In May of 2013, the Xbox One made history as the true next-generation console.
You might me wondering what I mean by that: after all, every console that’s been announced but not released can be considered next-gen. But the Xbox One was perhaps the first console since the N64, Dreamcast, and PS1 to ACTUALLY be next-gen, to progress the technology that powers gaming beyond a simple boost in memory and graphics. Just like the N64, Dreamcast, and PS1 added an extra dimension to play, the Xbox One realized that the future of games wasn’t in the physical ownership of games, but rather, the realm of the digital, where everything is connected, online, and irreversibly linked.
People resisted. People fought. And eventually Microsoft made the Xbox One less next-gen than it was originally, for the benefit of all… but it didn’t change the fact that the always-online future was inevitable. Games became sneakier about it, and while many examples were called out and protested – specifically things like Sim Cities – nowadays people have broadly accepted the role of games as a service rather than a product, and the fact that most games, be it Fortnite or The Division or Anthem, will require an internet connection to work. 5G is around the corner, everything and everyone is online, so it only makes sense that games would follow.
Which is, of course, what brings us to the first new competitor in the realm of video games for a long, long time: Google Stadia. The console we all knew was coming, although maybe not quite this soon, and maybe not from Google.
A brief recap if you’re out of the loot: the Stadia works different from most current consoles. Rather than buying a big brick of hardware, the Stadia is effectively a streaming platform. You get a game, and Google does all the heavy lifting on one of its many worldwide servers. All you have to do is “stream the screen”, which means in theory, with a strong enough internet connection, you could play the latest, triple-A games in the world, on a humble workplace laptop. It’s revolutionary, but not exactly surprising: people had been expecting a platform like this to come about sooner or later, and the fact that it makes high-end PC gaming accessible (a hobby that, until recently, required machines that could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars) means that triple-A gaming could soon become as common as mobile gaming, or even just watching TV. Strip away the barriers of entry, and you’ll find a lot more people playing games than they were beforehand.
And as someone who’s always wanted to play high-end PC games despite my weak-ass laptop, I should be excited. And yet, the more I learn about Stadia, the more I’m filled with a sense of… foreboding. Like this is the end of classic gaming as we know it, and the transition to something far bigger, far more open, but far more… wrong. Not bad, not ‘evil’, although it could be either of those things, but wrong.
I suppose I should elaborate.
Consoles have always existed to supplement PC gaming. I know that’s going to make a bunch of people sad (and some other people feel excessively validated), but it’s unfortunately true. Video Games started on PCs, and only shifted to consoles when PC’s became too expensive and too weak to run the latest, most powerful games. Consoles allowed people who weren’t willing to invest thousands into a new PC to play powerful games, and they were so successful at that they sort of branched out into their own thing. Proper PC gaming has “caught up” with consoles, so the only reason to ever have one at this point is the difference in cost: since consoles are so specialized, they cost less and can do more, but mostly just for gaming-related content. A computer that costs the same as a modern console is barely good enough to run Flash, let alone the latest triple-A releases: those PC’s can cost over a thousand dollars, especially if you don’t build it yourself.
While we don’t know how much Google’s console will cost (it’ll likely be a subscription service), we do know that however much it costs, it’ll cost less than a proper high-end gaming PC. And since it works with just about all but the worst PC’s, it means that people can use their functional, boring laptops to play the latest games.
This could kill consoles. Not Nintendo, of course, the other two.
We expected to see more about the PS5 and the Xbox Two or whatever later this year. If those consoles are also off-site streaming consoles with very strong exclusive games, consoles will last another generation at most. If they’re don’t have either of those things, I cannot imagine a situation where the PS5 or the Xbox Two could survive. Buying a PS5 and playing some games just isn’t as appealing as getting a Stadia and playing all of them. Exclusives can help, for sure, but there are no Xbox exclusives anymore (which probably means they’ll be available in some form or another for Google) and frankly there is no way Sony can compete with the number of PC exclusives out there, sans maybe pulling a Nintendo and making their whole business about exclusives. I suppose consoles could also survive in places where the internet isn’t strong enough to support Stadia, but since most triple-A games are always-online anyway, it’s more likely that video games as a whole will leave those poor souls behind entirely.
Now, losing consoles would make me sad from a purely nostalgic standpoint, but if that was all about this new console that made me nervous, I could brush it off fairly easily. But sadly, that is not the case.
Because we just straight-up can’t ignore the fact that this is Google doing this. Mother effin’ Google, basically the face of the internet, who has made billions and billions of dollars selling your private data to people all around the world. Forget any notions that Google did this because they had a genuine passion for gaming or they wanted to enter a competitive market: they just want your data. They want more data on you that they can collect and sell and a gaming console will give them so much data you couldn’t even begin to imagine it. Not just the games you play, but the way you spend money, how you play, when you play, how good you are: these metrics, on top of all the other information google digs up on you every time you use one of their services, means that Google will basically be omnipresent in all aspects of our lives.
And that’s scary. That’s genuinely scary. That’s some Black Mirror stuff right there.
On top of that, can you imagine what this could do to games themselves? Right now we’ve got a problem with an “overreliance” on games as a service models in the gaming world, a problem that’s been exaggerated by the fact that consoles and gamers can reliably connect online. But if this system is subscription-based, which again, I am 90% sure it will be, then that probably means that base games you can get on the service will be free or discounted, rather like the long-awaited Netflix for gaming.
That means games, more than ever, will rely on in-game purchases to earn additional profit. That means the death of single-player games as we know them, especially if the consoles are killed off as I predict will probably be the case. And that means indie games, who may or may not have a presence on this new ‘console’, will have to fill that gap.
Look. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. This is an exciting time in the gaming world: it’s been over 17 years since we’ve had another new, real competitor enter the ring (we don’t count the Ouya. Do you even remember the Ouya?) and there’s a lot of good that could, in theory, come from this. But I’ve found very little overlap between optimism and reality over the past few years, and the hidden costs of a console like this – from forcing people to upgrade their internets to the power it would give ISPs and Google to even putting a stranglehold on the creative monetization streams – aren’t something we can glaze over either.
And hey, here’s another thing to remember: Google is owned by Youtube. Do we really want the same people who are running Youtube to control our video games?
Fortunately for us, this isn’t one of those really dangerous things just yet. This is a product. If we don’t buy it, it won’t take off, and we can still turn things around. If people have the foresight to do that, however, is another question entirely: because at the end of the day, playing the latest Far Cry in HD on a super-old laptop is still a very, very tempting forbidden fruit.
One that I don’t think we can ultimately resist.