Business & Tech

Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

For gamers, the clouds are rolling in

Attendees played games on the new Stadia gaming platform at the Google booth at the 2019 GDC Game Developers Conference in March in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Attendees played games on the new Stadia gaming platform at the Google booth at the 2019 GDC Game Developers Conference in March in San Francisco.

I haven’t bought a video game in quite awhile, and if Google and Microsoft get their way, hardly anyone else will be buying them, either.

Instead, the tech titans want us to embrace “cloud gaming,” which means they own and host the game, streaming it over the Internet to customers who pay by the month. It works for movies — bet you’ve got a subscription to Netflix or some other video streaming service. The music industry has learned to love Apple Music and Spotify, with unlimited online listening for a monthly fee. So why not play video games the same way?

Sometime this year, Google plans to launch Stadia, a service that will make playing video games as easily as teeing up a Hulu video. Microsoft will test a similar service called xCloud. Nvidia, the leading maker of video processing chips, is already testing a version called GeForce Now. Amazon is also believed to be planning one, while the Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent is reportedly testing one called Start.

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I first sampled cloud gaming in 2010, and even then, I figured it was going to be big; suddenly everyone agrees with me. So of course, I’m having second thoughts — not about the technology, but about the games.

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Still, it’s a cool concept. Forget about downloading the new “Call of Duty” to a PC, or going to Walmart to buy it. Instead, you’d just click an icon in your browser, and the game would start, on your desktop computer, or any other connected device— laptop, tablet, phone or even the living room TV. You could put down one device, pick up another, and keep right on playing where you left off.

Already, millions of people play online combat games like the immensely popular “Fortnite.” But the software runs on our own computers. The same will apply to Apple’s recently announced subscription gaming service, Arcade.

With cloud gaming, the game software runs on powerful cloud servers in some remote data center. You won’t need a new PC or smartphone to run the latest games. They’ll perform well on cheap, obsolete machines, as long as you’ve got a fast broadband connection. And the services will likely offer dozens or hundreds of games.

A company called OnLive tried cloud gaming a decade ago, only to go bust. Sony Corp. has done better. In 2014 it created PlayStation Now, which let PlayStation 4 owners play earlier-generation games that would not run on the new console.

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Today, PlayStation Now is the biggest cloud gaming service, with over 750 titles on offer. The market research firm SuperData estimates it generated $143 million in revenue for Sony in 2018. That’s barely a rounding error for Sony, which took in $21 billion last year. Sony declines to provide a subscriber head count, but it’s safe to say PS Now hasn’t had much of an impact.

But if companies like Google and Microsoft are willing to gamble on game streaming, I expect quite a few consumers to play along, at least for awhile.

The newcomers must get the technology right. Both Google and Microsoft have dozens of cloud computing centers worldwide that should be capable of running high-end games with hardly any lag or on-screen flicker. In 2010 the pioneering OnLive system worked fairly well, at a time when home broadband connections averaged less than five megabits per second; today those average a respectable 95 megabits per second, more than good enough for gaming.

Still, when my kids and I played “Lego Star Wars” and “Battlefield 4” on PlayStation Now using a 1-gigabit-per-second broadband connection and a Dell Ultrabook PC, the games often stuttered and froze. If Netflix performed like that, I’d have canceled years ago.

But the big concern is content. The game publishers who produce hits like “Call of Duty” or “Red Dead Redemption” are used to selling millions of copies at $60 apiece. Will they settle for slivers of subscription revenue?

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“It’s financially a very risky circumstance,” said SuperData analyst Joost van Dreunen. He predicts the hottest games may never be available as streams, or that they might be treated like premium cable channels and provided at a higher price.

Google has lined up at least two Stadia games so far, from the popular “Assassin’s Creed” and “Doom” series.

But van Druenen frets that Google is too focused on the technology, and not enough on building a deep roster of exciting games. “Google is about to open a restaurant,” he said, “and their pitch is we have the best tables and chairs in the food industry.” Alas, Google didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Besides, none of the new cloud gaming systems have revealed their prices. Sony charges $100 a year for PS Now, so a Google or Microsoft service will probably cost at least that much, probably more. It’s not that much, but people will need a good reason to cough it up, considering that they can play hit games like “Fortnite” or “Apex Legends” without paying a dime.

While Netflix and Spotify have proved that millions will pay to stream old movies or music, PS Now has shown that few will pay to stream old video games. So the cloud gamers had better deliver a full stable of the latest hits. Otherwise, Google’s shiny new Stadia will be empty.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.