Google Stadia deserves skepticism. Game streaming services have failed in the past, and as PC gamers we're fervent believers in owning the hardware our games are played on. Stadia is also launching with some serious limitations: no 4K PC support, a required $10 per month subscription for now, and just a handful of games which must be purchased separately. Compared to Xbox Game Pass on PC, which includes over 150 games to download for an introductory $5 per month and will get streaming support next year, Stadia's offering is puny.
Unlike the now-defunct OnLive, however, Google isn't at any risk of going out of business if Stadia doesn't turn a profit in the first year, or first five years, or first decade. If cloud gaming isn't the future, we'll find out the day Stadia falls. But there's a chance that it is. Microsoft, Nvidia, Ubisoft, EA, and all the other gaming giants are prodding at it. No one wants to be the Blockbuster to someone else's Netflix.
If cloud computing does become the norm, what does that mean for PC gaming? I've made a few guesses here, and they err toward the more extreme possibilities: a total revolution that might be further than a decade out. My predictions are entirely speculative, and assume improvements in internet infrastructure and data plans.
Desktop PCs won't be much different from your other devices
'Gaming PCs' in a streaming future wouldn't be all that different from phones, tablets, and TVs.
Like the all-in-one PCs of today, you'll plug a keyboard and mouse directly into your display. Given the miniaturization of technology over time, they still might be as powerful as one of today's high-end PCs, but they wouldn't be powerful enough to run whatever the equivalent of Red Dead Redemption 2 is in their time, which would only be playable via Stadia or another cloud streaming service. (It's hard to imagine it, but RDR2 will appear old and low-fidelity to us in 15 years.)
At this point, 'PC gaming' and 'console gaming' will just be 'gaming.' The only difference is whether you're sitting at a desk with a mouse and keyboard, or on a couch with a controller. All of your Stadia cloud games will be playable on any device.
PC building will become niche
If the idea of downloading a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 becomes as anachronistic as going to the drug store to develop film from your 35mm camera, consumer-grade PC components will be much harder to come by. Intel, Nvidia, and AMD will focus on catering to the remote computing industry with bulk sales of commercial processors. Consumer sales will mostly or entirely come in the form of pre-built PCs, TVs, and tablets meant to be used with cloud applications. More powerful workstations will be targeted at professionals.
Those who like building PCs will be niche hobbyists akin to people who love film photography. We'll buy parts from online specialty retailers or eBay dealers, and in general they'll be old, refurbished components that can't run the modern games available on streaming platforms. That won't matter, though, because modern games from big publishers won't even be released as downloads. Streaming is also a way to get rid of piracy.
Restore pic.twitter.com/4Rv05XFsJLAugust 17, 2019
The scene will be similar to present day retro PC gaming, in which hobbyists put together old machines with CRT monitors to play games as we used to. Benj Edwards, who runs Vintage Computing and Gaming, is a good example.
So we'll play older games—perhaps Steam will continue operating its download service, despite itself having become a cloud gaming company by this time—and new games made by fellow hobbyists and independent developers. None of the old multiplayer servers will still be running (who will score the final frag in de_dust2?), so we'll have to run our own when possible.
The amount of data tracking will be obscene
Google wants to know everything it can know about you, and everything it can know about everyone as a whole. Running your software for you makes that even easier.
Developers can already capture and store player input—say, to produce a Rocket League replay or generate a Call of Duty heatmap—but with all of your games on one or two cloud platforms, they'll be able to compare and contrast individual and aggregate data. Cloud platform owners and game publishers will build profiles that describe you in terms of your reaction speed, your keybinding preferences, your patience for cutscenes, how often you become distracted, and so on.
Eye and voice tracking are also two features that could easily be presented as useful, mechanical innovations (imagine a Call of Duty that tells you how quickly you're spotting enemies), generating biometric data that could be mined extensively by a company like Google.
Games will use your data to adapt to you
Systems will be designed to modify games on-the-fly in response to how you're playing them, adjusting difficulty or even changing the game's focus based on how you compare to other players. If one of these sophisticated games notices you typically avoid combat but spend a lot of time speaking to NPCs, it will restructure future quests to emphasize dialogue with the most popular characters and avoid combat encounters that players similar to you tend to fail.
Conversely, if you frequently skip past dialogue, you'll be given shorter dialogue trees and more fights. Those fights will be tailored for players who match your overall profile. We enter Existenz territory here. Long live the new flesh.
In-game ads will be more common
I'm clearly just guessing here, but if I know Google, the data collection won't stop when you leave the game. Google and others in the cloud business will create easy ways for developers to target in-game ads at the people most likely to act on them, track how many times an ad is viewed, and also track how many times it results in a sale—they'll be able to see you popping open a new tab and heading to Amazon, too.
No one will be surprised by these ads, in the same way no one is surprised by ads in mobile games today.
Cross-game interaction will be put to cool uses
Games which interact on the fly with other games have been tried. CCP attempted it with Dust 514, which took place in the same shared galaxy EVE Online players were soaring around in, except on its planets.
Concepts like Dust 514 will be more common. As remote computers are handling every aspect of your game state and the game states of everyone else, actions in one game can more easily be reflected in another. They could even put you in a completely different game without you knowing it. For a crossover event, your character might go to sleep in one game and wake up in another, and both games would be 'aware' of what was happening to the character. It's the way Mass Effect saves could be carried over from game to game, but seamless and instant.
Hideo Kojima would have a field day.
Massively multiplayer games will be extremely massive
As the technology develops, a great effort will be put into achieving milestones—it's good marketing. First, they'll get 200,000 players in one shared world simultaneously, and then they'll shoot for a million.
Speed will change our relationship to games
It will be possible to announce a game release and have millions of players seconds later, like readers of a viral tweet.
Indie games will find new and old avenues
Independent games will either need to be lightweight enough to run natively on the PCs of the day, or they'll need to find a way onto a streaming service. Some of our current models will likely make their way to the cloud, and perhaps the Steam or itch.io of the future will provide a space for independent developers who produce graphically-demanding games. (Notice how much effort Valve has been putting into streaming tech lately.)
The big publishers will double-down on subscriptions like Xbox Game Pass, and there's a risk that Spotify-like pay-per-minute-played schemes develop, which would be disastrous for developers who aren't producing Destiny 2-like games that are meant to be played for hundreds of hours. That's the worst case scenario. My guess is that individual game sales won't go away, and will continue to exist in tandem with various subscription services, the way they are now.
Modding will only happen with official mod tools...
There is no way the streaming companies will allow you to modify game files on their servers, except in ways dictated by the game.
...But developing standalone games will be even more accessible
Many games will still require teams of coders and artists, but engines such as Unreal and Unity, new cloud-based development tools, and growing asset libraries will continue to open up game development to individuals and small teams with varying skill sets.
Cheating will disappear
You won't have to wonder if someone is cheating in a multiplayer game. The only possible way to cheat will be to use software which analyzes the game feed—it's just a video on your PC—and adjusts mouse movement and keyboard input to auto-aim or automate activities. But streaming services will have a massive database of player input data, and cheats will generate unique signatures which are easily detectable.
You won't be permabanned, because they know they can always catch you. You'll be told you can return in 10 minutes after disabling your cheat software. The temporary bans will lengthen with each infraction.
Service disruptions and data breaches will be bad news
Philosopher Paul Virilio pointed out the invention of new technology is the invention of a new accident. The ship led to the shipwreck, the car to the car crash, and so on. The speeding up of things tends to make those accidents, on the whole, more catastrophic with each new development.
Already, internet outages and data breaches can seriously damage individuals and companies. The more processing and data storage that happens remotely, the greater the potential harm of a breach or disruption.
A less bold prediction
"We're as invested in cloud as anybody in terms of the cost standpoint," said Xbox head Phil Spencer in an interview with Eurogamer this week, "and we said yeah, local play on a device is going to be the best way to play, whether it's a gaming PC or a console. And that's for years."
Spencer isn't ruling out the possibility that local rendering entirely disappears some day, but for now, he clearly thinks such a future is far off, if it ever comes to pass.
PC gaming has gone in many unexpected directions—if you'd described Fortnite to me 20 years ago, I would've thought you were a liar—and nothing is guaranteed. But I think the most likely course is the same one we're on now: hardware becomes more powerful, and while cloud streaming gets better, it never entirely usurps local processing.
I can imagine a free-to-play cloud MMO that we pop open in a browser window and on our phones, and which uses the advantages of a cloud platform like Stadia to host hundreds of thousands of players in a persistent world. But only some will wholly rely on low-end devices and streaming platforms, and the rest of us will still have SSDs full of downloaded games, too. There's also the question of whether VR takes off, as it wouldn't benefit from the latency of streaming. None of my bolder predictions may come to pass, and something entirely different could rise up.
Then again, over the course of 20 years, Netflix went from a DVD delivery service to the leader in a media revolution. I no longer own anything that could play a DVD, or even a Blu-Ray. If Stadia takes off sometime in the next five years, it could get a snowball rolling that won't stop. There are billions of dollars at stake, and it shouldn't be underestimated. After all, the idea of buying and downloading games on Steam was also strange and new at one time.