The players are different, but the tactics are the same.
Game streaming is the next streaming war. Major companies have been landing their boats on the shore for years, but this year, the war has begun in earnest.
For years, people have been talking about cloud gaming. Just like video streaming has all but killed DVD players and music streaming killed CDs, people have been predicting that the same would happen to gaming. Other entertainment industries have gone there, why couldn’t gaming? We are farther from that future than the cloud salesmen tell you. It could happen, but gaming hardware isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Cloud gaming doesn’t work as well gaming on a console or a PC. Even if cloud gaming catches up technically, ownership of games matters. Not to all gamers, but to enough gamers. With cloud streaming, you eliminate any possibility of true ownership of games.
Even if cloud streaming doesn’t edge out traditional gaming, it has its place. The video and music streaming industries show that people are willing to pay a subscription fee for entertainment. Right now, people have, on average, four video streaming subscriptions. Cloud streaming also offers gaming on TVs or phones without requiring you to buy an expensive console. For these reasons, the game streaming wars have started.
Points of Competition
Technical aspects of game streaming
Game streaming requires more infrastructure than video streaming does. Video streaming is primarily one way; the video is streamed from host servers to the client machine. Occasional messages have to be sent the other way, like play and pause commands. Users won’t notice small amounts of lag in these communications. For game streaming, you need to transmit player input back quickly. Lag ruins the experience of playing a game.
The other major technical difference comes from rendering. For a video streaming service, you need services capable of sending a video file. The primary things they need are excellent IO, network performance, and fast storage. Game streaming servers need all of these, and they need to be able to run the games they stream. They need GPUs, and they need fast CPUs. These mean that you can’t use traditional public cloud infrastructure. You can either buy this infrastructure yourself, or you can pay for it from a specialized provider.
Just like video streaming platforms, each game streaming platform has to compete on IP. Some platforms do it by offering all original IP, and some buy the streaming rights to games. Just like in video streaming, there are a lot of studios producing indie to mid-level games. The AAA games drive the most traffic, similar to premier shows like Stranger Things and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
How do they charge?
Most video streaming services charge a monthly subscription fee. This fee covers everything on their service, like a buffet. Some services, like Amazon Prime Video, use a hybrid subscription: you get most things for free, but for the nice stuff, you have to pay à la carte. Some services, like Vudu, charge for everything à la carte, but those aren’t what you think of when you think of streaming services.
No standard exists for cloud gaming services. As discussed above, it costs more to stream games than to stream video. Some early game streaming companies opted for a hybrid model: you pay a monthly fee to access the streaming service, and then you buy the games on top of that. Others charged nothing for the streaming service itself, but you had to buy the games from the company full price. Now, some services are closer to Netflix: you pay a monthly subscription fee for unlimited access to a catalog of games. This really works for companies capable of offering a large number of games. In the minds of consumers, these different pricing models constitute completely different products. You wouldn’t consider all-you-can-eat buffets, gourmet restaurants and theme-park food courts the same thing. Consumers will expect different levels of quality for each.
Sony bet on cloud gaming early. They launched PlayStation Now in 2014, a service that allows players to stream PlayStation games to either a PlayStation or a PC. They built their service using in-house tech. First, they bought Gaikai, a cloud gaming company. Then, they created a “server” that combined 8 PS3s on one server rack . This seems complicated, but they still found it easier than trying to just emulate the games. They have brought a lot of first-party IP to the service, like Spider-Man and Uncharted. They recently combined PlayStation Now into PlayStation Plus, their other subscription service. It has strong, first-party IP, but the third-party options are lacking compared to some other services. It is cost-effective, given you have a PlayStation. For $18 a month, you get the catalog of games for streaming, and you also get online play on your PlayStation. If you already planned on paying for online play, you could argue that PlayStation Plus cloud streaming only costs $8 a month.
PlayStation Plus Premium has a major flaw: it only works well on a PlayStation.
The PC app for PlayStation Plus Premium is not good. It does not have a search bar, and it does not support all controllers. It doesn’t support keyboard and mouse controls at all, which the other streaming services do. Even the streaming performance is unreliable on PC. PlayStation Plus Premium also has no mobile app. Mobile is the primary use case of cloud gaming right now. Sony even has an app for remote play on your PlayStation console. For these reasons, PlayStation Plus Premium is behind the competition right now. However, they are still a threat in the streaming wars. These problems can be solved internally. Unlike some of the others on this list, they don’t need to worry about IP problems. If they solve their technical issues, they have the chance to be a long-term player in the game streaming wars.
Microsoft’s cloud gaming service has been doing pretty well — their hourly usage is up 1800% in the last year. Xbox Cloud Gaming is part of Xbox Game Pass. Xbox Game Pass is commonly called the Netflix of gaming. It’s the best value preposition of any gaming subscription. It costs $24.99 a month, but you get a massive catalog of games. Their catalog dwarves all of the other services. All of this would be moot if the streaming experience didn’t work well. Microsoft got the most important part right. Xbox Cloud Gaming is smooth both on PC and on mobile.
Microsoft is taking advantage of their cloud platform, Azure. It is the second largest public cloud platform. Microsoft has dropped billions on cloud infrastructure in the last 10 years and it shows. Microsoft’s position looks like the strongest right now. They are the only platform that can combine strong technology, a large catalog of games and a great value proposition for the gamer.
Google’s first major move into gaming came in Stadia, their cloud gaming platform. Stadia launched in 2019, earlier than most. Google touted Stadia as an alternative for game consoles, and they secured partnerships with AAA game studios like Capcom and CD Projekt Red. Google Cloud Services is the third largest public cloud service, so Google should have the infrastructure to get it done. However, Stadia doesn’t have many games.
Right now, the service has about 300 games. Stadia has more games than Amazon Luna, but fewer than the other options. They rely on developer support to port games, and developers have been hesitant to do so. They also use a hybrid subscription/purchase system. You can subscribe to Stadia Pro, and get a limited selection of games. You have to individually purchase all other games. Stadia, then, is not a good deal, and it has to live or die as a streaming service. It is flagging, but Google is considering pivoting it into a B2B service. This would salvage Google’s investment into cloud gaming, but it would remove them from the streaming wars.
Amazon Luna is the new kid on the block. They just launched in 2021, and they have a lot of the same sales points as other platforms: they stream games, you can subscribe to get access to a lot of games together, and they have their own controller. Amazon Luna is easy to mistake with Stadia at first glance. Amazon has invested in game development, but they aren’t relying on their own IP to sell their service. Instead, Amazon Luna relies on their controller, their infrastructure, their Channels and Amazon Prime as their selling points.
The Luna controller is very similar to most modern controllers. It does not move the needle in a world with so many good, cheap controllers. Luna’s performance does move the needle. Luna has low latency, and it leads to a close to console gaming experience. This makes sense, because Amazon owns AWS, the largest public cloud platform. They understand networking, and already have infrastructure to make Luna work. It makes Luna among the best of the streaming services in terms of gameplay.
They also took a different approach on the subscription service. You can subscribe to different Channels, which gives you access to sets of games. For example, you can subscribe to the Ubisoft channel, and get access to Ubisoft’s catalog. There are interest-based channels as well, like the Family channel. I like the idea of channels, but I don’t think they will win out over the value offered by Microsoft or Sony. Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus both offer more games for cheaper. Even TV is moving away from the channel model.
Amazon’s ace in the hole is Amazon Prime. They already have people paying a subscription fee, and they throw in a selection of Luna games with a Prime membership. They are approaching it similarly to how they use Amazon Prime Video. In the future, this could be a real boon to Amazon. Right now, Luna doesn’t have many subscribers. I would chock that up to the mediocre library, and poor marketing.
Nvidia has GeForce Now, their own subscription service. GeForce Now has been around a long time, in one form or another. They started their public beta in 2015. Nvidia has a unique position out of all the competitors: they are primarily a GPU manufacturer. They brought great tech to bear with GeForce Now, and it has the best technology of all of the services. The experience of playing GeForce Now is the closest to the experience of playing a game on your own PC. They also promise higher fidelity than their competitors. Their games run on high-end gaming PCs rather than on retrofitted consoles or servers. You have to pay for that fidelity, though.
GeForce Now charges $10–20 for a subscription, and they don’t use the same game subscription model that most the rest do. Instead, they allow you to play your own games for free. This approach makes GeForce Now unique: it’s not positioned as a replacement to a gaming PC, but instead as a supplement. They let you play your own library on other devices you own, like phones or laptops.
They have been around for a while, but they don’t have the resources of the rest of these companies. However, they are well positioned to act as infrastructure partners with one of the other platforms. They are unlikely to come out of the streaming wars as the winner, but they might survive as an enthusiast solution.
Other Game Streaming Services
There are other companies trying to make it in game streaming, but none of them have much traction. Plenty of companies have tried cloud gaming in the past, and they crashed and burned. OnLive and GaiKai both failed to make it as their own services, so they sold to Sony. Game streaming is expensive, and the infrastructure required puts it out of the reach of most companies. These other services are years away from profitability, and they don’t have good prospects.
I’ll highlight an exception: Parsec. Parsec allows you to stream games from your own PC to another PC. It has been around for a while, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Unity acquired the company in 2021. They have a sustainable business model — but they don’t directly compete with true game streaming.
PlayStation needs to change or die
PlayStation holds most dangerous position of all these services. They don’t have mobile streaming, and they don’t have a good PC experience. They have a good value proposition, but that doesn’t matter if people can’t find the games they want. Sony needs to improve their infrastructure and add mobile streaming, or else they will lose the war.
Xbox has the best deal
Xbox cloud streaming works. It’s close to a native experience. They also give you many games under the subscription, and it’s easily the best deal right now. Microsoft has marketed it well. Right now, Xbox Cloud Streaming is the most fully realized version of cloud gaming we have ever seen. If things continue as they are, they will win the game streaming wars.
Amazon Luna has a lot of potential
Amazon Luna plays fine. Right now, it’s not very well marketed. Most people probably aren’t even aware that it came out. However, Amazon Prime is Amazon’s X factor. If Amazon can leverage their existing Amazon Prime subscribers better, they have a chance of winning it all. They also need more game IP on their service, but they have shown with Prime Video that they are not afraid to dump money on a platform. Amazon Luna is the dark horse of the streaming wars.
Google and Nvidia could work as B2B products
Both products are falling behind on the consumer front. Stadia suffered from poor press at launch, and it has fallen behind Microsoft. GeForce Now doesn’t have problems right now. However, they will struggle to keep up with the rest of the pack in spending. That being said, both services have potential as B2B products. Google is already moving Stadia in that direction, and Nvidia has partnered with many companies in the games industry in the past. Either company, or both, could have success in game streaming through B2B, especially if Nintendo ever decides they want to get in on the war.
Like the streaming wars, this war won’t end with a single winner. When the dust settles, we will have a few options. We won’t likely have six remaining. I would bet on Microsoft and Amazon as the victors when the dust settles.
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