On Streaming and the Future of Gaming (and ‘Digitisation’)06.04.2019, 14:54
Cloud game streaming isn’t especially new. PlayStation Now has been improving quietly for some time, maintaining a reliable service while still holding hopes of becoming a ‘Netflix for Gaming.’
However, now both EA and Microsoft are beginning to push game streaming, Amazon are creating games very much with streaming in mind, and perhaps most centrally, Google has brought this future closer than ever in recent months, via its demo of Google Stadia. Basically, a top console game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey becomes instantly playable over a browser.
This has shown that we won’t all need advanced processing hardware (consoles etc) in our homes to play even high-end games. This is amazing news for accessibility; so many players will be able to ‘drop in’ to a game just via their browsers or TVs. However, there are concerns for this future, provided the experience is completely lag-free and uninterrupted (which is most likely will be). For example: What will happen to the quality of game-making when gaming becomes ‘always online’. What will happen in a subscription-based world, when that subscription gets cut off? How will games be preserved along with customisations, in-game items, settings and save-games? How will games be appreciated, in the way that, for example, Skyrim was (a completely single-player experience). When players are no longer the people running these games, we’ll be paying monopolies like Google to run them for us. Perhaps all these concerns will be swept away, but it’s important to consider human nature, and some previous examples.
The Evolution of Tech
Technology as a whole generally advances by addition, until various mediums catch on or become mainstream and start eclipsing older mediums. But it doesn’t extinguish them entirely. Physical books still work the most comfortably for our eyes to transmit long stories or information. Newspapers are still alive, but the internet is where the more transient, or more useful information is quickly and easily digested, since it is readily available (along with a lot of advertising).
Streaming looks set to do the same for many games. They will be readily and easily available like an app store; like Netflix. But will people still engage with games the same way? Will communities spring up and contribute to the evolution of one game (like Minecraft) and still bring people together? Or will everyone just be skipping on to the next one?
Surely not. Streaming will likely contribute to gaming while there will remain a huge section that will continue to run games themselves. Why? Because there will remain a lot of other reasons why owning your own processing power at home will bring benefits, including economic ones. So there will be diversity, with many forms of games and many forms of services still available.
Let’s think about music. Mp3 was supposed to wipe out all other formats due to its ease of transfer or convenience, price and availability. But it certainly took its time to dominate, and it wasn’t until Apple developed an exceptionally cool physical device (the iPod) to handle them that they really started taking off. Today, you can still buy vinyl and CDs, and collectors take pride in the special artwork or rare editions. When anything becomes easily available, and in mass quantities, the appreciation of a complete item becomes lessened. It’s also why any handmade items (like on Etsy.com) are valued more over manufactured (or Amazon-featured) ones.
All this is worth thinking about when it comes to technology. Appreciating things. Yes, there will be appreciation, and scarcity, online. But there will also be more transience. ‘If it's out of sight, it's out of mind’ or, in other words: if a game-disk isn’t sitting on that dusty shelf at all, you’ll likely never play it again. Same goes for your office or bedroom, or desktop. If something isn’t on it, or is stored away, then it almost ceases to exist in the present. The physical world is becoming a place where only really essential stuff in our lives dwells. The physical world is generally where things with the greatest of relevance try to resist time and transience.
Kids from the 1980s (myself included) would order a PC video game from a printed catalogue and wait a week or so before this large packet arrived, with four or five ‘floppy discs’ included, and a huge, printed manual. The delight in playing and getting the most out of this game was massive, but (on the flip side) If there was a fault with the discs that meant major disappointment. It might take weeks to get an alternative, working copy. Not to mention the time ‘booting up’ or getting the game to actually work properly.
'The Last Console Generation'
That’s not to say there won’t be lovely user interfaces in this new streaming or virtual game (etc.) landscape, of all your bookmarked favourite games, ready to access at a touch. And there will be cool menus of previous captures or gaming playlists and channels. Google et al will make it all seamless and inviting, and abundant.
But with ‘progress’ something always gets lost, where things make life easier. Like the physical effort of putting in a disk, setting aside time, inspecting a physically-printed game map in your hands before beginning an open-world game, just newly released. Solo exploration is still a major delight in massive games. Like earning money and hearing it jingle in your pocket. The money we make in the future might come from many different sources and platforms, and will be spent just as quickly. But we should remember that we are creatures of contact, of effort and reward. ‘Human meaning as defined by human effort’. Happiness is not defined by ease and by speed, but is derived from our involvement and appreciation in what we have, or have set time aside for. Can you have an abundance of games, and still appreciate them? The answer will be: yes, to an extent.
But the physical world will always have a big connection to the technological one. And soon, when everything is virtual and connected, and games become the ultimate games that many have always dreamed about: advanced, immersive environments for instant social interaction, sharing, imaginative role-playing, and single-player adventures, then perhaps the main physical item left will be an AR/VR head-set or even body-suit. Perhaps then, everything transient or artistic will be digitised or in the virtual.
However, the real-world remains for all the things you really love, because you’re holding on to them. Hang on to some of those tatty old disk boxes too.