Today Google was the latest company to envision a future where physical game consoles are replaced by the cloud. But America’s sluggish, expensive, and uncompetitive broadband industry could severely hamper video gaming’s next evolutionary step.
Speaking at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) on Tuesday, Google unveiled Stadia, a new platform that will bring high-end gaming to any device with a Chrome browser. According to Google, Stadia hopes to fuse both online game streaming and video game streaming platforms like Twitch into a single new game community.
Google claims that users will be able to click on a YouTube gaming video or link and be playing a variety of top-shelf titles in as little as five seconds—with no downloads, patches, or installs.
“This new generation of gaming is not a box,” said Google’s Phil Harrison. “With Stadia the data center is your platform. There is no console that limits the developer’s creative ideas, and no console that limits where gamers can play.”
Google says Stadia will launch later this year in the US, Canada, and parts of Europe, though pricing and game availability isn’t expected to be unveiled until sometime this summer. Google had already been testing the idea via a project it called Project Stream, which let users stream Assassin’s Creed Odyssey through its Chrome web browser. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said his company’s own "xCloud" game streaming service was still in the "early days" of development.
Eliminating the console completely is something the game industry has dreamed of for the better part of two decades with decidedly mixed results. I can remember being pitched on the idea of gaming as a platform-agnostic streaming service as far back as E3 in 2000, though none of the platforms ever gained traction. And services that did finally arrive, like OnLive, couldn’t overcome a myriad of technical hurdles to deliver a consistent, quality product from coast to coast. OnLive failed for numerous reasons, not least of which being that despite the product’s ample hype, the company lacked the technology to deliver the high stream quality and low latency that modern titles—especially of the competitive variety—require. The bandwidth-constrained 720p streams simply couldn’t match traditional gaming rigs, especially well-equipped PCs.
Google in contrast believes it has the datacenter and cloud firepower to deliver 1080p and even 4K game streaming at a steady 60 frames per second on any device that can run Chrome. The company even stated that 8K streaming would be waiting in the wings.
“Stadia is about removing barriers to players to get to their favorite content and moments,” Harrison proclaimed.
But there’s one glaring barrier still standing smack dab in the middle of Google’s ambition: America’s substandard broadband networks.
With phone companies like Verizon shifting their focus toward online advertising, they’ve simply refused to upgrade aging, slow DSL lines, leaving huge swaths of America stuck on 3 Mbps connections. In turn, cable giants like Comcast enjoy a larger monopoly over broadband than ever before in many markets, especially when it comes to faster speeds.
According to the FCC’s latest Internet Access Services Report (routinely considered a generous over-estimation of reality), nearly 25 million Americans lack access to 25Mbps/3Mbps speeds, the FCC’s base definition of broadband. In areas that do have those speeds, it’s not uncommon for consumers to have just one ISP to choose from, driving prices higher.
Generally, streaming a game at 1080p requires latency of less than 20ms and downstream speeds of at least 25 Mbps. But raw throughput is just one of numerous factors that can impact the responsiveness of game streaming. Upstream speeds, the quality of your router, and even congestion at internet peering and interconnection points can impact game play. Google hopes to sidestep some of this by having the lion’s share of the streaming traffic travel over its own datacenter and transit links. But that data still needs to make its way to your home via the “last mile,” or your ISP. And if your ISP is terrible, your Google Stadia experience is likely to mirror that reality. Existing services like NVidia’s GeForce Now service requires at least a consistent 15 Mbps for 720p game streaming at 60fps, and 25 Mbps for 1080p game streaming at 60fps. But those requirements are expected to only balloon well past 40 Mbps as 4K game streaming becomes mainstream. Akamai data indicates the average US connection is just 18.7Mbps. A lack of real broadband competition has resulted in another major obstacle for the future of game streaming: broadband usage caps and overage fees. These arbitrary and unnecessary limits imposed on the back of captive customers will inevitably drive up the costs of video game streaming, especially as the game industry begins embracing 4K gaming streams.
A household of gamers are likely to make quick work of Comcast’s 1 terabyte monthly usage caps, quickly incurring a $10 fee for each additional 50 gigabytes of data consumed. Combine the added cost of a monthly game streaming subscription fee—and the inevitable overage fees for bypassing your usage caps—and game streaming could quickly become a pricey prospect for many American consumers. The death of net neutrality could add an additional wrinkle to the mix. With the FCC having recently axed the popular consumer protections, there’s little stopping an ISP from launching their own competing game streaming service, then unfairly delaying or restricting services from competitors like Google. For example, Verizon is working on its own game streaming platform. With no net neutrality, the ISP could easily free its own game streaming services from such limits, while still imposing them on competing platforms like Stadia, putting competing services at an unfair disadvantage in the market. It’s a problem already rearing its head in video. Eventually, the platform fanboy wars of yesteryear could be a distant memory, replaced by numerous streaming subscription services that make traditional consoles irrelevant. But we’ll need to take some dramatic steps toward actually addressing limited broadband competition before the decades-old quest for hardware-agnostic game streaming finally becomes reality.