A few weeks ago, major technology outlets were aflutter with headlines about Google’s supposed gaming platform. Everything from hardware to streaming services were hypothesized but every article seemed to cast doubt on the idea. However, being a very avid follower of not just Google’s movements but the entire gaming industry I believe not only will Google be jumping into the industry but other titans like Sony and Nintendo will be forced to completely rethink how they do business.
Enter the Age of Game Streaming
The latest trend in digital products is putting a customer’s ability to profit before your own. If you can’t attract users to your platform or product, you will never be able to recognize value streams. Uber is a great example of this. Without catering to their employee’s (who are equal customers) needs and giving them the ability to profit off driving others – there would be no growth and no one using the service.
Twitch, the most popular gaming streaming service in the world had over 15 million unique visitors over 2017 with 223% of its user base earning money year over year. YouTube Gaming, Google’s rival service, grew by 343% and Microsoft’s service, Mixer, nearly doubled.
Above is my one of my most infuriating finishes on Mario Kart for Wii U.
What this is showing is that users value streaming and are looking for ways to profit playing everything from Fortnite to classic Atari games. However, not every platform offers the same capabilities and in the world of streaming, you want the largest target audience across all major consoles.
Advancing Hardware & Software Enables New Use Cases
By this point and time most of us have experienced either AR or VR in some shape or form. The technology was more than likely primitive and if you haven’t been following advancements, the industry is moving at a remarkably fast pace. Whereas early headsets required beefy graphics set ups and desktop computers, the same caliber quality can now be obtained on mobile chips such as Qualcomm’s XR1. In the case of Nintendo who has prided themselves on immersive gaming, how can you get more immersive and into the game than AR and VR?
Additionally, looking at the Nintendo Switch – it’s powered by a 3-year old Nvidia mobile chip and powers the latest AAA gaming titles. Ten years ago, this would have been unheard of but thanks to ever shrinking chip die sizes the power of last generation’s systems can easily be contained in a power sipping mobile processor. Not to mention that software standards such as the open source Vulkan graphics API enables mobile games to utilize the exact same build standards across everything from a Raspberry Pi to your $10k gaming computer.
Alas, wireless networking standards have also seen more than 10x speed increases. In 2008 your copy of Crysis 2 may have required keeping your desktop on overnight to download a copy over broadband. Here soon your mobile phone could leverage 5G networks and have the same size game downloaded in mere minutes with the ability to boot it and play in seconds (thanks smart packaging).
Competing Cloud Services on Consoles
Xbox Live came onto the scene with Microsoft’s first console the original Xbox. It revolutionized gaming in the sense that you could be alone in your basement while simultaneously playing with others across the internet. A drastic change in pace from Nintendo who at the time fostered unique ways to engage players across the same device and TV. They’re also still struggling to implement basic features such as party chat and cloud saves the Microsoft made standard over a decade prior.
PlayStation eventually released their own competing service that had its own host of issues but ultimately is viewed as an equal competitor to Microsoft’s current level of service.
The Other Cloud Services
It’s worth noting here that there have also been multiple cloud gaming services that have emerged. Perhaps most famously, OnLive, was first demoed in 2009 with its own mini game console that leveraged cloud-based services to render PC games such as Crysis in its full glory all over the internet. However, the technology wasn’t prepared for the big leagues and ultimately suffered issues such as latency while using their controller, high prices for games and all around poor performance while gaming. It was, essentially, just a remote desktop onto a PC vs being a native service.
I was able to dig up an article I did in my High School’s newspaper that highlighted OnLive. I’ve loved the idea of this technology for a long time!
Gaikai was another similar service purchased by Playstation and was poised as a way for future PlayStation consoles to play earlier titles without the taxing hardware required for emulation of past systems. This was something that Microsoft ended up remediating in their Xbox One service and even outdid PlayStation by implementing native scaling services. It’s, again, worth noting that due to the Sony PSP never being updated the suggested Gaikai powered service never made it to the platform as advertised potentially due to the same issues OnLive faced.
GeForce Now is a compelling product put out by Nvidia that streams PC games to either your Windows, OSX or now Shield TV. It allows you to leverage the mighty power of a $1,000 Nvidia chip for a low monthly service fee. The downside, however, is that you need to have the game purchased on an online service like Steam or Origin before you can utilize the service. Something that undoubtedly keep the service from going mainstream. **
Back to the Point – What Does This Mean for the Future of the Industry?
Gamers need the ability to play whatever they want across whatever service they want. Playing Fortnite on your phone is just as gratifying and as impactful as playing on a high-end gaming desktop. Users will want the ability to pick up their phone and play on their commute and continue right where they left off from the comfort of their home.
AR and VR will become the best way to enhance experiences and it will have to be readily available across every type of device as mentioned above. The average consumer won’t care if it’s from a phone or an 8k per eye headset powered by Nvidia’s next generation – they will simply need the ability to experience the effects without breaking the bank.
Ability to play and stream with the highest number of players possible. This one is aimed squarely at Sony – allow cross play across every gaming title. There is no technology limitation preventing this, only greedy executives without the foresight that they’re only hurting themselves.
Gaming as a service will only continue to increase in popularity. I hate to say it but it’s hard to ignore a game like Fortnite pulling in over $300m in a month vs a one-time cash benefit of a game like Call of Duty. Made popular by mobile games this trend is likely to continue and will see the “end game” become increasingly more important than a singular, timed experience.
Why Google is Primed for Success
Google already has one of the most widely used gaming services in existence, Play Games, it’s Google Play service that is used by every certified Android device. It already has the capabilities of Xbox Live and PlayStation Network with the benefit of having YouTube Gaming natively built in.
This means Google already has a high install base of users – they simply need compelling draws to use the service. By giving developers incentive to develop for the platform before Apple or other services, many will be drawn to enabling it. Remember Words with Friends that your mom nagged you with? She’s more than likely inadvertently a converted user already and since Google is motivated by your playing data – you’d never notice a monthly service fee. Ah, the price of data.
Android as a mobile platform. As I mentioned earlier, Nintendo’s Switch is utilizing 3-year old mobile hardware with a very close to metal software layer allowing for its performance. Starting with Android Q (slated for a 2019 release) – Android will natively support the Vulkan graphics API enabling the same rendering platform used across all consoles. Additionally, thanks to Project Treble, phones supporting the technology can update graphics drivers from manufactures such as Qualcomm or Samsung/ARM’s Mali graphics units. This means your Pixel 2 or Galaxy S9 could not only play games as well as the Switch but even perform better as new games are released – mimicking the model AMD & Nvidia utilize with their desktop drivers.
Continuing the above, Google’s Daydream VR service has already emerged as a leading VR service for mobile devices. For as little as $50 you simply need to drop your phone into the unit and will be greeted to an optimized experience complete with a controller with full motion support. Again, with the improved software above the experience will even improve across older devices as the technology emerges.
Niantic (as made famous by Pokemon Go) was initially funded by Google and recently open sourced their AR platform. This confirms that mobile devices are the most capable carrier for AR technology and with the close partnership already established, the technology will only continue to grow.
Android TV. The service is already utilized across manufacturers like Sony and Vizio. The software is run on comparable hardware like a mobile phone and likewise can be updated to include the improvements while already shipping on millions of devices. Fortnite would only require a Bluetooth controller to be paired and you’d be up and running.
Google’s cloud services would provide perhaps the most lucrative advantage over competitors outside of Microsoft (they have Azure). Whereas OnLive and other streaming services failed due to latency, Google would have the advantage of a platform scaled across the world allowing for latency or the distance between a server and user to be mitigated. Additionally, compression technology such as HVEC has made a 1080p stream as small as a 480p video just a few years ago. OnLive’s problems would be mitigated by having native platform engineers solving issues in addition to more capable technology stacks.
Cloud GPUs and machine learning resources. Google may not be an overall market leader when it comes to general cloud services, but they are significantly ahead in one department – graphics processing. This isn’t due to gaming but rather the fact that graphics units are inherently better at processing large amounts of numbers than the traditional CPU. Machine learning, neural networks and AI all reap the benefits but what happens when those resources aren’t being used? Game streaming would pick up the slack and ensure all resources are utilized effectively.
Google Home and Chromecast also come into play as they’re both part of the same cloud platform. Imagine setting up a Google Home as a dedicated party chat speaker or perhaps part of a game’s native AI assistant to ask questions. Instead of Destiny’s floating ghost speaking through speakers it would utilize your Home mini both during gameplay and outside of gameplay when you’re invited by a friend to play or when you need a score update. Chromecast, additionally, could stream games and allow for controller connections or simply be an entry point to stream content broadcasted across YouTube Gaming.
How Google Can Increase Revenue More Effectively
I’ve already mentioned the fact that Google’s Cloud Platform is market leading in the GPU division. By leveraging their lead and expanding hardware across the professional and gaming industry, resources would be deployed more effectively. Additionally, just like a data scientist may only need low level resources, a gamer may only want to pay for lower quality graphics. In this case, Google can provide multi-tier gaming models.
FREE – 480p graphics or natively rendered game
$2.99 a month – 720p graphics
$4.99 – 1080p level graphics
$9.99 – 4k level graphics
In the case of all the pricing tiers – profitability will be dictated not just on adoption but on power consumption. Yeah, Google may be 100% green in their data centers but there’s a cost associated to each tier of graphics processing. Currently, 720p gaming can be obtained on the Nintendo Switch’s Nvidia/ARM mobile chip across AAA titles with some reduction in quality. However, the benefit here is that at full power draw the chip is only utilizing 7.5 watts of power compared to as much as 110 for a PS4 Slim.
Now, the architecture would probably be more like an Nvidia GTX 1060 paired with an Intel CPU that would be north of 300w consumption. As of now I am not familiar with a good cloud partitioning service across GPU and CPU resources but in theory it would be a great analysis of this setup split across 30 VMs and 30 ARM SoCs linked in a network. Again, comparing not just performance but power consumption. If either would result in low consumption there’s a significant opportunity.
Without a doubt Google is the leader in modern marketing. More so, the market of gamers is almost entirely digital across phones and streaming services. Already, the Google Play Store allows for what it calls Instant Apps – that is allowing users to seemingly experience an app like it was already natively installed on a phone. Thanks to smart packaging and paid services from game developers you could display an ad on Reddit for a new mobile game and with a single click, the user is not only a ‘click’ but now playing the first level of the full game complete with stats back to Google Play Games. No more trailers, but the whole glorified experience all made seamless.
This doesn’t just stop at Android devices, either. Google Chrome, the number one browser in the world already has native support for Android applications and games on their Chromebooks. It’s only a matter of time before this is rolled out across all devices from your grandma’s aging Dell netbook to your Apple MacBook Pro. Again, with the power of the Vulkan Gaming API performance should be near seamless for lesser level games and cloud provisioning would enable lower level devices to experience the “full fat” gaming experience.
What’s the Most Realistic?
I suspect Google’s service will be a hybrid partnership with someone like Nvidia for a full cloud-based experience. Modern gaming consoles lives will progressively become shorter as their architecture more closely mimics desktop computers. By moving to cloud-based solutions game developers have the natural advantage of utilizing the best, most modern standards that scale across all types of devices while additionally removing the requirement for a $300-$500 console every few years.
As I mentioned as a con of GeForce Now, you need to purchase a game on another PC platform to play. If Google can solve this problem and leverage a true gaming as a service model then the market is ripe with potential.
What Are the Risks?
Microsoft and Amazon. Noticeably absent are Nintendo, Sony and Apple.
Microsoft is the only other company that has a cloud architecture that can support the same level of services while additionally having experience in the sector. The Xbox brand is firmly established across the industry and has iconic exclusives such as Halo and Gears of War that will inevitably attract users.
Amazon owns not just Twitch but also the number one cloud architecture in existence. Although they do not have the outwardly facing experience of others in this list they’ve released their own gaming engine utilized by developers across all platforms, but they also host popular game’s such as Fortnite’s entire online platform. They’ve already released dedicated gaming hardware, they just didn’t have the marketing force behind it. It’s here I suspect that Nintendo may partner with them to give increased marketing power. Even without a full consumer facing service, they may still be a very profitable service to games across all services.
Sony and Nintendo are playing catch up in the sense that they don’t own their own platforms. I have a feeling if Google can be successful and emerge as a contender, Sony would partner with them on a rebranded PlayStation service given their close relationship across other Sony devices. Nintendo on the other hand will be increasingly dependent on mobile platforms. With their North American headquarters being in Seattle I see them partnering with Microsoft or Amazon on expanding platform efforts careful not to lose their main brand image. Their backend would be one of the two with Apple and Google both being natively supported.
Finally, Apple. They’ve been rumored to enter the gaming world for years and just like Google share much of the same pros to doing so. However, they too do not have a native cloud platform and instead rely on Google Cloud Platform. Although it would be Apple branded it would be Google on the backend.
Google has unique advantages to creating not just a game console but a gaming ecosystem. Mobile hardware has reached the point where AAA games can be made to work on high end Android devices with little to no extra code while cloud streaming services allow for gaming to be simultaneously picked up on the big screen from relatively low powered devices.
In the future, it won’t matter where you play games but how you connect to them.
Additionally, below is another high school paper article I dug up featuring E3 2009 news.E3 2009 - Tech Talk