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Our Game Streaming Future: A Dystopian Retreat From Innovation, Risk

Choice is an illusion

Imagine a world where your favorite game is playable on any device: your PC, your phone, your toaster. This idyllic daydream — our amusements readily available in all places, finally unchained and free — is being promised to us not by niche hobbyists working in their garage but the biggest of tech company titans. And though this vision of always-on gaming and platform polygamy is being heralded as the future, I fear it will bring about the exact opposite: A stultifying rehash of video game history flattened and dulled into a pale echo of its radiant past.

Google recently unveiled Project Stream, a service that in time will allow players to play the latest blockbuster games in their Chrome browser. (Sign up today and give Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” a test-run.) Microsoft’s xCloud, announced last week, revolves around the central idea of playing Xbox-branded games on any capable device. Each aim to decouple the simple act of playing a video game from all those messy, antiquated requirements: namely, a system hooked up to a TV with specific controllers.

Both plans share the same vision of accessibility. Whereas the old paradigm created walled gardens and forced exclusivity, anchoring games to a soon-to-be-obsolescent hunk of plastic, “Project xCloud […] will offer you the freedom to play on the device you want without being locked to a particular device,” says Kareem Choudry, Vice President of Microsoft’s Gaming Cloud division. Catherine Hsiao, Product Manager at Google, calls Project Stream a “technical test to solve some of the biggest challenges” inherent to sending and receiving massive amounts of data at the same time. “We’re inspired by the game creators who spend years crafting these amazing worlds,” Hsiao writes, “and we’re building technology that we hope will support and empower their creativity.”

Each mentions how streaming has revolutionized the music and film industries. Video games, they say, are the next creative endeavor waiting to be transformed by streaming’s instant access and flexibility.

But this is a false promise. This utopian claim forgets the power of limitations and the benefits of boundaries. Your favorite game is such because a designer built it with certain constraints in mind. Taking that fence down will result in lowest common denominator design that seeks to please all people. But pleasure is a fickle muse: It’s difficult enough to capture the attention of and enthrall a wide demographic with a video game; build that game to be played on a shifting tide of devices with various inputs and the task becomes near-impossible. If you really want to please the masses, drop barbituates in the water supply.

The comparison with music and film is also built upon the most obvious of fallacies: that games are consumed in the same way as these other mediums. Strap in, folks; I have some news. We listen to music with our ears. We watch video with our eyeballs. We play video games with our hands.

Streaming technology makes perfect sense when we always have the required tools for an optimal experience. If I want to listen to the hot new track by B-Boy & the Hooligans, it doesn’t matter if that information is streamed to my phone, my home speakers, or my car radio. I’ll be able to listen just the same. I have my ears with me at all times. With film and television, the same rigid logic applies: Even if I’m a complete philistine and need to watch last night’s episode of The Great British Colonoscopy on the subway, with all the surrounding racket and potential pick-pockets, I can. The experience, in strict biological terms, will be the same as lounging at home in front of a 60-inch 4K set: My eyeballs will watch and my brain will interpret accordingly.

But we consume video games differently. We push and pull. We crouch and shoot, or run and jump, or tap and twirl. In order to accomplish these tasks, we require a way to interact with the image on-screen and the sound booming from the speakers. Games need to be controlled, not just consumed. And the best games are those built for a unique suite of controls.

Nintendo has always understood this. In the early ‘80s, had they glommed onto the prevailing wisdom of Atari’s arcade-like joystick and single button, their games would have been very different than the industry standards to come. Instead, they’ve developed new and unique interfaces for every piece of hardware they put out, creating games that compliment the specific tools given to the player.

For their very first portable game device, the Game & Watch, Nintendo developed the now ubiquitous D-pad. Since the LCD screen limited the player’s potential moveset to pre-existing choices, the challenge would come in attaining higher and higher scores, results only possible when given discrete and accurate controls.

The cycle repeated with every generation: the NES Gamepad begat a Super Mario who can both run and jump (two buttons!); the SNES controller let zero-gravity racers lean into turns (shoulder buttons!); the N64 trident stuck the joystick back on, giving rise to a new way to explore Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom. Ten years after “Super Mario 64” changed how characters moved on-screen, the Wii and “Wii Sports” changed how players moved in their living rooms.

But the phenomenon of motion controls would not have been possible in a world where players expect platform continuity.  The “freedom to play on the device you want” is a catchy tagline. But it cuts off interesting game design at the knees by forcing developers to make a game for all possible interfaces.

What might be special in one distinct instance becomes sub-par when concessions are made. “Pac-Man” in the arcade was a revolution. “Pac-Man” on iOS is an abomination. When built for the ground up for touch and mobile, our old friends still thrill–see Hipster Whale’s smart update “Pac-Man 256.” But the excitement died when that game was ported to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Microsoft’s xCloud and Google’s Project Stream are built on a faulty assumption: that the game can be separated from its hardware and still thrive. But each needs the other.  What happens when the next big thing is built around our need to play it on a keyboard, or a touchscreen, or using a traditional gamepad, designed for the attention-deficit habits of a player keeping their play session lingering in a tab alongside Twitter? The resultant mess will be a cacophony of checked boxes, playable in all situations but never focusing on one. Meanwhile, a nebulous game oozes out. “But I can play this one on my touch-enabled panini press,” we’ll say, trying to forget how good we had it.

Music and film can afford to let its distribution channels be as broad as they are since we humans have all the tools required to enjoy their content. Games–at least, interesting and new and surprising games that move the medium forward–can’t be as malleable. An all-streaming industry risks undermining our best, most novel ideas for the sake of accessibility and uniformity. That’s no future. That’s an endless series of present tenses, replicated and spread thin until the past is all we have.

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