Opinion: Game streaming could be the future, and it could bring some serious problems with it.
This article was originally published during E3 2018 after several developers announced plans for a push toward streamed gaming. We are refreshing and republishing it now with the announcement of Google’s streamed gaming platform, Stadia. Streamed gaming continues to be a growing topic, but the concerns expressed here a year ago are still as prevalent as ever.
Last year’s E3 was full of signs pointing toward the coming rise of streamed gaming. EA announced a push toward it at its press conference, followed by Microsoft announcing similar plans of its own (which have been repeatedly backed up by rumors). Those both came hot on the heels of the very unexpected release of Resident Evil 7: Cloud Version, an exclusively streamed version of a game that assumedly wouldn’t have been able to run on the Switch’s hardware natively.
This surprisingly widespread push toward streaming games to devices instead of running them natively paints a strange and somewhat scary vision of the possible future of gaming. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot even recently said that the next console generation would be the last, and that he thinks “streaming will become more accessible to many players and make it not necessary to have big hardware at home.”
Basically, he’s saying we won’t need consoles with fancy hardware in them because we can just stream all of our games from a cloud service — just like Resident Evil 7, just like EA plans to enable with its new streaming options, and just like Google is doing with Stadia. That technology isn’t new — PlayStation Now is already a decently reliable service, for example — but there’s an enthusiasm for it from major companies right now that makes it feel different this time around.
Easier access to high-quality games is a good thing, but that’s assuming they actually work.
While not exactly the same, we’ve also already seen things like being able to stream from your PlayStation to your Vita, your Xbox to your PC, or even your PC to your phone with the Steam Link app, though none of those work perfectly. Online streaming services like GameFly (which EA bought last year) have also failed to find real success in the past, with newer services like Shadow trying again with better tech behind them, but EA even said during its E3 announcement that their service was “not quite ready for full market prime time.”
Clearly cheaper gaming systems and more access to high-quality games for everyone is a good thing, but that’s assuming this stuff actually functions like its offline counterparts. Resident Evil 7 on Switch only works as well as your internet connection, and “always-online” requirements in games that are otherwise single-player still consistently have hiccups and issues — especially if you don’t have a fast connection.
But more than that, I’m scared about the future after this future. As someone who still goes back to play my SNES (and who deeply regrets selling his N64 as a naive child), the idea of my library of games being at risk of disappearing with the flick of a switch makes me extremely uncomfortable. Game preservation is already a massive issue, and this will just make that problem worse.
Imagine if ten years from now your copy of God of War or Breath of the Wild just didn’t work anymore.
What happens when you cancel your subscription? Or when that subscription service shuts down its servers in two decades? Or a licensing agreement expires, which happens more than you think, and your favorite game isn’t allowed to be played anymore?
Plenty of incredibly popular online-only games have already been shutdown in the past through no fault of their own, and if streamed gaming becomes the norm then I guarantee we’ll start seeing the same fate for single-player games as well. Imagine if ten years from now your copy of God of War or Breath of the Wild just didn’t work anymore.
That said, I know this concern could be unfounded. People have been saying “this will surely be the last console generation” for over a decade, and they’ve been trying to get game streaming to work for just about as long too. It’s possible that neither could be true, and this push could end up failing from its own inadequacy fairly quickly. But the people making games (and now even Google) don’t seem to think so, and this recent trend gets me nervous all the same.
A lot of good could come from game streaming if it’s done properly, and I always hate to see people gated out of playing amazing games because they can’t afford the hardware. But it feels like a full industry shift to streaming will end up hurting gamers more than it helps them, assuming it works at all. It’s the dreaded always-online requirement that players hate multiplied by ten, and it seems to be the future we should start preparing for.
Tom Marks is IGN’s Deputy Reviews Editor and resident pie maker, and he doesn’t trust his internet connection. You can follow him on Twitter.