Amazon announces Luna game-streaming platform

At its Devices and Services event, Amazon launched its own cloud gaming competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud . It’s called Luna.

The company is launching the product in early access at an introductory price of $5.99 per month. Users will be able to stream titles wirelessly without downloading the games and can play across PC, Mac and iOS (via the web). Users in the United States can request early access starting today.

Amazon says they will be launching with more than 50 games in the Luna+ app, including at least one Sonic title and Remedy Entertainment’s Control. The company has also partnered with Ubisoft but it seems users will have to subscribe separately to get access to those titles. The whole service is powered by AWS. Amazon says that users will be able to play titles at up to 4K 60fps performance.

One of the big selling points for the platform will be its Twitch integration, which will theoretically allow gamers to dive right into the titles they just saw their favorite streamers playing. This will depend heavily on coaxing streamers to play the limited subsection of titles that are present on Luna, however. Google made much the same pitch with Stadia and YouTube Gaming, but that dream hasn’t been fully realized yet.

Much like Google Stadia, Amazon will also be selling a custom controller that connects directly to the service to reduce latency. The Alexa-enabled Luna Controller will go for $49.99 during the early access period.

With this entrance, now Google, Microsoft and Amazon are each competing to define a new gaming platform. It’s apparent that Microsoft has a huge advantage given its existing relationships with developers and its own network of Microsoft-owned studios, but we’ll see what Amazon can cook up during the platform’s early access period.

Game downloads will be throttled to manage internet congestion

For the billions stuck at home during the global effort to flatten the curve, gaming is a welcome escape. But it’s also a bandwidth-heavy one, and Microsoft, Sony and others are working to make sure that millions of people downloading enormous games don’t suck up all the bandwidth. Don’t worry, though, it won’t affect your ping.

A blog post by content delivery network Akamai explained a few things it is doing to help mitigate the tidal wave of traffic that the internet’s infrastructure is experiencing. Although streaming video is of course a major contributor, games are a huge, if more intermittent, burden on the network.

Akamai is “working with leading distributors of software, particularly for the gaming industry, including Microsoft and Sony, to help manage congestion during peak usage periods. This is very important for gaming software downloads, which account for large amounts of internet traffic when an update is released,” the post reads.

Take the new “Call of Duty: Warzone” battle royale game, released last week for free and seeing major engagement. If you didn’t already own the latest CoD title, Warzone was a more than 80-gigabyte download, equivalent to dozens of movies on Netflix . And what’s more, that 80 gigs was likely downloaded at the maximum bandwidth home connections provided; streaming video is limited to a handful of megabits over the duration of the media, nowhere close to saturating your connection.

And Warzone isn’t alone — there are tons of high-profile games being released at a time when many people have nothing to do but sit at home and play games — PC game platform Steam posted a record 20 million concurrent players the other day, and one analysis saw a 400% increase in gaming traffic. So gaming is bigger than ever, while games are bigger than ever themselves.

As a result, gaming downloads will be throttled for the foreseeable future, at least in some markets. “Players may experience somewhat slower or delayed game downloads,” wrote Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan in a brief blog post. I’ve asked Microsoft, Nintendo and Valve for comment on their approach as well.

It’s important to note that this should not apply to the rest of the gaming experience. Unlike downloading games, playing games is a remarkably low-bandwidth task — it’s important for packets to be traded quickly so players are in sync, but there aren’t a lot of them compared with even a low-resolution streaming video.

The best thing to do is to set your games to be downloaded overnight, as local infrastructure will be less taxed while everyone in your region is asleep. If you have downloads or updates coming during the day, don’t be surprised if they take longer than usual or are queued elsewhere.

Google’s Game Builder turns building multiplayer games into a game

Google’s Area 120 team, the company’s in-house incubator for some of its more experimental projects, today launched Game Builder, a free and easy to use tool for PC and macOS users who want to build their own 3D games without having to know how to code. Game Builder is currently only available through Valve’s Steam platform, so you’ll need an account there to try it.

After a quick download, Game Builder asks you about what screen size you want to work on and then drops you right into the experience after you tell it whether you want to start a new project, work on an existing project or try out some sample projects. These sample projects include a first-person shooter, a platformer and a demo of the tool’s card system for programming more complex interactions.

The menu system and building experience take some getting used to and isn’t immediately intuitive, but after a while, you’ll get the hang of it. By default, the overall design aesthetic clearly draws some inspiration from Minecraft, but you’re pretty free in what kind of game you want to create. It does not strike me as a tool for getting smaller children into game programming since we’re talking about a relatively text-heavy and complex experience.

To build more complex interactions, you use Game Builder’s card-based visual programming system. That’s pretty straightforward, too, but also takes some getting used to. Google says building a 3D level is like playing a game. There’s some truth in that, in that you are building inside the game environment, but it’s not necessarily an easy game either.

One cool feature here is that you can also build multiplayer games and even create games in real-time with your friends.

Traditionally, drag-and-drop game builders feel pretty limited. The Area 120 team is trying to overcome this by also letting you use JavaScript to go beyond some of the pre-programmed features. Google is also betting on Poly, its library of 3D objects, to give users lots of options for creating and designing their levels.

It’s no secret that Google is taking games pretty seriously these days, now that it is getting ready to launch its Stadia game streaming service later this year. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between the two just yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Game Builder on Stadia, too.

Week-in-Review: Google makes a losing bet, Bezos plots his space take-over

Hey, weekend readers. This is Week-in-Review where I get hopped up on caffeine and give a heavy amount of analysis on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about the Apple device that was putting a kink in the company’s new pricing strategy. Of course, this week we saw that strategy reach new heights with the Mac Pro, but more on that in a bit.

I’m a couple hours away from flying down to Los Angeles to check out the E3 gaming expo, but one of the biggest gaming announcements of the month already happened this past week when Google shared some more details on its Stadia cloud gaming platform.

Stadia’s approach is far from unprecedented, but Google’s solution might be one of the more thoughtful efforts we’ve seen. We got some more details this week, here’s my story, and here are the top-level details:

  • U.S. pricing for the pro-tier is $9.99 per month for unlimited 4K 60fps streaming and access to a library of titles, though you’ll still have to pay for most new games.
  • You’ll need a 35 mpbs connection to stream Stadia Pro when it launches in November.
  • There’s a 1080p free tier, launching later, that will allow gamers to play titles they buy from the Stadia store.

This is a pretty aggressive showing for Google.

Given the infrastructure costs, $9.99 is pretty cheap and adding a free tier is a bold call. Google’s strategy might be as formidable as they could make it, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to win the cloud gaming market…

The first thing to acknowledge is that because of the incredibly stiff infrastructure/network demands of these plays, the only companies that can likely take on Google here are Amazon and Microsoft.

The AWS giant is already renting out some very expensive cloud GPUs but they haven’t made any indication of a foray into a gaming-focused subscription, though it may not be long if this market finds legs. Microsoft on the other hand is probably hours away from making its announcement. At 1pm PT Sunday, the company’s Xbox head is expected to share the company’s cloud-gaming plans, I’ll be there reporting on the news.

Google is acting plenty aggressive but Microsoft still has a huge upper hand. Becoming a gaming company is about far more than infrastructure and Google doesn’t have much history on its side when it comes to high-end gaming or… the games.

YouTube Gaming is probably Stadia’s best asset and integrations there can leverage that platform’s reach to encourage experimenting with the platform, but I still don’t trust the company to follow through with the resources to get enough developers to bring their titles to Stadia. The initial market that Stadia is grabbing for just feels so niche and Google hasn’t exactly been known to follow-through on consumer efforts that take longer than a few rounds of internal performance reviews to take off.

The Stadia team has already shown off a few games, but there are tens of millions of Xbox Ones out there filled with purchased titles and Google might just be probably overestimating the appeal of their cross-platform approach.

Google’s understated claim is that this is a limitless platform that can bring your desktop games to phones, tablets, laptops and TVs, but how many places do consumers really want desktop-class games? Can it truly claim to be a mobile-friendly platform when it only supports a few of its own phones at launch? More so, do people want to connect a game controller to their phone? It all seems like a fairly niche grab.

Google’s Stadia marketing seems to be looking to convert console users to ChromeCast users but given that YouTube Gaming is the company’s best discovery method, what’s likely going to end up happening is that Stadia drags in a very niche subset of aspiring PC gamers who don’t want to pay for high-end rigs. This will probably bring in some free Stadia Base 1080p users, but it’s going to be the latency — no matter how minimal Google can claim it to be — that shuts out a lot of PC die-hards from signing onto the Stadia Pro plan.

For single-player experiences, Stadia won’t have issues, but a lot of the top game publishers are focusing their full efforts on multi-player.

Google didn’t even touch on the topic of multi-player at it’s event, the fact is if developers enable cross-platform play with Stadia, those users are just going to be at a tactical disadvantage plain-and-simple. For a platform like Xbox One, Microsoft has enough existing reach that they can probably cordon off those streaming users into their own servers and keep the odds even, but Google may have some issues here fresh-out-the-gate.

There is still quite a bit we don’t know about Stadia, and I’m very anxious to see what Microsoft has up its sleeve, but Google just doesn’t feel like the right kind of company to pull this off… Let me know what your thoughts are though.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
[email protected]

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Apple’s hardware finally goes Pro
    You might have a MacBook Pro or an iPad Pro but chances are most of you aren’t much in the way of a professional. If you thought blowing $899 on a tablet made you a deep spender, try blowing $999 on the stand for your monitor. At its WWDC keynote this week, Apple went back to basics design-wise on its Mac Pro, but it cranked the pricing up to 11 with a $5,999 starting price for the tower and a $4,999 starting price for its 6K display. This falls in line with Apple’s latest trend towards pushing hardware prices higher, but, Jesus, this took things to a new level for Pros. Here’s our hands-on with the monster.
  • Looker catches Google’s eye
    $2.6 billion is a fair amount of cash but it’s pocket change in the war for the cloud. Google announced Thursday that it was acquiring analytics startup Looker to strengthen its Google Cloud offering in the face of competition from AWS and Azure. More here.
  • ZuckCoin
    Facebook is getting ready to show off its own cryptocurrency later this month. The coin, codenamed Libra, will be getting its own white paper on June 18th and will reportedly be pegged to a batch of current coins and will be managed by an external entity. Read more here.
  • Bezos takes over space
    Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked about his plans to create the infrastructure network for space startups at the company’s re:Mars conference. “You cannot start an interesting space company today from your dorm room. The price of admission is too high and the reason for that is that the infrastructure doesn’t exist,” Bezos noted. “So my mission with Blue Origin  is to help build that infrastructure, that heavy lifting infrastructure that future generations will be able to stand on top of the same way I stood on top of the U.S. Postal Service and so on.” Check our more of what he had to say in our story.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. GAFA getting eyed by some three-letter agencies:
    [Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook are in the crosshairs of the FTC and DOJ ]
  2. YouTube pisses off gay creators:
    [YouTube says homophobic taunts don’t violate its policies]
  3. Google Play Store gets its antitrust moment-in-the-sun:
    [Aptoide, a Play Store rival, cries antitrust foul over Google hiding its app]
  4. Apple pricing gets egregious, earns keynote groans:
    [Meet Apple’s secret weapon for keeping Wall Street happy]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois wrote about the interesting rise of Kubernetes and chatted with some of the key players involved in its ascension.

How Kubernetes came to rule the world

“…To talk about how Kubernetes came to be, I sat down with Craig McLuckie, one of the co-founders of Kubernetes at Google (who then went on to his own startup, Heptio, which he sold to VMware);  Tim Hockin, another Googler who was an early member on the project and was also on Google’s  Borg team; and Gabe Monroy, who co-founded Deis, one of the first successful Kubernetes startups, and then sold it to Microsoft, where he is now the lead PM for Azure Container Compute (and often the public face of Microsoft’s  efforts in this area)..”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week TechCrunch writers talked a bit about ROI, and how security startups are capturing M&A attention…

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

Watch Google unveil Stadia launch details live right here

Google doesn’t want to wait for E3 to unveil more details about Stadia, its cloud gaming platform. The company is holding a live stream conference to talk about its service, including pricing, games and launch details.

The conference starts at 9 AM Pacific Time, 12 PM Eastern Time, 5 PM in London and 6 PM in Paris.

Google already unveiled its gaming service at the Game Developers Conference. We already know that you’ll be able to click a “Play Now” button and stream video game from a data center near you.

But there are still many unanswered questions. Is it going to be a subscription service or are you going to pay for games? Will you be able to play games you already own? Are all big publishers on board? It sounds like Google wants to clarify many of those questions today.

Is the time finally right for platform-agnostic cloud gaming?

 We’ve heard it all before. Gaming in the cloud, the ability to play the most demanding titles, regardless of the limitations of our own hardware. That was the dream of OnLive, way back in 2010. It was a dream that didn’t end particularly well for the company. Parsec co-founder and CEO Benjy Boxer, for one, believes the service’s ultimate failure was a matter of bad timing. Read More