- Mar 4, 2019
Google, as everyone expected, put on a good show. This is a company accustomed to grand, sweeping statements about the future of technology, and game streaming lends itself well to that sort of thing. The promise of Google Stadia is to remove local hardware processing from video games entirely, breaking down barriers and unleashing creative fury. You can play Red Dead Redemption 2 on your phone, you can run 1000-person multiplayer games without having to beam anything to the public internet, you can even overlay impressionist paintings onto a funny robot man if you're so inclined. But there's big talk and there's implementation, and game streaming has no shortage of questions surrounding access, reliability and economic model. And where any one platform is concerned, you've also got to think about competition, because this space is going to get busy, and quick.
It's no secret that there are other companies interested in game streaming: Amazon is expected to throw its hat into the ring along with Sony, which is actually already running a game streaming service in the form of PlayStation Now. But right now the company I'm most interested in hearing from is Microsoft, which is expected to reveal its Project xCloud at E3.
For one thing, Microsoft has the muscle. It's not as big as market leader Amazon, but it's a cloud services provider with the sort of data infrastructure you need to pull off a scheme like this with the kind of latency you need to make it work. This is where it gains a big advantage over Sony, a company with no shortage of video game chops but with less of a presence in the cloud services industry.
But where Microsoft pulls away from the rest of its competition is its relationship with the gaming industry, something it's been fighting hard for since 2001. It finds itself in a unique position right now: it entered this generation with a disastrous thud, alienating its core market with both an odd focus on the Xbox One as a television/motion control machine as well as a bunch of unpopular moves regarding used games and always-online requirements. It walked back most of the worst of it, but it didn't help the Xbox One much, particularly when it launched $100 more expensive than the PS4. Since Phile Spencer took over, however, it's been repairing its relationship with the gaming community at an admirable clip, launching fan-favorite features like backwards compatibility alongside a push for cross-play and the Game Pass subscription service. It still doesn't compete with Sony on exclusive software--though some recent studio acquisitions suggest it wants to--but the console, its services and its reputation with core gamers are in a good spot.
Microsoft even has an increasingly friendly relationship with Nintendo, and the Nintendo Switch could well prove one of the best portable game streaming devices out there. The company has even run experiments with it in Japan, but it seems unlikely that Nintendo would run its own streaming service. Microsoft could be an interesting ally there.
As Microsoft has learned time and time again, the gaming industry is just a tough spot, whether you're talking about wrangling the needs of developers in every country on Earth or dealing with what one might call "passionate" fans. And this is the game industry that Google wants to be a part of--if your big selling point is the ability to play Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Doom Eternal, you're clearly going to be selling primarily to people who currently play a lot of games and likely already own a console. It's a tough room, but it's a room that Microsoft knows well at this point.
Google Stadia is likely to run into problems as it rolls this service out in 2019, whether that's baseline technical implementation, developer relations, fan expectations, pricing models or something else. Amazon, Sony and Microsoft will run into those same problems, but I'd argue that Microsoft is in the best situation to answer the widest range of those questions.
When Game Pass first debuted it made waves because it included the ability to download and not just stream your games, a move that a certain Silicon Valley perspective might call backwards-looking or pointless. But Microsoft understood that downloading was crucial for its audience, and Game Pass received a glowing reception as a result. I'm not saying that Project xCloud will contain definitely contain a downloadable component--though it well might--but I think that moves like this point to a company that's willing to work with the needs of its audience over some sort of grand technologist vision. And in the early stages, that's going to be crucial.
Plus, Microsoft does still have Halo. It's not the powerhouse it once was, but it will resonate well with a wide-ish audience that wants to play games but might not own a console right now.