playing video game

Video games have come a long way since titles like Pong arrived many decades ago. Now, games are highly sophisticated programs with layers and layers of complex code built by teams comprised of dozens of people. When graphics upgrades aren’t as impressive anymore, what is the next step? The answer, apparently, lies on the format: video game streaming.

The reason for video game streaming

While console gaming has remained as healthy as ever, with massive successes like the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, a different trend has caught up with other industries from the entertainment sector. Streaming is dominant right now in basically all industries except for gaming. If not, ask services like Spotify or Netflix.

It’s only natural then, that after technology advances enough, video games will follow suit. It’s not hard to imagine an era where, instead of buying an all-powerful console or PC, we’ll buy a small box with a very good Wi-Fi chip that will allow us to stream any game we want—as long as we’re paying a subscription, of course.

That’s exactly what Yves Guillemot, CEO and co-founder of Ubisoft (one of the largest video game publishers in the world), believes. “I think we will see another generation [of consoles], but there is a good chance that step-by-step we will see less and less hardware,” he said in an interview with Variety. “With time, I think streaming will become more accessible to many players and make it not necessary to have big hardware at home.”

In essence, what Guillemot thinks is that, after the next PlayStation and Xbox consoles (and whatever Nintendo is doing), we’re all going to pass on to streaming. Following past timelines, that would probably happen in around 10 years from now, at the end of the next decade.

This isn’t new

playstation now image
PlayStation Now is probably the closest thing to the future, but today, is a costly and technically-limited service

It’s important to know that Guillemot isn’t coming out of nowhere here. The entertainment industry as a whole isn’t the only example of this model working: actually, gaming has already adopted streaming as a viable service in some cases.

Nvidia offers GeForce Now, which lets players use their own library of games and stream them to other devices like tablets or TVs. Since Valve Corporation owns Steam, the largest PC gaming seller, the company also offers its own similar solution called Steam Link.

While streaming is actually happening in those cases, it’s a different concept from services like Netflix, where the data is stored in remote servers. Here, the games are still rendered by the user’s own PC, only that they’re able to see the video in real time from another device. It’s a less ambitious solution with more of a local connection in mind.

However, the one similar concept to Netflix’s is offered by PlayStation: its service PlayStation Now lets you play titles from all of the systems’ huge library. But is costly, has mostly older games and, while serviceable, unfortunately illustrates the technical limitations of video game streaming.

And about technical limitations…

The problems

Video game streaming presents several problems, many of them being shared with the mentioned industries. Things like the loss of ownership, an always-online requirement and inferior quality (Netflix can never look as good as Blu-ray) are a given.

But there are other problems exclusive to video games. While you can still watch Netflix with a slow connection (it just won’t look as pretty), you can’t actually play a video game that’s on streaming without having a killer internet connection. The problem is that video games require direct input from the consumer, in contrast to other media, and that complicates the requirements behind it. Games need to be snappy and respond rapidly to user commands, and doing that through streaming is not easy.

This presents a prohibitive landscape where many people who don’t have fast connections will be left out. This will especially be true in emerging countries, where having a fast internet connection isn’t necessarily the norm, even if you have the means to pay for it.

Additionally, Guillemot also suggests that these services would be available in “platform agonistic” devices. But that’s a highly debatable point, since video game companies have been built around exclusivity. It’s hard to imagine a world where you could play Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo games in one system. Somehow, that scenario doesn’t look plausible.

A middle-ground

phil spencer
Xbox boss Phil Spencer believes video game hardware will stay many more years with us

As it’s often the case, dealing in absolutes is a silly premise to start with. Video game streaming will be a thing in the future, that’s for sure. But there’s no reason to think that locally-rendered games will cease to exist. Will they stop being the main way of playing games? Perhaps, but both models can coexist.

Xbox boss Phil Spencer believes consoles will stick with us for many, many years to come. “I could see why he would say that,” he said to Eurogamer regarding Guillemon’s opinions. He claims that “what you’ll see is a diversifying of the places where people can play great content.” And really, he’s probably on point there.

Just as DVDs and blu-rays are still being used, just as CDs are still being played, video games will also be played in a “classical” way. Sure, it might be a small, dedicated niche market in contrast to the dominant model. But if there’s one, small dedicated niche market out there, that’s video games.