Google has begun teasing its video game initiative. During a session at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next week, the company will announce its “vision for the future of gaming.” This likely involves a combination of cloud streaming and hardware. But whatever it does, Google’s gaming service could show up dead on arrival.
In the teaser trailer that it posted to YouTube yesterday, Google invited gaming fans to “gather around.” The 37-second clip doesn’t show off hardware or any other details. Instead, it’s a series of scenes from what look like various blockbuster video game genres. It jumps from a sports arena to a remote jungle cavern to a military aircraft. These vignettes bring games like FIFA 19, Tomb Raider, and Call of Duty to mind without using any of their names.
Google wants to draw the attention of the hardcore gaming audience because that’s what its technology seems well-suited for. But the difference is that Google could bring high-end games to anyone on any device.
Project Stream is impressive
Google has tested its Project Stream cloud-streaming platform with Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Many people who were in that test claim that it works surprisingly well. It has almost no lag even on slower internet connections. And the games look and run great, too.
And Google specifically designed this test to prove that its system is ideal for a demanding game like Odyssey.
“Streaming media has transformed the way we consume music and video, making it easy to instantly access your favorite content,” Project Stream manager Catherine Hsiao said in October. “It’s a technically complex process that has come a long way in a few short years, but the next technical frontier for streaming will be much more demanding than video.”
Google is in a distinct position to create a Netflix-like streaming platform for games. It is one of a small handful of companies that has cloud datacenters all around the world. That infrastructure makes it easy to deliver streaming games without having to rely on a third-party like Amazon.
Is Google going to make its own games?
When Sony broke into the video game market in 1994, it was easy for long-time gaming fans to write the company off. Nintendo and Sega had dominated for years at that point, and what did Sony know about games? And then the PlayStation launched. Now, Sony is just as intertwined with video games as Nintendo and Sega were in the 1990s.
So the obvious lesson of the PlayStation is not to assume that a new company cannot come into the gaming space and disrupt everything. Especially a megaconglomerate like Google.
It’s not 1994 anymore
In 2019, making games is a complicated and expensive undertaking. It’s much more complicated and more expensive than it was 25 years ago. Ubisoft, one of the biggest publishers in the world, launches approximately three blockbuster-tier games each year along with a handful of smaller releases. And to accomplish that, it employs nearly 14,000 people. Nintendo has 6,000. Sony Interactive Entertainment has 8,000.
Now, each of those companies employs a fraction of Google. It has nearly 100,000 employees worldwide. But those 100,000 people are already working on dozens (if not hundreds) of products. They create search, Google Maps, Android, and Chrome. Is Google going to expand its workforce by up to 10 percent to make its own video games?
Again, we can look back at Sony and ask why it has 8,000 people working on games and hardware. But Sony didn’t wake up one day and decide to employ thousands of game developers. It started in the ’90s when you could make a high-end game with 50 people instead of 500. And Sony has expanded its employment rolls alongside the institutional knowledge of how to build successful video games.
Even if Google does go out and hire thousands of skilled developers, it’s unlikely that it could match the output of an Ubisoft, SIE, or Nintendo. At least not for several years. And even then, Google would struggle to compete in terms of quality.
Making games is risky. It’s especially so when your competition is producing all-time hits like God of War and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that few other developers on Earth seem capable of emulating.
A Google gaming platform isn’t enough
The reason to presuppose that Google would want to make games is because that’s what gets the audience to show up. Gaming fans don’t seem to care about platforms — at least new ones — nearly as much.
We’ve seen how this has worked for Sony. Its internal productions like Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War are massive hits. And while third-party releases like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto V sell better on PS4, it’s the exclusives that get people to show up in the first place.
If Google’s gaming service is just a new way to play the games that people can get anywhere else, most people are going to ignore it. Platforms like that already exist with Nvidia’s GeForce Now, Utomik, and more. It also existed previously as OnLive and GameFly, which were both failed cloud-streaming services that featured a library of third-party games.
Getting the platform right is also challenging
This doesn’t mean that platforms don’t matter. They absolutely do. It’s the games that get people to buy in, but it’s the platform that makes people stick around and spend money over a period of years.
This is why the Nintendo Switch is so successful. It has some great games, but they aren’t that much better than what the failed Nintendo Wii U console had just five or six years ago. The difference is that people enjoy the idea of using the Switch. Where I used the Wii U begrudgingly to play Super Mario Maker, I’m excited to build up a library of games on the Switch. A big reason for that is because the hardware is convenient and designed for games in a way that smartphones, tablets, and even gaming laptops are not.
But you don’t need hardware to create a platform. Steam is a great example of that. But if you want to introduce an alternative to Steam at this point, you need to serve some other need. Discord has done this. It built a chat and voice comms app that has hundreds of millions of registered accounts, and now it is building a store on top of that.
The most recent threat to Steam, however, is the Epic Games Store. And it is competing thanks to the popularity of Fortnite, which is exclusive on PC to EGS. On top of that, developer Epic is spending money to get timed exclusives from publishers like Ubisoft and THQ Nordic on EGS.
So again, we’re back to talking about the games.
How Google could do to matter in games
While Google is staring down significant hurdles and risks as it enters gaming, nothing is preventing it from overcoming them. It has the money. Google could make its own games or buy exclusives from publishing and development partners.
Its tech could prove so revolutionary that it opens up blockbuster gaming to billions of people who could not previously access it. As a result, it could enable publishers to make more money while charging consumers less. And people will flock to a service with lower prices.
Google could also have some astonishing hardware that ties its entire strategy together. If it has something that looks like a slim Nintendo Switch but it can stream high-end PC games over Wi-Fi or an affordable LTE connection, then I’m going to want to try it.
Really, this all comes down to price, convenience, and enthusiasm (exclusive games). If Google can nail two out of three of those, it stands a chance. The only thing it cannot do is launch just one more way to play Darksiders III.
And I think that’s what we’re going to get. Google could surprise everyone, but tech firms don’t want to build products. No one in Silicon Valley wants to be the guitar player, they just want to make the guitars. And I understand that impulse. Entertainment is a tough, hit-driven business. But don’t come into gaming unless you have the stomach for that risk.