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Google launches Stadia, its game-streaming platform

by Ace Damon
Google launches Stadia, its game-streaming platform

The 2018 release of "Red Dead Redemption 2" was a major event in the history of entertainment. It grossed $ 725 million in its first three days, just behind "Avengers: Endgame", a recent superhero movie, and "Grand Theft Auto V", a 2013 game – and which, despite being available only for owners of expensive game consoles. On November 19, it became available to an even wider audience with the launch of Stadia, Google's game streaming service.

Google isn't the only technology expert to bet that streaming will be just as transformative for the $ 150 billion video game industry as it is for music, movies and television. This month, Microsoft announced new games for the experimental xCloud service, due to launch in 2020. It will work with the Xbox Game Pass, a download-based subscription service that offers more than 100 titles. Amazon is supposed to be working on something similar. Big Tech will be fighting second-tier players, including Nvidia, a maker of game-focused computer chips, and Electronic Arts (EA), a game publisher. Sony, which makes consoles, already offers streaming through the PlayStation Now service.

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Streaming allows anyone with an Internet connection to play any game by exploiting the computational hard work required to run game software on cloud servers. It will not replace the consoles overnight; Microsoft and Sony are launching new machines next year. But by offering the option of playing blockbuster games like "Red Dead Redemption 2" without paying upfront for hardware, it could attract owners of comparatively weak devices, such as smartphones, tablets and TVs, to high end games.

Catherine Gluckstein, one of the Microsoft executives in charge of xCloud, points out that of the 5 billion people who own smartphones, they get involved in cheap, happy games. Next year, xCloud testing will be expanded to India, where consoles remain a luxury, but the internet is no longer; More than 500 million Indians enjoy web access, mostly on their phones. Michael Pachter of Wedbush, an investment firm, believes that the worldwide expansion of streaming could triple the size of the gaming market to nearly $ 500 billion by 2030.

That is, companies can do this. Streaming a movie or song is simple. Data can be downloaded in advance to ease connection hiccups. Not for games, which must react instantly to players' movements and vice versa. Even with a solid connection (which most furniture is not), commands take time to travel from the controller to the data center and back again. This can cause annoying delays. And distributing games the old way, via discs or physical downloads, is cheap, while providing cutting-edge cloud computing is not, notes Piers Harding-Rolls, analyst at IHS Markit, a research firm. A decade ago, the first attempts at streaming games failed because of high prices and dubious technology.

All eyes are now on Google. Like Amazon and Microsoft, it has a worldwide network of cloud computing data centers, which could help overcome technology issues. But unlike Microsoft or Sony, it lacks deep roots in games. And in contrast to Amazon, whose 100 million Prime subscribers could, according to Patcher, host games as part of its members, it must create a customer base from scratch.

Stadia's debut could have been better. The promised resources have been postponed. Prices remain high: Early users must pay $ 129 for a controller and $ 10 a month for a subscription and then shell out for individual games. (An unsigned option with less sophisticated graphics will be released in 2020). Most worryingly, Google has been working hard to persuade publishers to subscribe. Only 22 games were available at the launch of Stadia. Microsoft's trial version of xCloud features over 50, with more to come. Sony's PlayStation Now has over 650 games (although some are over a decade old and the service is only available on PCs and PlayStation). For all its weight elsewhere, in games Google still looks like a small player.

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