In case you missed it, Google held a Stadia Connect presentation today ahead of E3, outlining the upcoming Stadia service. The platform will stream games from Google servers onto your device, handling all of the computation on their end. It’s the elusive “Netflix for Gaming” we’ve anticipated in the era of digital games. Stadia allows unlimited access to a library of games (not all games) for a monthly subscription fee. Others can be purchased independently, effectively turning it also into yet another digital games storefront. The news hasn’t been particularly well received, but the concept is exciting, and Google’s announcement of Stadia alone sparked a collaboration between Sony and Microsoft to take on a similar project. If these companies aren’t careful, they could have the market they’ve always had a grasp on taken away from them in the same way film and TV features had been from the old guard of entertainment distribution. The difference here is that the video games industry is still young, and mostly run on the backs of major tech companies who have a hand in external, but related, industries as well. Something like Stadia prospectively sounds great, but what implications does it have for the future of gaming?
As more of the largest tech companies in the world (recently deemed as monopolies, at least according the to UK) enter the playing field of video games, the landscape of competition is being forced to expand beyond the simple scale of “console vs PC” or “The Console Wars”. Whether it be Google Stadia, Apple Arcade, the Epic Games Store, or whatever mistake Facebook decides to make next, the individuality of games may start to become less important, as we’ve already begun to see in the wake of Fortnite’s Battle Royale genre takeover. The concerning thing to the gamers, the consumer at the bottom level, is the content they play becoming more ubiquitous as a piece of a larger brand. Especially for a subscription-based service, the quantity of games, or hours spent online with them, starts to outweigh the quality. When a game becomes included in something, rather than an individual purchase, playtime becomes more important than user experience. A flashy cover and an online multiplayer takes more playtime than a short-but-sweet indie game. And when playtime is what matters, as is likely with a subscription-based service, what’s the point in making a fun game instead of a long one? Nobody in their right mind would price Fortnite the same as Skyrim, but in a subscription-based service, Fortnite and its many clones make a lot more money. This, of course, abstracts out some details about how Stadia and related services will compensate developers, but the issue of playtime versus fun is definitely made more complicated with a subscription-based service.
In fact, flashy games with a high production value are already outclassing smaller games. Anthem, one of the most highly publicized games of the year, made over one hundred million dollars in the first week according to Superdata despite lukewarm reviews and countless issues. Creative independent games like Baba Is You, The Messenger, and Hollow Knight can’t even begin to compare to AAA titles, despite each of those games currently holding a 10/10 on Steam. Expensive trailers, hype-train marketing, and unfulfilled promises give even a mediocre game a profitable launch. Companies dedicated to producing games are now flooding the market with mediocre cookie-cutter games that sell well in favor of making games to be as good as possible. More often than not, these companies treat their employees poorly and rely heavily on micro-transactions to rake in the cash. For many gamers, such prospects bring Bethesda, Epic and EA to mind.
Is the gaming industry doomed to become a way to milk gamers for every cent they’ve got? Sadly, it seems to already be tending towards that. Collector’s Editions, DLC, and the infamous micro-transactions are working on players, and games that rely on marketing over gameplay are being churned out daily. If, or when, services like Stadia or Microsoft and Sony’s team-up hit the market, there will be another serious shift in the paradigm of development. But there’s some good to come out of this, too.
The best we can hope for in gaming is something like Nintendo becoming a golden standard, especially seeing how their traditional methods have evolved into the Switch generation. Much like the Avengers film series – they’re a product that has iconic characters and stories that dare to attempt something risky and different, and are handled with the utmost passion and care. If publishers can use the power afforded by large budgets and lots of screen time to focus on quality first, we may return to such golden times before our current generation of consoles and free-to-play market. While risky, a publisher allowing increased freedom in development will result in artistic expression, and with the time to optimize systematically. A perfect example on this scale is the work put into Insomniac’s Spider-Man last year. It had a massive team of talented people who were passionate about their material, but also passionate about building the optimal technical experience for what they intended to make. And even still, as a single player game, it had a sprawling social media experience with a well thought out Photo mode.
PlayStation as a brand under Sony’s company banner has been largely successful, towing this line successfully by focusing on how their games turn out, and their services like PlayStation Plus as an addendum. This kind of strategy results in revolutionary titles that shake gamers to their core in an emotional way. Single player games like last year’s God of War or Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us continue to be champions of AAA studios being able to turn a simple game into a work of art.
Just this past week, in an interview with C-net on the prospects of cloud focused games distribution, and if the PlayStation 5 would be the brand’s final console, PlayStation’s new CEO Jim Ryan had this to say about the industry evolution and their focus on quality product:
“… the landscape is changing fast. If we simply kinda lean back on the world that we’ve known for the past 25 years, we’re at grave risk of having events around us overtake us. So we have to show an open-mindedness and a desire to do things to an extent that we haven’t had to in the past…
…It goes back to these three points, our enduring strengths — exclusive games, the brand and the community we have, who we’re very humbled by the trust of the level of engagement they have with us.
As long as we treat them properly and with the love and respect they deserve — and that probably sounds trite coming from a businessman, but we actually believe in this stuff — that will serve us very well.”Jim Ryan, CEO of Sony PlayStation
However, the ever-growing involvement of conglomerative parent companies in gaming foreshadows a future of mass-produced entertainment designed to clean out wallets, not maximize fun.
Electronic Arts is, of course famous for this, and Kotaku’s report on their incredibility limited resources to aid BioWare in the development of Anthem using EA’s requisite Frostbite engine is just the tip of the iceberg for issues for internal communication directly affecting a studio’s capabilities of making a good product.
If Google is truly going to allow developers to focus on creation beyond the limits of a generation’s hardware, that could be something to be lauded, but only time will tell if there will be systematic, corporate structures in its place making it impossible for games to get screened and published, or, in the worst case such as Steam’s, there’d be none at all. And given YouTube’s handling of automatically flagging copyright claims and user’s abuse reports, the prospective issues may skew towards the latter.