Are we about to see a Netflix for gaming?
There’s been a lot of discussion in the industry about the development of and ultimate migration to completely streamable gaming platforms - the mythical “Netflix of Gaming”. We spoke to a lot of technology, publisher, and studio execs at both GDC and E3 earlier this year about the concept, which is building steam as a revolutionary near-term step change in the industry.
Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot is bullish on the subject: “We will see more triple A games on a wider variety of screens—that’s a huge trend that will continue to change the industry, and we’re also seeing a growing seamlessness between platforms ... That’s going to make the industry totally different. Today we have 200 million players on console and two billion gamers in total, globally. The games created for those 200 million machines will soon be accessible to the two billion. I think in ten years we’ll have five billion people who will be able to access the game we create. That will totally change the approach of the industry - and the perception of the industry.”
Likewise, the concept has been strongly endorsed by Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, Bethesda’s Todd Howard, and EA’s Patrick Soderlund. We’ve previously talked about the proliferation of cross-play and the implications of moving towards an ecosystem where any game can be played on any device. Streamable games is the catalyst for that shift. Commercially, it’s a no-brainer: if Netflix can be a near-ubiquitous consumption platform in a US$44 billion global film industry, why can’t any one of the existing giants do the same in the US$137.9 billion global gaming industry? Device agnosticity will significantly broaden the audiences that publishers and providers can target.
Can this be achieved?
Technically, it already has. Sony, Microsoft, and EA each run a twinned service offering, with one tier offering X free games per month of your subscription and the other providing access to a larger library of games. Amazon’s Prime service provides access to certain free games each month, while NVidia Now allows you to stream games that you own from the cloud. Lately, Google’s rumoured “Yeti” project is set to throw its hat in the ring as well, with the company’s recently announced partnership with Unity a key component of onboarding studios and developers into this ecosystem.
In reality, however, no one has perfectly cracked the formula. There are significant technical hurdles to be overcome - namely, the availability and penetration of high-speed internet across the globe. Whereas the consumption of TV shows and movies is a passive experience, the interactive nature and likely inclusion of multiplayer elements makes gaming a much more infrastructurally taxing affair. Previous iterations of streaming platforms such as OnLive used video compression that reduced the visual quality of the games.
Who’s the likely victor?
Google’s ambition with its Google Fiber service, their continued investment in cabled infrastructure, their global data server setup, and current partnership with Unity (not to mention ownership and possible cross-pollination with YouTube) all adds up to a reasonable bet. Microsoft is reportedly developing a lightweight Xbox system for streaming games - a hybrid that doesn’t entirely rely on the cloud, but offloads heavier graphics, physics, and other computationally taxing elements to its distributed network. Their Microsoft Game Pass is also probably one of the most successful streaming platforms that’s up and running right now.
But there are also a multitude of challengers that are sitting on the fringes right now. Consider that the strength of Netflix is its original content, while the looming threat of a Disney-based streaming platform will be the breadth of its IP ownership, a streaming platform for the games industry will ultimately come down to which one has the best games on it - think: a next generation platform exclusivity ecosystem. Steam is the de facto leader for online game purchases in the western hemisphere, while the Tencent-backed WeGame in China is the biggest game platform in the world (with imminent designs to enter the Western market). Both of these companies have the portfolio, technology, and budget to easily pivot towards streaming.
What will the effect be on the industry?
Xbox’s Phil Spencer talks about how cloud-enabled game streaming could help further democratise gaming.
“I want to see the creators that I have relationships with create huge immersive games, and I want to be a platform to allow those creators to reach 2 billion people, and not have to turn their studio into something that makes match-3 games rather than story-driven single player games because that’s the only way to reach those platforms. That is our goal: to bring high-quality experiences to every device possible on the planet… I think we all want to think about how we grow the gaming business, to not create arbitrary decisions on what console you buy or what network you join. [We should be] trying to make sure that we are all pulling in the same direction. The biggest challenge I feel now is gamers’ desire to continue to divide our industry.”
The push towards exclusive content will also open up new avenues and opportunities for AAA studios and indie developers alike - an antithesis to the current winner-takes-all paradigm in Steam. If such a shift invites new and innovative gaming experiences to reach an all new audience then ultimately the entire industry is going to benefit.