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Google Stadia and Microsoft’s Project xCloud: The game streaming dream was inside us all along

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Google’s Stadia is one of several services that suggest gaming’s next level will be streaming. Or will it?


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If, like a rapidly growing segment of the world’s population, you’re the type of warped individual who spends the majority of your free hours playing video games, it’s probably apparent we live in interesting times. And this year’s E3 reflected that fact.

E3 2019 wasn’t the rollicking roller coaster ride we’ve come to expect in recent years. That makes sense — E3 is changing because video games are changing. Also, 2019 is something of a gap year for the games industry as we wait for a new Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation, both expected in 2020. Many of the most exciting games announced this week, like Halo Infinite and Cyberpunk 2077, are due next year too. 

But if you broaden the scope of your thinking to dog years, E3 actually gave us plenty to chew on. In some ways this year’s E3 was a moratorium on the future of gaming. If you read the headlines, the story is clear: The way we’re going to play video games is about to change. The race to become the Netflix of gaming is on.

Yes, it’s all about game streaming, folks.

Or is it? The truth is a bit more tangled.

On the one hand we have Google Stadia, a streaming service that promises to forever change the way we consume video games. We haven’t seen a company with pockets as deep as this enter the gaming sphere since Microsoft launched the original Xbox in 2001.

And speaking of Microsoft, its Project xCloud is what’s on the other hand. It’s another streaming service, and it complements the upcoming Xbox console while also promising to forever change the way we consume video games.

That’s not all. There’s also a bunch of subscription gaming services popping up, from Xbox Games Pass to Google’s Stadia Pro to Ubisoft’s Uplay Plus. Together, they’re offering us a chance to live the dream of chucking game consoles in the bin and solely streaming games direct to our devices, Netflix style.

The second, the foundation for what’s to come has already been built. It’s been under your noses all along.

Head in the Cloud

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Phoning it in for the win.


James Martin/CNET

Let’s talk about Microsoft.

One of the biggest surprises of E3 was the announcement of Project Scarlett, Microsoft’s next Xbox console. Onstage at E3, Phil Spencer announced that it’ll be a big powerful machine designed for 8k gaming at 120 frames per second. 

The biggest surprise: Project Scarlett will launch, in the year 2020, with an optical drive

What does that tell us? Microsoft, which was actually the first main player to launch a discless console with its Xbox One S All Digital Edition in May, is still tethering its next-gen console to past technology (discs). 

Microsoft, quite rightly, doesn’t want to leave any consumer behind. Not everyone has lightning fast internet connections.

The harsh reality is that the global games market, at the retail and consumer level, is barely prepared for an all digital market, let alone a bold Netflix-esque streaming future where gaming is nothing more than an app on your TV, phone or tablet. The death of the games console has been greatly exaggerated.

That said, Project xCloud works, and it works insanely well. Microsoft has been offering demos of Halo 5: Guardians and Resident Evil 7 using an Xbox controller attached to an Android phone, and the performance was nearly flawless. The technology exists; the technology works. 

Project xCloud is going into public testing this year. It’ll be a thing. But if Microsoft is right, it’ll merely augment the console gaming experience. It won’t replace it. Not for a while at least.

Stadia

For all the hype and expectation around Google’s entry in the console gaming space, perhaps the most surprising thing about Google Stadia is how traditional it is.

It’s not exactly the utopian dream of flicking a switch and being able to stream every game available direct to your TV. Take the Founder’s Edition of Stadia, for example. Here’s how it works: You pay $129 for a game controller and Chromecast Ultra, which allows you to stream direct to your TV. 

From that point you can do one of two things: You can use Stadia to buy full-price games using Google Play and then stream and play those games. Or you can pay $9.99 for Stadia Pro, a service that has a number of rotating games you can stream for free. Not every game — some games. 

In other words, sorta like Xbox Game Pass, which already exists and has done since June 2017. The only real difference is that with Stadia you’ll be streaming but Xbox Game Pass requires you to download, for now.

Still, it’s likely that Xbox Game Pass — a service that, according to reports in late 2018, already has millions of subscribers — will let players stream games using Project xCloud in the near future. And considering that Microsoft already has hundreds of data centers in 140 countries around the globe, the capability already exists for the company to take a real stab at creating a full-on game streaming service that outperforms the competition.

In short, the video game stream dream was inside us all along. 

Getting messy

When it comes to Stadia, you might suspect things could get messy. 

Unlike Microsoft, Google doesn’t have 15 game studios at its disposal to create content exclusive to Stadia. An in-house studio, Stadia Games and Entertainment, helmed by industry veteran Jade Raymond, exists, but Microsoft already has a working suite of proven studios at its disposal. Think Netflix originals, but for video games. Google doesn’t have that. Yet.

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Will consumers be up for still more subscriptions?


James Martin/CNET

Instead Stadia appears to be banking on partnerships with third party publishers like Ubisoft — but with that comes a whole new set of problems. At E3 this year Ubisoft announced its $14.99 per month Uplay Plus, an Xbox Game Pass-esque service that gives players access to 100+ titles in Ubisoft’s library. You’ll be able to stream this service through Stadia.

But where does it all end? $10 for the Stadia games, plus $15 for Ubisoft games. Are we about to live in a future where Stadia is a means through which we acquire game subscription after game subscription to the point of absolute fatigue?

“Americans want two, three, four subscriptions. They certainly don’t want 40 of them, and they aren’t going to pay for them,” said Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Grand Theft Auto maker Take-Two Interactive Software (he’s also the interim chairman of CBS, which owns CNET). “Consumers still always get to vote.”

What about EA’s $4.99 per month EA Access, or the $19.99 per month PlayStation Now? These are all services that work on the subscription model — where do they fit in this bourgeoning ecosystem? That’s a little harder to parse at this point. But it’s a confusion that requires resolving if game streaming is to go as mainstream as Netflix. 

“I have never thought that one business model should dominate gaming,” said Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of Xbox. The company, for its part, sees game streaming as just one more facet of a broad ecosystem, another way to consume games in a crowded, competitive marketplace busy with multiple platforms. 

That in and of itself is another problem that needs solving: eliminating the confusion that comes with these options and packaging them in such a way that anyone can get on board. 

People like Robert Altman, the CEO of Zenimax, which makes the postapocalyptic game Fallout and the shooting game Doom Eternal, sees streaming platforms as a way to reach broader audiences that currently don’t have access to gaming. “It removes friction,” he explains, “and makes it very easy for people to experience this entertainment form.” 

Still, game streaming, as of this moment, needs to get the kinks ironed out. If anything it’s a novelty for the kind of people who already play video games obsessively.

Game streaming, right this second, feels like a classic case of “so close, yet so far.”

CNET’s Ian Sherr contributed to this story.

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