A little while ago, Mitch wrote up an article titled, “Is Valve Ready to Re-enter the Hardware & Software Market?” In it, he addresses the challenges Valve faces in trying to make another entry into the gaming market through a proposed approach to appeal to a PC gaming audience… without all the problems that adorn that approach in the form of hardware requirements, cost to the player, and competition from consoles like the Nintendo Switch. In his final analysis, Mitch makes the following statement about the difficulties in making a new piece of gaming hardware that Valve faces:
“If a new piece of hardware is going to be made, and games designed for it, it also needs to target the correct groups. […] For the Nintendo Switch, everyone is playing on the same product with the same features. Everyone has the same base, and anything created can be directly built with that base in mind, either using it exclusively or adding on to it. The barrier to entry for Nintendo Labo is just a Nintendo Switch. The barrier to entry for games developed for the Vive is making sure you have a computer fast enough to support it and the Vive itself. The first costing around $360, and the other costing upwards of $1200; quite the tall order in comparison. Not everyone in the in the PC gaming market will be interested in games designed for new pieces of hardware, especially if not everyone in the market will be capable of easily playing them.”
But what if we didn’t need a new piece of hardware?
Getting rid of the Hardware Problem… by getting rid of the Hardware
I have a TV in my bedroom that I use to watch TV shows, movies, and streamed events. In bygone times, there were devices like VCR’s, DVD players, and other recording and playback machines that one would need to watch the kinds of things I do on my TV, but those devices belong in museums now. Even the cable box, a fraction of the size of those from a decade ago, will likely completely disappear as a device if the numbers keep shifting from conventional TV watching to streaming TV shows and movies; after all, you only really need a connection to a router and an internet connection to stream media to your TV.
Now, I realize streaming movies and TV shows is not quite the same thing as playing games, especially depending on the game you may be playing and who you’re playing it with, but online services for playing games is nothing new at this point in the game, and Valve, Microsoft, Sony, and even Nintendo have all jumped onboard the online game services bandwagon (though, they’ve each met with varying levels of success). Another article Mitch wrote up recently discusses Microsoft’s endeavor to label anyone who so much as looks at a Microsoft product an “Xbox customer.” This label was also brought up in an article written up by gamesindustry.biz’s Christopher Dring, titled “Microsoft: ‘We’re growing our gaming business beyond the console,’” where he quotes Microsoft reps during a GDC pre-briefing as stating the following:
“During the briefing, the firm repeatedly stated how its tools and platforms will work across almost all gaming devices – consoles, PCs, Macs and smartphones. The firm’s integrated developer environment – Virtual Studio – is Unity’s default IDE for us on Macintosh, for example. Microsoft is not abandoning operating systems or consoles, but it’s business is not solely focused on them, either. In fact, it doesn’t even need them.”
While it may be argued that Microsoft is saying that operating systems and consoles may not make up a significant part of their marketing or overall business, another possible interpretation is that Microsoft is signaling that they have already embarked on a post-device future; a future where those console boxes and hardware components that many people still play games on may soon be going the way of the VCR.
When you can have everything you want—without the box
Mitch is a pro-tangibility, physical product guy. He’s written in the past about how physical copies of games give the product authenticity. I’ve always been his counterpart in this; Mr. Intangibility. I glance over at my PC case and I continue to wonder when playing PC games will no longer require me to own one of those, with all of the functional components it contains, and all the money I spent buying them, and all the hours and days I’ve spent updating and patching them.
We are fortunate to live in an era of broadband internet with speeds that even at 18 Mbps can still stream 4k HD movies. Currently, I’m able to download at speeds that are many times that. The upload speeds aren’t so marvelous, but that’s my package. At this moment, millions of gamers are playing multiplayer games online, millions more than a decade ago. With all of this present capability to stream and send data back and forth at speeds that can handle all but the most data-intensive tasks, or lightning fast shooters, we may consider this proposition: What if you didn’t play games on a machine you owned?
What if you played them on a remote machine that processed all of the functions of the game, sending you the data over your speedy broadband connection, so that all you needed at home were your controllers, headsets, and other peripherals? Of course, there would be opportunities for those companies that might host such machines to lock them behind tiers of service and levels of capability, but how would that be any different than your internet or cable packages right now? Or the tiers of expenses and capabilities that separate one PC from another?
You wouldn’t own your own machine, of course. But owning products seem to be increasingly replaced these days by multiple ways to get you to pay a subscription, or at least make extra payments, whether through DLC, or season passes, or memberships. Companies and their shareholders like these models because it gives them some semblance of income they can attempt to plan on getting. Having a continuous income stream helps companies also pay their teams in order to treat their games as services. And honestly, cloud services are increasingly vast libraries of media, products, and services so that you don’t need your own machine for any of it.
Cloud services and storage provided by companies like Amazon and Google. According various sources, including the Gartner report, the top three companies for cloud-based services are Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, ranked in that order. So, perhaps Microsoft is indeed seeing the potential of a post-console future, and it’s not all number rigging. Amazon’s capacity for cloud-based services is and has been unrivaled for the past several years, and they’ve made incredible strides in the amount of material they have available to consumers via their Prime membership services.
With all of this infrastructure in place: the cloud-based services, the storage and server capacity, the broadband connections, the release of a product—by anyone—that bypasses the hardware device altogether to let you play games straight through your broadband internet connection seems imminent.
But, but, but…
Listen, I know not everyone wants that. I know that there are still plenty of people who like their consoles in their hands, like getting their games in physical cartridges, like going to Gamestop and trading their games in, and like owning their own hardware. What I’m proposing here is a console-free alternative that solves the problem Mitch offered up in his article about Valve’s intentions to get back into the hardware market: How do you offer a PC-gaming experience to customers who cannot afford it, who do not want to deal with the complexities of it, who need a low barrier of entry, but without it being a console like the Nintendo Switch?
This is one way. On a cloud-based service, tiers of machines, all managed and supported by a company, provide the hardware that the consumers never need to buy. All one needs is a broadband connection, their peripherals, and a subscription or membership to the tiers of service. Then they buy or rent libraries of games, play them, and enjoy everything they had before—without the console or PC. Low barrier of entry, same platform via tiers of service, and an affordable cost. Seems like a solution worth trying to me.