The future of gaming probably won’t look like a box sitting under your TV (no matter how sci-fi your PS5 looks). Instead, chances are you’ll be playing games which are being streamed from many miles away.
A “Netflix of gaming” is something some companies have heavily invested in, including Sony, Microsoft and Amazon – and it’s easy to understand why. According to Roku, in 2021 more than half of all viewing hours in the UK are streamed, while Spotify, the world’s biggest music streaming platform, boasts more than 345 million monthly active users. There’s no question that streaming looks to be the future of entertainment.
Yet, cloud-based gaming has yet to become the norm. It begs a simple question: why?
For a start, while the user experience for streaming a game is comparable to using a service like Netflix, the tech demand is far greater. Streaming from a server involves interactive and reactive experiences to be created and streamed in real-time, rather than simply broadcast.
So how does cloud-based gaming get up to speed with the increasingly on-demand tastes of consumers across the world? And to look further into the near future, what’s next for the tech?
What is cloud-based gaming?
In 2019, Google VP Phil Harrison unveiled the tech giant’s entry to the cloud gaming arena, Stadia, announcing, “The next generation is not in a box.”
Instead, Stadia harnesses the power of Google’s data centres across the world, without any physical console or even a controller involved – users stream games to play on their smart devices and on their TVs via Chromecast. Meanwhile, Sony’s PlayStation Now service allows subscribers to stream hundreds of games from its catalogue to their consoles, as does Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming.
The tech makes it possible for more people than ever to play a greater variety of games, without the upfront hardware investments that those who managed to secure next-gen consoles will know all too well. Without sounding evangelical, with VoD the norm in passive entertainment, it only makes sense that when it comes to interactive storytelling, the future is GoD (Gaming on Demand, that is.) Or, you’d think so.
The benefits of streaming
For a great example of that huge potential audience, we can look no further than Amazon’s recently launched cloud streaming service, Amazon Luna. The platform was launched to select early access subscribers in the US late last year and recently added Sega’s hit arcade racer Team Sonic Racing. Luna subscribers can access the game anywhere, on-demand, through a wide variety of platforms including Fire TV, PC, Mac, web browsers, iOS phones, tablets and Android devices.
Austin Keys, Director of Production Services at Sega, tells us that this accessibility is one of the reasons they chose to launch the game to stream: “It opens a wide range of possibilities for Sonic fans to enjoy the game – whether they’re at home or on-the-go, which is exactly what we strive for here at Sega.
He adds: “By launching Team Sonic Racing on a subscription-based service like Amazon Luna, we’re able to reach a new and growing group of gamers who may not typically purchase a standalone Sonic game and pique their interest in other experiences that the franchise offers.”
Because Luna gives users immediate access to Amazon’s game servers, which are powered by Amazon Web Services, players can also pause and jump back into a game right away on another device.
This is well suited to Team Sonic Racing, explains Keys. “This technology is ideal for a game that requires players to build up their racing skills over time to access special customisation options and higher-difficulty tracks. Offering players cross-play technology across Amazon’s devices allows them to stay engaged with the game and continuously develop their racing abilities from anywhere.”
The struggle for streaming to take hold
Considering that the likes of Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime have transformed the way we all watch our favourite media, it’s a wonder why the same can’t be said for those who have tried to have the same success with video games streaming.
In fact, though it may sound like the future of entertainment, Google surprisingly closed its high-profile internal Stadia Games and Entertainment studio just this year. Headed by Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs producer Jade Raymond, the dedicated internal studio had been announced with Stadia in 2019, and was dedicated to developing exclusive games for the platform.
While Stadia was announced just two years ago, and was followed by Luna and Xbox Cloud Gaming, streaming games is not a new concept. OnLive was also heralded as a similar gamechanger.
Launched in 2012, this streaming service did come with a device, styled as a traditional console but offering streaming rendered through remote servers without the need for any downloading or installation. That was discontinued in 2015, where its ultimate demise could likely be put down to an inadequate gaming experience held back by internet speeds – as CVG reported at the time, sub-optimum internet speeds in the UK often caused freezing visuals and high data usage for anyone using a capped connection.
Dan Collier is the co-founder of Tundra Games and also developed the critically-acclaimed Lost Words: Beyond The Page and the 2021 indie title TOHU for Google Stadia, and says from his perspective as both a developer and a gamer, its streaming works well – but internet speeds can still present problems. For developers making games for Stadia and cloud-based platforms, this adds an extra barrier to testing, but one which is becoming more efficient the more games are developed for it.
“The process of developing the game for Stadia wasn’t too different, but the tricky part was uploading builds and testing,” Collier explains. “Much of the development could be done locally as normal, but when testing areas such as Save, Achievements or anything specific to Stadia, a build of the game had to be uploaded to the Stadia portal to test. Depending on the size of the game and the internet connection, this can take some time – and then even longer if something needs changing to retest.”
Though this issue was later minimised by working with dev kits, Collier adds that it was actually one of his favourite parts of the process of developing Lost Words for Stadia.
“I actually enjoyed running everything from the cloud – apart from the uploading, it simplified the process, so updates to the portal were automatic and everything runs in the web browser.”
Collier cites another bonus of cloud gaming that should be of interest to publishers and gamers alike: sustainability. “I also like the potential for a reduced environmental impact, thanks to having no consoles or packaged games,” he says.
Keys adds: “At Sega, we see cloud-based platforms as having the potential to become one of the most accessible and immediate ways to bring our games to players around the world. From an industry standpoint, it may take some time for it to become the primary way that people access games, because it all depends on the end user’s internet capabilities, but with the increasing expansion of high-speed internet across the world, the potential is there.
Sega, like many other industry developers and publishers, is looking at how they can continue to harness the potential of streaming.
“At this time, anything is possible,” Keys tells us. “We’ve enjoyed partnering with Amazon Luna to bring Sonic Mania Plus and Team Sonic Racing to their platform, and always welcome exploring new avenues for our players to access Sega products and games.”
Overcoming the obstacles to streaming success
There’s arguably one single issue holding back game streaming from being as commonplace as streaming TV through Netflix: online infrastructure. Game streaming relies on having servers around the world, and if you’re not close to one, using these services can be a huge problem.
The same is true from a game development standpoint. As Collier has explained, uploading builds takes time. But when faster internet connections become the norm though, cloud gaming will be able to work better.
“At the moment, playing games works well – but as soon as someone in the house starts streaming a film, it’s hard to continue playing,” he says. “I certainly couldn’t upload a build and play a game on Stadia at the same time. Once we all have faster broadband, I think this will be much less of a problem.”
One company striving to address that is Gamebench, which optimises mobile gaming by working with network providers, game studios and smartphone manufacturers to make seamless streaming experiences. Sri Iyer, co-founder and CEO, says that from his experience of working with all of these stakeholders, the developer ecosystem needs to change as a whole. He tells us: “Game developers should find it relatively easy to move their games to a cloud platform without the need to rewrite several components.”
Iyer adds that another issue to address is in the business model of cloud-gaming, which is very different to traditional console gaming: “The business models also need to support publishers and developers so they don't end up cannibalising their existing mobile and PC markets by pushing their games to a subscription service. A £60 console game has a higher retail value than a £10 monthly subscription – and then you can add to that huge server and GPU costs.”
However, the numbers can reasonably stack up in the publisher’s favour, without the need for expensive hardware to play a game. He adds: “The overall gamer audience gets bigger as the access to content is easier.”
One of the keys lies in 5G. Iyer says this technology has already been “a massive improvement” when it comes to reducing the amount of lag a gamer might experience.
“Cloud gaming is a physics challenge, so performance matters,” he says. “If you play on a console, processing is done locally. When you try to reproduce that experience with the cloud gaming infrastructure, the network comes into play along with congestion, jitter and added latency, which affects the gaming experience. The structure of 5G has been designed to allow much lower latency going even just down to a few milliseconds or even less.”
Ultimately, he explains, symbiotic tech and telco partnerships can pave the way towards mainstream cloud gaming.
The future of cloud gaming
Perhaps for a most accurate picture of what we can expect game streaming to look like in the near future, we can look towards Asia, where internet speeds are faster, and as such, streaming the huge worlds of free-to-play MMOs, particularly on mobile, is incredibly popular.
South Korea, for example, has the second fastest internet in the world with an average speed of 59 Mbit/s, according to data from Opensignal, while the UK sits far lower down the list at 36th, with an average speed of 22.9 Mbit/s.
Daniel Ahmad is a Senior Analyst at Niko Partners, specialising in the video games market in China and Asia. Naturally, he’s very familiar with the rise of cloud-based gaming and sees a high potential for growth within the industry.
“In South Korea, cloud gaming is seen as one of the use cases for 5G and is being driven by mobile network operators, which have started offering 5G cloud gaming services to their subscribers,” Ahmad tells us of the crucial role mobile connections play with the tech – and echoing Iyer’s stance of the important role which network operators play in the gaming industry.
“We are primarily seeing initial demand revolve around console and PC games that can be streamed to mobile devices.”
In the future, the analyst says he expects this to expand not just the variety of games we play, but the audience of gamers themselves.
“We see an opportunity for cloud gaming to expand the gaming audience, both through traditional gaming experiences and entirely new gaming experiences. Not only will cloud gaming allow current players to extend their gaming time to other devices, but it will also allow both new and existing gamers to discover games that were previously unavailable to them.”
“Cloud native games can offer an entirely new experience that has not been possible with traditional hardware limited games. More immersive worlds, multiple simultaneous online connections and advanced AI can change the way players engage with games.”
Sega’s Keys certainly expects cloud-based gaming to grow in years to come: “Game streaming allows publishers to create an all-encompassing gameplay experience for a broader reach of players by allowing them to access their favorite games on different devices inside and outside of the home without dedicated hardware. I imagine that more games will be joining cloud-based platforms like Amazon Luna for this reason.”
And don’t discount Stadia. While the platform’s internal team may have gone, the platform isn’t dead: rather than relying on exclusives, it has simply been opened up to publishers. New games are being added to the platform every month, including huge recent blockbuster releases like Square Enix’s Outriders, Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed Valhalla and EA Sports’ FIFA 21. Perhaps, like Sega’s third-party games for Amazon Luna, this is the sign of an open platform ripe for a wider library than ever before.
So how do we get there? Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmad assesses that the barriers to entry for cloud-based gaming will have to be overcome by gaming and tech companies coming together – much like Sega and Amazon have seen success with, that which Gamebench’s Sri Iyer has also stressed as crucial, and even as evident in the opening up of the Stadia platform.
“Cloud gaming will require the co-operation of multiple technology and gaming companies if it is to succeed,” Ahmad explains. “We are already seeing how some firms such as Tencent have created partnerships with companies such as Nvidia and invested in cloud gaming technology firms such as Ubitus.”
The future of gaming likely won’t feature a box sitting underneath your TV – and it certainly seems like a case of not if, but when, this will become the norm. But with multiple factors each required to work together to create a massive, interconnected eco-system, how close that future is has yet to be determined. It’s safe to say, though, that for many members of the tech and gaming industry, their heads are already in the cloud.
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