When Cory Burdette awoke recently to learn that Winter Storm Gia had caused a two-hour school delay in Reston, Va., he seized the chance to do a little family bonding. Plopping down in front of the TV, Burdette and his 5-year-old daughter spent the morning together playing Minecraft, the Lego-like adventure game where players construct buildings out of virtual blocks.
“We play all our games together on the Xbox,” he said. “In Minecraft, we both get to build a house together, find monsters and explore.”
The first time he fired up the game, Burdette had to wait for Minecraft to download and install on his Xbox before launching it. But by the time his daughter is old enough to play more-adult games, that wait could be a thing of the past.
Major companies including Microsoft and Verizon are exploring how to replace game downloads with Internet-based game services, hoping to do for video gaming what Netflix and Spotify have done with TV and music. Instead of being run directly from a device, high-quality games of the future could be streamed from a data center, with most of the computations and image rendering performed by powerful servers many miles away before being piped online to players' phones, PCs and consoles.
Unlike passive forms of media, such as movies and music, playing games over the Internet calls for highly responsive technology that can interpret a player’s actions from afar, process them within milliseconds, and relay the results back to players and their opponents instantaneously.
The challenge has stymied gamers and game companies for years. But with advances in computing power, the adoption of high-speed broadband and fresh investments by tech behemoths, what was once a lofty technological and cultural goal for the game industry seems closer at hand than at any point in the past decade.
“Game streaming services will be the ultimate driver of a rapid transition from the sale of games in boxes to digital consumption,” Yosuke Matsuda, president of the game company Square Enix, declared in a New Year’s letter to the public. “Streaming also lends itself to new subscription-based business models, so we believe deciding how to engage with these forthcoming trends will be key to future growth.”
As more Americans turn to mobile and online entertainment, executives across the media landscape have recognized that they are competing for the same quickly diminishing resource: consumer attention. Even Netflix this month acknowledged that it views the hit game Fortnite as an even bigger competitor in some respects than HBO.
In the war for consumer attention, cloud-based gaming represents tens of billions in additional profit for game publishers alone, analysts say. Beyond the simple convenience of playing games off a central server, what makes the idea so attractive is the capability to turn even the weakest laptop into a fully functional gaming rig.
That could make it far easier for people to play video games on whatever device they have, wherever they may be, according to Brian Nowak, an industry analyst at Morgan Stanley. “As a base case, this new technology has the opportunity to expand the addressable player base by lowering barriers to entry around AAA games,” Nowak wrote in a research note this month.
Recent high-profile experiments with cloud-based gaming include Google’s Project Stream, which wrapped up a beta trial this month that allowed testers to play “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” online free; Microsoft’s Project xCloud, which promises to enable game streaming over mobile data connections; and Verizon Gaming, leaks of which emerged earlier this month. On Monday, reports suggested that Apple may be planning a cloud-based games service of its own, and e-commerce giant Amazon.com is also said to be doing the same. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The jolt of interest in cloud-based gaming reflects how quickly the landscape for video games has shifted in recent years. The popularity of mobile gaming has some publishers, such as Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, moving to build their own app marketplace for games — circumventing the traditional app store middlemen such as Google. But in Project Stream, Google may be hinting at one possible strategy for outmaneuvering Epic in return: by eliminating app downloads altogether.
The last major attempt to build a cloud-based games service was known as OnLive, which launched in 2010 with five data centers scattered across the country. The service showed promise, but many gamers discovered that their own experiences differed drastically from those of professional reviewers. In particular, players said, OnLive was marred by input lag, or a significant delay between user actions and results on the screen.
“The latency between you controlling the game and it reacting was really bad on OnLive,” said Ethan Hawkes, a lifelong gamer who lives in Irvine, Calif. But times are different now, said Hawkes, who tested Google’s Project Stream. “The tech has finally caught up."
Other gamers say that while the technology has come a long way, it still isn’t seamless.
Another Project Stream tester, Chris Cantrell, said Google did a good job showcasing how its servers could faithfully reproduce the high-fidelity graphics of a single-player game such as Assassin’s Creed. But that game notably does not come with fast-twitch, competitive multiplayer, a staple of modern gaming culture and a data-intensive hurdle that tech companies must still address as many households are already streaming multiple services at once.
Assassin’s Creed is “a slower game, and so you don’t have to be as precise. But you can’t play Call of Duty on this connection,” Cantrell said.
Meanwhile, the growing consolidation of media and technology firms raises other questions for the future of streaming games. For example, Verizon’s fledgling gaming service would probably compete with similar platforms run by Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Some gamers, such as Burdette, fear that could lead to Verizon giving preferential treatment to its gaming service on its own broadband network at the expense of its competitors.
“They will definitely prioritize their own services if they find it lucrative enough,” Burdette said. “Throttling will absolutely be an issue.”
Verizon declined to comment on how the company might treat cloud gaming services on its network, saying that it frequently conducts “internal and external proof of concept trials to explore new ways to enrich the customer experience and expand our portfolio of products and services.” The company declined to confirm whether Verizon is actively experimenting with a gaming service.
Burdette expects that with enough Internet bandwidth, it will be only a matter of time before game streaming truly takes off. Gamers are hungry for a way to play premium titles without having to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on specialized equipment such as a console or gaming PC, he said.
Until that time comes, he’ll continue playing locally stored games with his daughter — “a die-hard Minecraft fan.”