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Gaming, technology, and solving problems

I’ve been reflecting on three gaming services this week which seem to be trying to solve adjacent problems. I think they all do so in sub-optimal ways, but for different reasons.

Although I’ve also got experience of GeForce NOW and PS Now, in my view they’re actually worse than Google Stadia, which I’ll consider alongside Steam Link and PS Remote Play. With my product manager hat on, I have to wonder, cool technology aside, what the problems to be solved are here?

Google Stadia

It often surprises people to learn that I not only use Stadia, but that I pay for it and enjoy playing. If you’ve got a fast enough connection, what’s not to like about instant-on gaming at 4K resolution? The downside, as has been discussed ad nauseum, is the lack of people to play against in multiplayer, and fewer AAA titles.

But, for me, Stadia is a really curious beast in terms of how it’s pitched. You can control sign-in, ratings, and sharing using Google Family Link which is great and much appreciated by Team Belshaw. But who’s it for? If you’re an existing gamer, you’re going to have an existing games console. For example, I’ve got a PlayStation 4, and will buy a PS5 as soon as I can get my hands on one. And if you’re not a hardcore gamer, there are virtually no games you can play ‘couch multiplayer’ (as they call it).

It’s odd, because I was so excited when Stadia was announced. I still think it’s a great idea, and when everything comes together, it does so in a compelling package. For example, I completed Sniper Elite 4 (and the DLCs) on Stadia, and haven’t found a better platform on which to play the racing game GRID. If they don’t can it, as Google has a habit of doing with all manner of products, then I think Stadia has the potential to be amazing.

Steam Link & PS Remote Play

The idea with Steam Link is that you have a powerful PC somewhere on your home network, and you stream the (interactive) gameplay from there to your mobile device, TV, or another PC. It’s like a local version of Stadia. Similarly, with PS Remote Play, you can stream games to mobile devices or computers.

The problem is that your PC or PlayStation has to work extra hard to not only render the game but then compress the output to be served over a network connection. It’s the same problem that Stadia has, except Google has algorithms that seem to have solved it much better — and they have huge farms of CPUs and GPUs giving really slick performance.

So who uses Steam Link and PS Remote Play? I confess not to knowing anyone, but perhaps I’m outside the target demographic? Given that Valve are bringing out the Steam Deck (which I’ve pre-ordered!) imminently, it would suggest that Steam Link remains underwhelming. Although the Steam Deck looks like a competitor to devices such as the Nintendo Switch (and of course it is) being able to connect a dedicated device for your Steam games makes the Steam Link redundant.

Meanwhile, Sony had the much-loved PS Vita which they killed off two years ago. I wonder if we’ll see a second coming now that the PS5 is out there and beginning to become established?

So what?

I have a feeling that things tend towards openness and simplicity. It may be easy to export a game you’ve made in Unreal Engine to multiple platforms, but you still have to support multiple versions. This takes time. I see cloud gaming in a similar position to the earlier days of the web on mobile devices. It works everywhere and for everyone, but right now native device-based gaming works a little better and more reliably.

My prediction, then, especially with Netflix announcing their entry into the gaming market, is that cloud gaming will get much better over the next few years. That means that, by 2025, not only will physical media be a distant memory, but much of the processing power used for singleplayer and multiplayer gaming will come from cloud-based CPUs and GPUs.

It’s not a radical prediction, I know. But from where I stand (or, rather, sit) in 2021, it’s definitely one I can get behind.


Image based on an original by Nikita Kachanovsky

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