No console? No problem: Here's what you need to know about the race for video game streaming dominance
Google, Microsoft and others want gamers to be able to play anywhere on any screen
Each year industry players and journalists — and in a recent development, tens of thousands of fans — pour into the Los Angeles Convention Centre to commemorate one of the largest events in video games: The Electronic Entertainment Expo, a.k.a. E3.
Though the majority of this year's conference was undeniably devoted to video games, a number of tech giants chose to use their time in the spotlight to showcase their efforts in the streaming space.
Google, which is already letting consumers pre-order the company's own dedicated streaming platform called Stadia, allowed attendees to try its technology, scheduled to be released this November.
Microsoft also let E3 visitors demo its own streaming platform Project xCloud, which won't be ready for the general public until at least this October.
Meanwhile, video game software developers like Bethesda and Ubisoft made separate streaming announcements, with Ubisoft's Uplay+ subscription service expected to launch this September.
Why stream when you can just buy physical or digital copies?
Rebekah Valentine, staff writer for GamesIndustry.biz, explains that there are currently two ways to pay to own a video game.
"You go to the store, you pick up a physical copy, you bring it home, you own it, you play it," Valentine told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
"Then we got digital downloads, and we could get our games much more quickly that way."
However, both physical purchases and digital downloads sometimes require lengthy installation times, which are amplified if users want to play additional downloadable content published after a game is initially released.
In comparison, streaming games would be an instantaneous process.
"So all you have to do on your computer is click a button and you're playing it instantly," said Valentine.
"It's just right there all at once, the [downloadable content], any patches are already there."
In addition to instant gaming, streaming would solve a secondary problem associated with video games: hardware restrictions.
Valentine explained that streaming a game means "it runs really, really well, because whatever machine it's running on very far away is very powerful."
"So even if you have a crummy little laptop, you play [a game] and it looks like you're running it on this incredible PC."
Are video game streaming services like Netflix, but for games?
Comparing Netflix to video game streaming services can be tricky, explained Valentine.
The Netflix model, where users pay a monthly fee to gain access to an entire library of movies and television shows, is comparable to something like Ubisoft's Uplay+ service.
When it eventually launches, Uplay+ will cost Canadian users $19.99 per month, and will grant unlimited access to a catalogue of more than 100 games.
However, in the case of Google Stadia, which will first launch a paid Stadia Pro tier in November, the Netflix comparison falls apart.
Stadia Pro, by comparison, will cost $11.99 per month, with a smaller collection of games than UPlay+ — about 30 games on launch, with more added regularly.
Users will still need to purchase the majority of individual games that they want to stream across their compatible televisions, laptops, smartphones and tablets.
"It would be like if you paid a fee to use Netflix, and then you also have to pay for each movie that you watch," explained Valentine.
In the case of Microsoft's Project xCloud — details for which are still largely unknown — it's not clear whether users will be charged for access.
It's worth noting that Microsoft already has its own paid subscription service, Xbox Game Pass. That service costs $16.99 per month, and provides access to a library of over 100 games.
However, users need to download individual games that they want to play to either an Xbox One console or Windows PC.
"People are speculating that because Microsoft is putting so much emphasis on its game subscription service … that there could potentially be some tie-in between xCloud and Game Pass," said Valentine.
Regardless of speculation, Microsoft has renamed relatively tight-lipped about xCloud, meaning gamers will need to remain patient until the company makes more announcements.
Will video game streaming render traditional consoles obsolete?
Despite the wealth of streaming announcements made in the past few months, Valentine is skeptical that video game streaming will replace traditional consoles in the immediate future.
"I think there's still definitely a lot of questions of how well streaming is going to work for the vast majority of people," explained Valentine.
Google claims that Stadia can provide run 4K HDR games at 60 frames-per-second in 5.1 surround sound — all on a 35 megabits-per-second connection.
For comparison, network analytics company Opensignal reported in April 2019 that the average broadband internet user in Canada has access to speeds of approximately 111.5 megabits-per-second, though many Canadians — especially those in rural and remote communities — still use significantly slower connections.
In addition to network speed concerns, Valentine also pointed out that there's a difference between owning a game and paying a monthly fee to stream from a library of games.
"If you stop paying the fee, you don't have [the games] anymore," said Valentine.
"Actually owning games and having them belong to you when you pay for them is something that's important to an awful lot of people."
As it stands, manufacturers aren't ready to abandon traditional video game consoles in favour of an all-streaming landscape yet.
Microsoft, which touted Project xCloud as a new way to play games, still used E3 to reveal details about its upcoming, next-generation device, codenamed Project Scarlett.
Additionally, Sony, which eschewed any presence at E3 2019, has also already announced that it's working on a successor to its PlayStation 4 console.
"Don't immediately go buy every single video game you own on Stadia and hope that that's going to be the future, because it's going to take a while to fully get its way there," cautioned Valentine.
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