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Bye box: How streaming could kill the games console

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Bye box: How streaming could kill the games console

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PAul Kamma

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Paul Kamma turned to cloud games

Paul Kamma used to lead an uncomplicated life. As a video game enthusiast, he spent his time playing first-person shooters and other high-octane games.

So he got married and started a family.

"When you get home, you play with your kids … You don't have much time to play big games like GTA (Grand Theft Auto)," he says.

"But I still wanted to do that because I loved it."

Besides not being able to spend as much time on his computer as before, Kamma also had no free reign on home TV as before.

So he turned to cloud games, which allowed him to stream video games to a simple laptop. Wherever he went, he could still have access to his favorite games.

Kamma lives in Germany. The streaming service he chose, Shadow, allowed a remote PC to be installed on a server somewhere in the Netherlands.

He could install games on the server and connect to him through his computer, which displayed the game screen and allowed him to control his character.

"I can play anywhere at work if I have free time there," he says.

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Getty Images

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Google launches its Stadia gaming service in November

That's what cloud gaming is about – your game runs on a powerful computer somewhere else and you just connect to it.

This means gamers can access large, processor-hungry games on simple devices – even cheap tablets.

While this setting has been possible for some time, cloud games will soon be available from Google and Microsoft.

This month, Google will launch its Stadia service in the US, UK, Europe and Canada, and Microsoft has just started previewing its xCloud Project.

Nvidia is also preparing its GeForce Now streaming product. And Sony already provides on-demand games via PlayStation Now for PS4 consoles and PCs.

Some of these services involve monthly subscription costs and, in Stadia's case, players are being encouraged to purchase a new controller (£ 59.99 each).

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Google

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Google will sell a controller to track its Stadia gaming service

It connects directly via Wi-Fi to the game you are playing, rather than being connected to a device in your home that sends controller data over the Internet.

But the key element of all these services is the fundamental shift from running hardware games in your home to running on an enhanced server elsewhere. By offering this flexible play-anywhere option, some think it could mean the demise of the home video game console.

"I ordered Stadia because I really liked the idea as a replacement for the console," says Kamma.

The first home video game console that can connect to a TV was the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972.

Today, the console market is considerable. If you add all PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch devices that were sold, you will have approximately 180 million units.

"Interestingly, the number of people around the world who buy devices like this is not really growing – and it hasn't been for a while," says Piers Harding-Rolls, IHS Markit gaming industry analyst.

"It's been at this level for 15, 20 years," he says.

He suggests that cloud games are really an attempt to make video games more accessible, potentially opening them to a wider audience. It may also appeal to people like Kamma, who already enjoy games but may be spending less and less time because of other commitments.

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Claire Thomas, game and software engineer at Improvable, says streaming can have a democratizing effect.

"I grew up with some friends in different areas of the world and I can still go home after work and I can still play with them," she says.

Although some of your friends don't have the latest hardware, they can still participate thanks to streaming.

Harding-Rolls points out that cloud games of this type were already tried 10 years ago with a service called OnLive.

He was reasonably successful, perhaps even ahead of his time, but went the way of the dodo. Partly because at the time the internet infrastructure was not as robust as it is today and connection speeds were slower.

"It cost a lot to stream content, and that left them with very little room for maneuver in terms of content acquisition," says Harding-Rolls.

And that content is make or break.

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Unlikely

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Claire Thomas does not see the death of the console

Services like Stadia and xCloud will vie for exclusive rights to the biggest games. Currently, few exclusives have been announced for Stadia, for example, which has not gone unnoticed.

As with Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, these rights deals can mean everything in terms of popularity with the target audience. Consoles also rely on exclusivity to some extent – these links are already tight in the industry. Cloud services can compete for exclusivity not only among themselves, but also in the traditional console market.

There are also technical obstacles. When playing most video games, it is essential to have constant, uninterrupted control and clear video output from the gaming world. A dishonest Internet connection means that your killer move at the key point of a battle may not transmit in time – costing your virtual life.

It is a problem known as entry delay. Google's wi-fi controller is an attempt to conquer it by transmitting commands directly to the game server.

Thomas argues that having a good Internet connection will soon be the only barrier to gaming – but your bandwidth may depend on how close you live to the nearest cloud gaming data center.

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Getty Images

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Quick connections can mean life or death in a game.

Players testing previous versions of the latest game streaming services have had promising but not perfect experiences. Thomas Wilde, writing for the technology site GeekWire, notes that his connection to the Project xCloud beta was reasonably good.

However, he writes: "You end up transmitting and receiving a lot of data when you play through xCloud, and it can easily overwhelm a wifi connection."

Even if all goes well, neither Thomas nor Kamma sees cloud games as the death of the console.

Kamma points out that the next generation of consoles can offer ultra high resolution games. Streaming games of this quality will be difficult, and he thinks there will still be a market for players interested in having the best systems at home.

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EPIC GAMES

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Experts say game streaming may mean developers need to sell more character clothes

How will game developers benefit from cloud games? Jamie Woodcock, a digital economics researcher, points out that some publishers may volunteer for free through subscription services.

"If you are no longer selling independently but placing it on a streaming platform, will the publisher make the same money?

"I think it would be safe to say that they would earn less."

This may mean that developers are increasingly inclined to offer in-game purchases – new weapons or virtual clothing, for example – to "sell more" the experience.

It's already common in some games, including Fortnite, but cloud games can make it even more appealing to publishers.

Cloud games certainly seem like an exciting new paradigm. We'll soon find out if players accept it or not, but the consoles – those reliable and reliable boxes you own – aren't going anywhere yet.

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