Google and its Stadia, Microsoft and the xCloud project: the future of the video game will be, at least partly, in the data centers. But while we wonder if we will have a fibred connection fast enough to play comfortably, the latest announcement from Microsoft reminds us that much of the cloud gaming war will take place on mobile.
A new break in the video game world
The history of video games is used to big breaks. A new challenger enters the game and all cards are broken. In 1994, Sony threw a gray pad in the pond with its PlayStation, in the middle of the two giants Sega and Nintendo. The first never got up. In 2001, Microsoft entered the arena with the first Xbox, and if the Redmond firm has never managed to establish itself as the undisputed leader, it has created a lasting and unexpected presence. Two years ago, who would have imagined that Microsoft, the publisher of Windows 98 and Office, would be one of the three main players in the console market?
Google with its offer Stadia may enter the story in turn. Stadia is not the first streaming game solution, far from it. GeForce Now, PlayStation Now or Shadow are already installed. But Stadia is the first promise of a completely dematerialized gaming platform, a new console that does not sit in the gamers' lounge, but in Google's datacenters. It is an important turning point.
Stadia: the same games on all screens?
And indeed, it can change everything. Because there is no more material than that of diffusion of the image. On paper, everything is questioned. Video game marketing still revolves around the power of high-end devices. Google promises the same gaming experience, up to a 4K definition and 60 frames per second, from the smartphone to the TV via a laptop or tablet, without a dedicated GPU. Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus or small smartphone Android One: same fight. And a console? Who needs a console when a Chromecast and a controller are enough?
This new way of playing comes to put things flat. And after all, the video game remains an aberration in the galaxy of audiovisual entertainment. Do we care if his Blu-ray player is powerful enough to perform the special effects of the latest Marvel? Or if we have enough memory to listen to all the instruments of the new album of his favorite artist? The message from both Microsoft and Google at this GDC is clear: they want to go get all the players. The famous "two billion". A good part of these players are on mobile. And that's good: it is especially on mobile that is the best development potential for these services.
Who says video game says interaction, and therefore latency. It's all well and good to be able to promise high-quality titles "to the two most powerful consoles combined", the connection must follow. To send the images with a sufficient flow and also and especially to return the actions with a minimum delay. The console and PC players are very demanding on this point, as on that of the image quality. These are the audiophiles or moviegoers of the video game.
Mobile and 5G: critical mass
This audience probably gives reason to Phil Spencer when he says there is still a market for "native" experiences. The most demanding players will always want raw performance, without the filter of a datacenter and video compression. I do not have a crystal ball to predict when the consoles and graphics cards to insert into your own PC will disappear, but I do not think it is for now, far from it. There are still people (including me) who buy CDs, Blu-ray and vinyl!
However, on the mobile, we can reach this critical mass of "good enough". The one that made the compressed audio file and video stream full of imperfections the norm. Because that's enough, as long as the experience is not spoiled. Google advances its ambitions with its promise of 4K or 8K, but a significant share of the audience of its future service will display its games on a small screen of 5 or 6 inches in Full HD, where compression artifacts will be less visible. Ask a player on Nintendo Switch if he pleases against the low definition of his screen. When we are in the game, we are in the game.
Mobile is also promising on the evolution of connectivity. There is much talk about the gap between urban fiber users and rural people stranded in ADSL. And it's important: on a fixed line, optical fiber seems to be frankly recommended, if not essential. In the medium term at least, the high-end experience sold by Stadia will not be for everyone. But where the fiber may never pass, the 4G already passes. And the 5G, which promises to significantly reduce latency in addition to offering higher speeds, is more likely to deploy in the coming years.
That gives grist to Microsoft that seems to really focus on the mobile for its future xCloud. His latest announcement details the possibilities of enriching Xbox games with custom touch controls. Less ambitious than Stadia, Microsoft's approach is quite interesting because of its pragmatism. Where Google has everything to do to develop its catalog for now empty, Microsoft unveils a decentralized Xbox, with ways to open existing games to a wider audience for the price of a significant job, but less restrictive .
The consoles are not dead yet. The game on mobile either. Mobile also means being, sometimes, disconnected. The 5G will not necessarily pass in all subways. On the other hand, it is clear that it is a new deal that can jostle established positions.
Read on FrAndroid: Google Stadia, PlayStation Now, Shadow: know everything about cloud gaming, the future of video games