have become really hard not to try and piss people off of Twitter or Facebook.

While new and original content is the main tool in this war, nostalgia is also a grand factor. Something and something old usually work hand in hand. All examples here are really just nostalgia driven somehow. Star Trek is an entertainment institution on its won right, Devilman is one of the most important comic books created on the world wide scale, Castlevania pulls the NES kid out from you and Cobra Kai is YouTube Red’s weapon in this. Cobra Kai‘s a show that people would enjoy and Sony has been criticised for putting it to a platform with smaller consumer base rather than on something like Netflix, where the show could get its proper amount of views.

That is, of course, entirely the point.

Having just one provider for any service will easily lead into situation where the consumer has no other options to choose from and has to be satisfied to whatever products and services in whatever quality the provider gives in. The current format war won’t have one winning side, because there is no need for the consumer to dedicate himself to just one medium. What these providers now have to fight with is content, and the more content you have people want to watch and can’t be seen on other services, the more leverage you have. Disney of course will be an absolute juggernaut whenever they start their own services due to sheer size of their library, but we shouldn’t ignore the likes of Amazon Prime and their constant licensing of niche shows that aren’t available elsewhere in the West. While at face value it would seem beneficial for the consumer to have everything in one place, competition is always a driving force.

Of course, then there are digital luddites like me who just sit and wait for shows to come out on physical media.

Death of traditional television will change game consoles

I’ve discussed how traditional television has been changing to on-demand services for a good while now. What I haven’t discussed much is that this has removed television itself as the central point of the living room, which also means the devices connected will see a drop in significance. Physical media itself won’t disappear as people have been saying for the last ten years or so, but the form it is in will change accordingly.

Granted, saying that television will die is a hyperbole of sorts, but it fits. Just like how VHS died to make room for the VHS. Same shit, different boxers.

I’ve been watching NFL in my local American burger joint on and off, and while I’ve gained appreciation and understanding towards handegg as a sport, it did make me think how easy it is for Big D to showcase something like this in the modern era. Through that I came across the news about NFL viewership plummeting, and while NFL’s popularity has been going down, this is an indicate of where things are going. As television has become decentralised, so has our habit on how we consume it. While we do have differences in how we consume television across the world, the similarities trump them. Just check one of our old ARG Test casts to hear about it.

The game consoles will follow in suit, and if the rumours of NX being a hybrid off home and handheld consoles are true, then Nintendo has probably foreseen this trend. The high-end console gamer will not decantralise his television too easily, he has too many consoles attached to it and too many games yet to be played. For the low-end consumer who infrequently gets consoles and is still rocking his Wii, this won’t be a problem. The industry and some of the high-end consumers have already labelled NX based on the rumours as a gimmick and as the torpedo that will sink the Nintendo ship, but they did that with the Wii too. As a reminder, the Wii made shittons of money.

If the NX is a hybrid console, playing both home and a on-the-road market, it would indeed look like Nintendo is taking into account the death of traditional television. If this road proves to be true, then we have to wonder why do both Sony and Microsoft invest millions into research and development of new ultra-HD consoles that have no central point? While both of these machines could be used for their streaming services, this field is largely overtaken by other machines. After all, these dumbed down PCs will always fight a losing battle if they try to tackle a market outside their own realm. Microsoft learned this after one year of trying to push their movie, television and music streaming services, running back to high-end gamers with tail between their legs. One could argue that Microsoft has seen the death of television like Nintendo, then it would make sense for them to absorb Xbox as a brand back to PC. Sony on the other hand is fucked and nowhere to go.

Console as a media center is largely something that the last generation aimed to realise to its fullest extent. Before that PS2 could play DVDs, but that was laughable at best. Only the original PlayStation model was any good as a CD player either. You always had better dedicated devices for all that, and people tended to favour those. Now, you have tablets and whatnot with their wireless receivers everywhere and you’re able to stream whatever you want wherever you want whenever you want. That’s a harsh battle to fight against, especially when you’re trying to remind the consumers that the main thing the device is for is games. Consoles have been always at their best when they are aiming to deliver a console experience to the consumer.

Whenever Nintendo decides to fully reveal the NX will have three results. First, it will show what sort of device it is, confirm or de-confirm rumours that are about. Nintendo has not fueled the rumour train themselves, and that’s good. That has controlled the hype train, and the best thing what they could do now is to control the exposure from their and developers’ end as much as possible. This is simply to ensure that things won’t leak before they are finished, as consumers sometimes tend make false deductions on one or two trickles of valid information.

Secondly, it will show the direction Nintendo will take with the NX. Whether or not it will continue the way of the N64, GameCube and the Wii U (and Virtual Boy) is still an open question, and personally I would so much prefer returning to the NES, SNES and Wii style mindset that has profited Nintendo the most and has produced best games they’ve ever developed.

Tied to the second point is the last one, which may be the most damning. Thirdly, NX’s revelation will tell us how Nintendo themselves sees where console gaming and television itself is going. Nintendo has a spotty track record in certain aspects, but they have a solid one when it comes to defining trends and dare I say innovate whenever needed. The D-Pad just being perhaps the primary example. Let’s not forget the use of mature technology that they engineered when it came to gaming, though that has been less prominent with their more recent consoles to an extent.

The death of Nintendo has been predicted since the late 1980’s, and now consoles overall are predicted to die. However, it is far more reasonable to suggest that just like music purchasing has changed throughout the ages, game consoles will change and take new shape. They serve a market that’s incredibly wide, if the industry would just decide to provide both high and low-markets. That’s why Nintendo can disrupt the industry so easily when they decide to do so.

Competing as a multimedia device in an era where almost every device has a screen of its own and works as a fully fledged multimedia device is, to repeat, a losing battle. Game consoles and games themselves can only make an impact if they are designed and sold as games first and foremost. With times changing, the device these games are played on have to represent the era, and the era of television as the centre of our homes is coming to a slow end.