Streaming is the future – but not for all media

Streaming content is the natural endpoint for entertainment content. The many conveniences that come from streaming outweigh the concerns about a lack of ‘ownership’ for the consumer of the media they consume, data throttling once net neutrality is a distant memory, and the quite justified concerns over subscription fatigue due to the sheer amount of streaming services on offer.

The reality is that ease of use trumps all of those, particularly for casual consumers, and as infrastructure and internet penetration improves further the proportion of people using streaming services will only grow. Last year Ofcom reported that nearly half of UK households now have access to at least one television streaming service, as the number subscribing to the most popular services “increased from 11.2m (39%) in 2018 to 13.3m (47%) in 2019”. That doesn’t take into account the number of households that also subscribe to a music streaming service like Spotify, either.

Streaming with Google Stadia
The Google Stadia proves streaming works for games – in precisely the right circumstances

However, that isn’t to say that streaming is necessarily a good fit for every medium. It works well for low-data, passive mediums like audio and television. Even Netflix’s ambition Black Mirror special, Bandersnatch, which was effectively an experiment in interactive television content in the vein of an adventure game, was possible through Netflix’s infrastructure. But the reality is that the technology and infrastructure to stream many video games isn’t there yet – despite some serious investment from big players.

Google is attempting to prove the viability of a game streaming service with its Stadia service. For a comparable fee to Netflix, subscribers will have access to a set number of ‘free’ games – this is the Netflix-equivalent bit of the service – which can be streamed directly to their television. It does require that users own or buy the Stadia controller and a Chromecast Ultra, however, which will run over £100 as an outlay. That’s still cheaper than buying a new console, however. Users will also be able to buy other games to add to their library, which will supplement the ‘free’ games included in the bundle.

That’s the Stadia Pro offering. The cheaper Stadia Base won’t allow access to those free games, nor will it allow users to cast the games to a television. When announced, it was widely assumed that all the games in the library would be available to play for free, though the economics of that for the game developers and publishers were obviously dubious. That aside, though, Google is betting that not having a console is no longer the impediment it once was. They believe the age of streaming has arrived – slightly erroneously, as we’ll see.

For one thing, although Google general manager Phil Harrison attempted to downplay it, there were immediate red flags when it came to the amount of data that streaming 4K games would require. As Ars Technica notes, data caps are widespread, and unlikely to be suddenly lifted:

“Stadia is scheduled for release in November. Google says you’ll need 35Mbps to play at the maximum settings of 4K resolution, high dynamic range (HDR), and 60 frames per second (fps) with 5.1 surround sound. As we previously noted, that amounts to 15.75GB per hour, which would use up an entire 1TB monthly data allotment in 65 hours of game time.”

Beyond that concern, the reality is that even within countries with high levels of internet penetration, there are huge pockets of the country where internet speed is paltry, and not up to snuff to deliver that 35Mbps consistently. While the options are there to downscale resolution, limit frame rates etc. there are going to be lots of areas that simply cannot take advantage of Stadia.

That, too, pales in comparison to the issue of latency. Many of the most popular games at the moment rely on all the players involved having low levels of latency – competitive fighting games like Street Fighter V, Samurai Shodown and Dragonball Fighterz have solid netcode, designed to mitigate latency, but those fast-twitch games that require instant reactions are negatively impacted by any instance of latency. Unfortunately, despite assurances that Stadia’s latency will be 70ms or less, the reality is that issues like this snowball. For many people, it won’t be possible to play competitive games at anywhere near the optimum level through streaming. That’s true for console and PC games with wired connections too, but it’s exacerbated by streaming’s limitations.

Even Microsoft’s competitor streaming service, xCloud, which is reportedly better in this respect than Stadia, has issues with latency, with an average of 16 frames elapsing between button press and seeing the response on screen. It’s hardly a deal breaker for the service as a whole, but for a lot of games (even single player ones) that will feel like playing through treacle.

The games industry is undoubtedly moving towards streaming. In Japan, where internet speed and availability is effectively never a problem in urban areas, they’ve demonstrated it is possible for underpowered consoles like the Nintendo Switch to effectively play games beyond it capability through streaming, using the graphically intensive Resident Evil 7 as a test case. But they didn’t bother offering that service outside of Japan due to those infrastructure limitations.

In a few years, no doubt, many of these issues will be mitigated to the point that convenience trumps those minor niggles. But until there is ubiquitous good internet and enough competition between ISPs to ensure a good service for all, game streaming is going to be limited in its availability and its viability.

Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.