The tech world was buzzing today with a report that Netflix will stream Telltale Games’ Minecraft: Story Mode — an initiative that looked like the video subscription giant was planning to dip its toe into the gaming waters. But as it turns out, the report’s not quite accurate, which means Netflix is effectively ceding the soon-to-be major streaming game market to game companies.
A sea change is on the horizon for the console industry. Over the next few years, major technology advances are going to enable publishers to stream fully rendered games directly over broadband and phone networks to subscribers, enabling high-end PC-quality games to be played on almost anything with a modern screen.
Until recently, three bottlenecks have stopped game developers from prerendering their games on powerful remote servers and streaming the content to less powerful devices. First, the devices haven’t had the hardware to display the games cleanly. Second, the server-to-device pipes have been small and slow. And third, the devices haven’t necessarily had proper controllers for games.
Manufacturers and network developers are literally only months away from solving these problems. Current TV boxes and upcoming mobile devices have sufficient horsepower to display and quickly refresh 4K content. Global broadband speeds are increasing, and latency — the factor preventing a distant computer from recalculating quickly to accommodate user inputs — is about to nosedive, thanks to soon-to-be-launched 5G wireless networks. Last but not least, between VR headsets, Bluetooth game controllers, ubiquitous touchscreens, and the fallback option of traditional keyboard/mouse combos, there are now diverse and robust control options for games.
On the server side, the only issue is having enough high-end computers and big enough pipes to pump out all the games people will demand. Once a remote server is rendering the games, the CPU, GPU, and sound capabilities of the playback device are nearly irrelevant, so the games can look and sound as amazing as the host computer (and its audio/video codecs) are capable of rendering.
The idea of Netflix entering the game streaming business would have been all but unthinkable five years ago. Given the state of streaming and gaming technology, only a company of Sony’s scale could actually have the wherewithal to pull it off: Sony bought streaming pioneer Gaikai in 2012, then launched the full-fledged game streaming service PlayStation Now in 2014. For around $20 per month, PlayStation Now currently streams over 600 PS2, PS3, and PS4 games to Windows PCs and the PlayStation 4, having previously supported everything from Sony Bravia TVs and Samsung Smart TVs to PlayStation Vita handhelds and PlayStation TV boxes.
Despite subscription-based game streaming’s obvious vision and potential, it hasn’t been easy for businesses smaller than Sony to survive. OnLive collapsed three years ago trying to start a game streaming business, and Sony acquired its remains. GameFly has offered a small service with around 30 titles for a handful of supported TVs; EA bought GameFly’s technology, but not the service, last month.
Sony was in a superior position relative to other companies: its PlayStation devices were ready to control and clearly display streamed games, while others were easily equipped with the necessary controllers. Even so, the list of PS Now-supported devices has shrunk rather than grown, and it’s unclear how many people are subscribing to the service.
Today, $99 4K streaming boxes with built-in memory are available, so inexpensive hardware good enough to stream beautiful games is so close that tech companies can taste it. That’s why Microsoft, EA, and even Google are actively working on game streaming services right now, though each is lighter than Sony on the details. In the foreseeable future, you won’t need a console or computer to render photorealistic games unless you’re in an area with a terrible wireless connection.
Netflix would have had two major advantages and two major disadvantages versus game companies. It already has apps on virtually every imaginable mobile and living room platform, as well as millions of existing, paying video subscribers. That means that whatever Netflix distributes can instantly reach millions of customers. On the other hand, it has a library of zero games, and the platforms it operates on generally lack for all of the hardware technologies mentioned above. A Netflix streaming game service would be constrained by poor controllers, lowest-common-denominator hardware specs, and existing broadband/cellular latency.
That’s why what was actually confirmed by Netflix today is so caveated when you look carefully at the details. Netflix isn’t going to be streaming Minecraft: Story Mode as you know it on consoles — instead, it’s a collection of video files you can navigate with the arrow and select buttons on a TV remote control, stripped of twitch action sequences. Sure, that’s a game, but not the type of game most people want to play.
My read on this situation: Unlike Sony, Netflix has a long way to go on the technology side before it can offer a real streaming game service. But we’re going to see a ton of activity in this space over the next couple of years as next-generation wireless networks roll out, and it’s going to impact games on everything from VR headsets to TVs, smartphones, consoles, and computers.
If you’re a serious gamer, your next console probably won’t be a streaming platform, but after that — as network latency and streaming get better — all bets are off, and you may be playing incredible streamed games through little more than a TV. Or a VR headset. Or a pocket-sized piece of glass with virtual controls.