Microsoft’s Streaming Ambitions Could Prove Worth the Risk

Towards the end of last year’s Microsoft E3 press conference, Head of Xbox Phil Spencer came on stage to wrap up the trailer-filled event. In his concluding statements, Spencer mentioned that the company’s cloud engineers are working on a “game streaming network” that would grant any device the ability to run “console-quality” titles. Shortly afterwards, Spencer addressed that teams were also hard at work on the next generation of Xbox, seemingly indicating that the upcoming platform would incorporate these cloud-based elements and that the two announcements were slated for a similar timetable. Considering the plethora of reveals that filled the hour and a half prior to this brief detail, and the debut Cyberpunk 2077 trailer that followed it, these statements went mostly undiscussed, with the understandable belief that Microsoft would go more into detail on these plans when the time is right.

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Since the time of that press conference, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shared that Xbox Game Pass, the subscription-based service that provides Xbox owners access to a rotating library of over 100 games, would be making its way to PC at some point in the future. This piece of news seemed unrelated to Microsoft’s potential cloud plans, as Game Pass is currently a download-only platform unlike Sony’s comparable PlayStation Now service, which offers both downloads and streaming. Last month, however, a report began circling originally via Direct Feed Games and later reinforced by Game Informer that Microsoft is currently in talks with Nintendo to bring the subscription service to the Switch through the power of streaming. If true (which is admittedly a big if), this push coupled alongside the plans to bring Game Pass to PC is likely a key aspect of the company’s previously suggested push for streaming games across multiple devices.

Game streaming has always remained a lofty yet often unreachable goal for various gaming companies. In addition to the previously mentioned PlayStation Now, which is also available on PC and other Sony devices but has never attained noteworthy numbers, services in the past such as Onlive have attempted to bring server-based gaming to the masses with limited success. In the past, issues have primarily risen due to the weaker speeds that American internet providers are able to supply to urban areas, which, while continuing to increase in recent years, still pale in comparison to internet speeds provided on an international basis. These lower speeds made any games that required precise button presses or quick reflexes nearly unplayable, leaving fighting games and multiplayer shooters with no clear alternative. As games continue to increase in complexity and scope, and with a new generation of consoles on the horizon, the window for cloud gaming to offer a viable solution for low-cost gaming has rarely been optimal.

Nevertheless, Microsoft is clearly eager to move forward with a future free from traditional consoles. Regardless of whether or not these plans may kick off later this year with the help of Nintendo, Microsoft’s dream of a Netflix for gaming where a monthly subscription and a reliable internet connection are all that is necessary for gaming regardless of where you are or what you are playing on is undeniably ambitious and arguably appealing. While reflex-based titles and the continued rise of VR gaming will likely keep physical platforms as a requirement more so than an alternative for the near future, the lowered cost and simplified nature of game streaming is a promising evolution of the gaming industry as we know it. With Nintendo’s reported willingness to hop on board a competitor’s efforts to make this a valid future, and both companies showing their full support for cross-play, the months to come could go down as the start to a significant shift in how we are able to game.