Google and Xbox just started the next platform war

Game streaming is coming. It’s been coming since before we all laughed at OnLive and ignored PlayStation Now, and those too-little-too-soon gambits did nothing to impede its inevitable arrival. It is the future, in the sense that a credible and widely-used iteration of game streaming technology is around the corner and is something everyone reading this will probably end up using. Whether this future will prove mutually exclusive with other futures – those of games consoles and of digital platforms like Steam – is much more debatable. But it’s coming regardless.

The games industry was unequivocal on that fact at E3 this year. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot mentioned it to anyone who would listen, while EA promised its own service tied into EA Access. More consequentially (with the greatest respect to EA), Phil Spencer said Microsoft was planning an Xbox-branded game streaming service. Earlier this week, we heard the first details about what Microsoft is calling Project xCloud, in apparent response to last week’s announcement of a long-rumoured game streaming offering from Google. Google’s Project Stream is already in testing in the US; xCloud hardware is being installed in data centres, but public testing won’t begin until next year.

Game streaming is treated as an inevitability because this is the way all media has been going; just look at the rise to ubiquity of the music and video streaming services Spotify and Netflix. But game streaming is a far greater technical challenge, due to the extremely fast-moving and detailed live video and, of course, to its interactive nature, requiring an extremely low-latency two-way dialogue between the client and the server. This is where OnLive fell down and it’s part of the reason PlayStation Now still fails to impress (it’s also true that Sony has, frankly, never put together a very tempting or marketable offering for it). Low video quality is unappealing, but sluggish controls can break the experience completely.

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