Apple could announce its gaming subscription service on Monday

Apple is about to announce some new services on Monday. While everybody expects a video streaming service as well as a news subscription, a new report from Bloomberg says that the company might also mention its gaming subscription.

Cheddar first reported back in January that Apple has been working on a gaming subscription. Users could pay a monthly subscription fee to access a library of games. We’re most likely talking about iOS games for the iPhone and iPad here.

Games are the most popular category on the App Store, so it makes sense to turn this category into a subscription business. And yet, most of them are free-to-play, ad-supported games. Apple doesn’t necessarily want to target those games in particular.

According to Bloomberg, the service will focus on paid games from third-party developers, such as Minecraft, NBA 2K games and the GTA franchise. Users would essentially pay to access this bundle of games. Apple would redistribute revenue to game developers based on how much time users spend within a game in particular.

It’s still unclear whether Apple will announce the service or launch it on Monday. The gaming industry is more fragmented than the movie and TV industry, so it makes sense to talk about the service publicly even if it’s not ready just yet.

Could Walmart be the next big company to launch a game streaming service?

Google stole this spotlight at this year’s GDC with the launch of Stadia. What the game streaming service lacked in specifics, it more than made up for in buzz. The software giant certainly isn’t the only one eying the space, however. A new report from US Gamer puts Walmart in the running, as well.

The retailer has spent the last several years making a push into the high tech sphere. It’s made some high profile acquisitions, including Jet.com, in a bid to compete with the likes of Amazon. The company has even been testing out inventory checking robots in around 50 or so of its stores. And with the recent exit of CTO Jeremy King, it could well be looking for the next big thing. 

According to the reports, Walmart has been meeting with developers and publishers at GDC. It’s tough to say how advanced these talks are, and those involved with the leaks have understandably wished to remain anonymous. The company certainly has the back end infrastructure to attempt a service. It also has a loyal base of customers in the U.S. to whom it sells a lot of video games.

But given how it abandoned plans for a video streaming service as of January, the talks could be little more than just talk.

Nintendo’s Labo: VR Kit is not Virtual Boy 2.0

Even the most successful tech company is going to have a stumble from time to time. Nintendo’s 45 years in the video game industry is spotted with a few doozies, but none are more infamous than the Virtual Boy. The 1994 portable console was marketed as an early home entry into virtual reality, but in actual reality ended up being little more than a blood-red headache.

Nintendo knew the comparisons to the doomed console would come fast and furiously when it launched its next VR venture, so the company took the time to get it just right. In a sense, Labo VR is a cautious push into the virtual realm. It’s nowhere near the all-in approach of Oculus, Vive or even PlayStation VR, for that matter — but it’s uniquely Nintendo.

Like the first Labo kits, it’s a friendly reminder that Nintendo’s chief job is to surprise and delight, and it happily delivers on both fronts. But just as the Labo piano shouldn’t be mistaken for a real musical instrument, Labo VR ought not be viewed as a real virtual reality.

It’s not just the pop-out cardboard form factor, either. Google made that a perfectly acceptable beginner’s approach to VR. It’s more that Nintendo has taken a very casual approach to all of this. The kit’s virtual reality experience is an extension of Labo itself. It’s no more important than the process of building the headset and various accessories step by step on the app. Or, for that matter, sharing all of the above experiences with others.

During a demo of the new kits in New York this week, Nintendo was quick to point out that the headsets are built without a strap. It claims this was a conscious decision so that the experience can be passed around and shared. I’m sure there are some practical reasons behind this decision as well, but it’s certainly a nice thought.

Virtual reality is, by nature of its form factor, a solitary experience. Labo VR doesn’t have any sort of video-out feature to share the experience on a big screen (for now, at least), so the idea of offering it up in a more social play-and-pass scenario is appealing. This goes double for the fact that, like the original Labo kits, all of the games included fall under the casual banner. The experiences share a common lineage with Nintendo analog titles like Mario Party or Mario Paint.

Your mileage with each title will vary. Certainly some (Bird and Blaster spring to mind) will stay with you longer than others and demand more repeat play. On the whole, each buildable peripheral launches with one (maybe two) compatible games. The good news, however, is that, like Labo, the company packs a lot of controllers (and therefore experiences) into a single kit.

The standard Labo: VR Kit ships with six Toy-Con projects (VR Goggles, Toy-Con Blaster, Toy-Con Camera, Toy-Con Bird, Toy-Con Wind Pedal and Toy-Con Elephant), while the cheaper Starter Set comes with two (Goggles and Blaster). If you go for the latter to dip your toes in the water or just to save on cash, there are a pair of “expansion sets” to get the full experience.

Unlike the last time Nintendo came to town with a Labo press tour, we didn’t actually get any time to build. That said, if previous kits are any indication, that’s half of the fun and value proposition here. Also, the amount of time you’ll spend building varies greatly from project to project — take it from me, someone who spent most of a work morning building that damn piano.

Once built, the VR experience is about on-par with what you’d expect from a Google VR. Again, it’s a set of lenses attached to a hunk of cardboard. This is no Rift or Vive and the immersiveness of your own experience will vary. The graphics are cartoony and oftentimes just large polygons. But a well-crafted casual gaming experience can be enough to pull you out of your own head for a bit. Bird is the best example of this.

The controller clips on the headset, with a Toy-Con popping out the other end like a beak. As a player, you hook your hands on either side of the display and flap along as you play a bird, flying around trees and completing different missions to feed an army of hatchlings. It’s a relaxing reprieve from some of the faster-paced games, as you glide around the skies. Add in the foot-controlled Wind Pedal, and the system delivers a puff of air to your face as you boost your bird, adding to the effect.

Blaster, a big, fun novelty gun, is the most engaging of the bunch. When I ended my demos with some extra time to spare, the Nintendo rep asked me if I wanted to give any of the games another go. The answer was simple. A simple first-person shooter, Blaster pits you against an army of alien blobs. You load the gun by cocking it like a shot-gun, and pull the trigger to an explosive effect.

Honorable mention goes to Doodle, which uses the bizarre elephant-shaped controller. The experience is unique from the rest in that it’s not actually a game, but rather a 3D drawing tool. It’s one of the more clever additions to the pack, though actually drawing on a 3D plane with a cardboard controller shaped like an elephant’s trunk is easier said than done. The implementation is a bit lacking, but it offers interesting insight into where Labo VR might go in the future.

Honestly, I just scratched the surface during my briefing. But there’s little question that Labo VR is a fun and singular experience. There’s also a special screen holder, so users who have rough time with VR can experience a 2D version of the games and accessories. Also, as with the standard Labo kit, Nintendo has bundled in Toy-Con Garage, so users can start building their own games when they tire of the pre-packaged experiences.

If there’s one disappointment in all of this, it’s that it will likely be a while before we see a full standalone VR experience from Nintendo. The idea of playing as Mario, Link and the like in virtual reality is no doubt something of a lifelong dream for plenty of gamers who grew up on the characters. But while Virtual Boy is a quarter-century in the past, the memory still lingers.

Until then, Labo VR is a fully engaging take on VR, and a uniquely Nintendo one, to boot.

Tencent Q4 profit disappoints, but cloud and payments gain ground

China’s Tencent reported disappointing profits in the fourth quarter on the back of surging costs but saw emerging businesses pick up steam as it plots to diversify amid slackening gaming revenues.

Net profit for the quarter slid 32 percent to 14.2 billion yuan ($2.1 billion), behind analysts’ forecast of 18.3 billion yuan. The decrease was due to one-off expenses related to its portfolio companies and investments in non-gaming segments like video content and financial technology.

Excluding non-cash items and M&A deals, Tencent’s net profit from the period rose 13 percent to 19.7 billion yuan ($2.88 billion). The company has to date invested in more than 700 companies, 100 of which are valued over $1 billion each and 60 of which have gone public.

Quarterly revenue edged up 28 percent to 84.9 billion yuan ($12.4 billion) beating expectations.

The Hong Kong-listed company is best known for its billion-user WeChat messenger but had for year relied heavily on a high-margin gaming business. That was until a months-long freeze on games approvals last year that delayed monetization for new titles, spurring a major reorg in the firm to put more focus on enterprise services, including cloud computing and financial technology.

Tencent has received approvals for eight games since China resumed the licensing process, although its blockbusters PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds and Fortnite have yet to get the green light. The firm also warned of a ”sizeable backlog“ for license applications in the industry, which means its “scheduled game releases will initially be slower than in some prior years.”

Video games for the quarter contributed 28.5 percent of Tencent’s total revenues, compared to 36.7 percent in the year-earlier period. Despite the domestic fiasco, Tencent remains as the world’s largest games publisher by revenue according to data compiled by NewZoo. The firm has also gotten more aggressive in taking its titles global.

Social network revenues rose 25 percent on account of growth in live streaming and video subscriptions. The segment made up 22.9 percent of total revenues. Tencent has in recent years spent heavily on making original content and licensing programs as it competes with Baidu’s iQiyi video streaming site. Tencent claimed 89 million subscribers in the latest quarter, compared with iQiyi’s 87.4 million.

Tencent has been relatively slow to monetize WeChat in contrast to its western counterpart Facebook, though it’s under more pressure to step up its game. Tencent’s advertising revenue from the quarter grew 38 percent thanks to expanding advertising inventory on WeChat. Ads accounted for 20 percent of the firm’s quarterly revenues.

All told, WeChat and its local version Weixin reached nearly 1.1 billion monthly active users. 750 million of them checked their friends’ WeChat feeds, and Tencent recently introduced a Snap Story-like feature to lock users in as it vies for eyeball time with challenger TikTok.

The “others” category comprising of financial technology and cloud computing grew 71.8 percent to generate 28.5 percent of total revenues. WeChat’s e-wallet, which is going neck-and-neck with Alibaba affiliate Alipay, saw daily transaction volume exceed 1 billion last year. During the fourth quarter, merchants who used WeChat Pay monthly grew over 80 percent year-over-year.

Meanwhile, cloud revenues doubled to 9.1 billion yuan in 2018, thanks to Tencent’s dominance in the gaming sector as its cloud infrastructure now powers over half of the China-based games companies and is following these clients overseas. Tencent meets Alibaba head-on again in the cloud sector. For comparison, Alibaba’s most recent quarterly cloud revenue was 6.6 billion yuan. Just yesterday, the ecommerce leader claimed that its cloud business is larger than the second to eight players in China combined.

Epic Games CEO says Apex Legends hasn’t made a dent in Fortnite

In the wake of Apex Legends, which has briskly grown to 50 million players, many have wondered whether Fortnite has felt the impact.

But Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told GamesBeat that Apex hasn’t really made a dent. Without being asked about Apex Legends, Sweeney said “an Apex Legends worth” of players have come over to Fortnite.

“We’re very close to hitting 250 million Fortnite players,” said Sweeney. “Since Apex Legends came out, we’ve gained an Apex Legends worth of Fortnite players, which is amazing.”

He went on to say that the only game that noticeably takes Fortnite gamers away from Fortnite is FIFA.

“We hit a Fortnite non-event peak twice after Apex was out,” said Sweeney. “We haven’t seen any visible cut into Fortnite. It’s a funny thing. The only game you can see where its peaks cut into Fortnite playtime is FIFA. It’s another game for everybody, wildly popular around the world.”

On the one hand, Apex only has about one-fifth of the players that Fortnite has. In a world where Netflix sees Fortnite as a greater threat than HBO, the scale of the two games isn’t comparable.

However, Apex is picking up some serious steam. It only took seven days for Apex to hit 25 million users (it took Fortnite 41 days), and one month to hit 50 million users (it took Fortnite more than four months).

As impressive as that is, it’s also to be expected that a game like Apex, a relative latecomer to the Battle Royale genre, would grow faster by reaping the benefits of the entire industry’s years of work and growth. It’s also worth noting that EA paid a pretty penny to successfully launch Apex Legends, with Ninja alone earning $1 million for streaming the game at launch.

“What Apex Legends has done is re-energized a lot of shooter players, people who come in and out of shooters depending on what’s popular,” said Sweeney. “It’s awesome to see other games picking up on battle royale, adding their unique spin to it and advancing the state of the industry.”

Adding a unique spin is exactly what Apex Legends has done. They’ve taken the fundamental building blocks of Battle Royale and the free-to-play model and tweaked them to be, in some ways, better.

Where play is concerned, Apex is a markedly team-oriented game, complete with a beautifully executed non-verbal comms system and a Jumpmaster mechanic to encourage teammates to land and play as a unit. Plus, Apex uses a hero system to give each character their own unique abilities.

This not only makes each fight interesting, but it gives Apex a different way to monetize beyond its recently launched BattlePass. The company just introduced its first new character, which can be unlocked with Apex Coins, the games virtual currency.

Only time will tell if Respawn and EA can build something as sticky as Fortnite, which has truly become a pop culture phenomenon. But there is one clear winner in this epic competition between Fortnite and Apex, and that’s gamers.

Xbox One S is reportedly getting a disc-free version in May

The writing has been on the wall for physical media for a while now. In May, Microsoft is reportedly set to hammer another nail into that coffin with the launch of the Xbox One S All-Digital. As advertised, the latest version of the console will drop the Blu-Ray drive, in favor of an all downloadable experience.

Rumors about the XOSAD have been floating around since last year — when the console still went by the decidedly Top Gunny name of “Maverick.” A new report from Window Central offers more insight into the system, along with a potential May 7 release date — that puts it roughly in line with those initial reports.

The system is said to offer up 1TB of storage, which should serve players well in the transition away from discs. It will also apparently be bundled with a handful of download codes to get started, including Minecraft, Forza Horizon 3 and Sea of Thieves.

Being the obvious lack of disc drive, the system looks more or less identical to the standard One S. As for pricing, we expect it to more affordable than its predecessor. The move is part of a broader push from Microsoft to wean games off of physical media. It’s a play that also includes digital-first services like the Xbox Game Pass.

Razer hooks up with Tencent to focus on mobile gaming

Razer is summoning a big gun as it bids to develop its mobile gaming strategy. The Hong Kong-listed company — which sells laptops, smartphones and gaming peripherals — said today it is working with Tencent on a raft of initiatives related to smartphone-based games.

The collaboration will cover hardware, software and services. Some of the objectives include optimizing Tencent games — which include megahit PUBG and Fortnite — for Razer’s smartphones, mobile controllers and its Cortex Android launcher app. The duo also said they may “explore additional monetization opportunities for mobile gaming” which could see Tencent integrate Razer’s services, which include a rewards/loyalty program, in some areas.

The news comes on the same day as Razer’s latest earnings,  which saw annual revenue grow 38 percent to reach $712.4 million. Razer recorded a net loss of $97 million for the year, up from $164 million in 2017.

The big name partnership announcement comes at an opportune time for Razer, which has struggled to convince investors of its business. The company was among a wave of much-championed tech companies to go public in Hong Kong — Razer’s listing raised over $500 million in late 2017 — but its share price has struggled. Razer currently trades at HK$1.44, which is some way down from a HK$3.88 list price and HK$4.58 at the end of its trading day debut. Razer CEO Min Liang Tan has previously lamented a lack of tech savviness within Hong Kong’s public markets despite a flurry of IPOs, which have included names like local services giant Meituan.

Nabbing Tencent, which is one of (if not the) biggest games companies in the world, is a PR coup, but it remains to be seen just what impact the relationship will have at this stage. Subsequent tie-ins, and potentially an investor, would be notable developments and perhaps positive signals that the market is seeking.

Still, Razer CEO Min Liang Tan is bullish about the company’s prospects on mobile.

The company’s Razer smartphones were never designed to be ‘iPhone-killers’ that sold on volume, but there’s still uncertainty around the unit with recent reports suggesting the third-generation phone may have been canceled following some layoffs. (Tan declined to comment on that.)

Mobile is tough — just ask past giants like LG and HTC about that… — and Razer’s phone and gaming-focus was quickly copied by others, including a fairly brazen clone effort from Xiaomi, to make sales particularly challenging. But Liang maintains that, in doing so, Razer created a mobile gaming phone market that didn’t exist before, and ultimately that is more important than shifting its own smartphones.

“Nobody was talking about gaming smartphones [before the Razer phone], without us doing that, the genre would still be perceived as casual gaming,” Tan told TechCrunch in an interview. “Even from day one, it was about creating this new category… we don’t see others as competition.”

With that in mind, he said that this year is about focusing on the software side of Razer’s mobile gaming business.

Tan said Razer “will never” publish games as Tencent and others do, instead, he said that the focus on helping discovery, creating a more immersive experience and tying in other services, which include its Razer Gold loyalty points.

Outside of gaming, Razer is also making a push into payments through a service that operates in Southeast Asia. Fuelled by the acquisition of MOL one year ago, Razer has moved from allowing people to buy credit over-the-counter to launch an e-wallet in two countries, Malaysia and Singapore, as it goes after a slice Southeast Asia’s fintech boom which has attracted non-traditional players that include AirAsia, Grab and Go-Jek among others.

Despite short-term questions, games software/hardware to top $200 billion by 2023

There has been some negative sentiment surrounding the games industry recently, with stock prices of public games companies in question in both the U.S. and China. While being contrarian to market sentiment is always risky, it’s also possible that folks might be taking a long-term solution to a short-term problem. Games industry software/hardware combined revenue could drive well over $200 billion of revenue by 2023, and there was a record $5.7 billion investment in games companies in 2018. So what’s going on?

The games industry isn’t one monolithic sector. Depending on how you slice it, the market is made up of 15 sectors, eight platform types (e.g. mobile, PC, console) and even more proprietary hardware/software platforms (e.g. iOS, Android, Xbox One, Sony PS4, Nintendo Switch).

Games software/hardware sector revenue share versus growth (2018-2023)

(Note: See selected data below. Free charts do not include all the numbers, axes and data from Digi-Capital’s Games Report, with underlying data sourced directly from companies and reliable secondary sources.)

Mobile games rule

We first forecast mobile’s dominance of the games market way back in 2011. At that time, many traditional games companies didn’t believe mobile/online games could become the driving force for games. Some of those companies no longer exist, so what’s happening today is nothing new.

Total global mobile app store revenues (gross across games and non-games apps, including app store revenue sharetopped $100 billion for the first time in 2018. Mobile games delivered around three quarters of that number, as they have consistently for years. So where mobile games drove more than $70 billion gross revenue globally last year, they could top $100 billion revenue (again gross, including app store revenue share) in their own right in the next five years. But like all games sectors, mobile games are hit-driven. And this could be the source of some of the mismatch between the market’s understanding of short-term trends and long-term potential.

For example, Supercell’s Clash of Clans and Clash Royale have delivered over $10 billion revenue to date. However, Supercell also saw revenues and profits decline in 2018 for the second year in a row as its franchises matured. Yet Supercell’s newest franchise, Brawl Stars, delivered $100 million revenue within its first two months. Swings and roundabouts.

Epic Games had the biggest breakout mobile games hit of 2018, with Fortnite contributing significantly to a reported $3 billion profit in 2018. It also anchored part of the interest behind a record $1.25 billion fundraising round last year. Yet the company removed once-dominant mobile franchise Infinity Blade from the App Store, and redirected internal development resources to focus on Fortnite by closing Paragon and stopping further development on Unreal Tournament. We will come back to Fortnite in the context of mobile games becoming platforms in their own right.

Perhaps the biggest concern for mobile games after last year is China, in which the regulator ceased approving new games for most of 2018. This weighed particularly heavily on market heavyweights Tencent and NetEase, although the regulator returned to approving their games this year. However, the regulator again stopped accepting games in February, only to approve more games in March. This regulatory risk has resulted in our downgrading Chinese games revenue growth rates until a clearer long-term pattern emerges.

Niantic’s mobile AR smash Pokémon GO took just over 1 percent of mobile games revenue globally last year, and has been reported to drive some astonishingly big numbers: 800 million downloads, more than $2.5 billion lifetime revenue, 147 million MAU, 5 million DAU, 78 percent of users aged 18 to 34, 144 billion steps taken by users, 500 million visits to sponsored locations and Niantic’s valuation of nearly $4 billion (Note: Not all of these figures have been confirmed by Niantic.) Off the back of this, Niantic is exploring Pokémon GO’s potential to become a platform, with GO Snapshot challenging Snapchat, and the Niantic Real World Platform as a serious AR Cloud player. We’ll come back to these.

PC games hardware/software is big, too

PC games hardware/software is made up of four individual sectors, including PC games hardware (gaming computers, upgrades and peripherals), PC games, online (DLC, IAP and subscriptions), PC games (digital sales) and PC games (physical sales). While each subsector has different characteristics, scales and growth rates, together they make up the only part of the market close to mobile games long-term. Google’s new Stadia cloud gaming platform and competitors could also fundamentally impact high-end gaming across all platforms (not just PC). Mobile games software and PC games hardware/software combined could deliver three quarters of total games industry revenues by 2023.

Selected multiplayer PC games (ex-China)

While PC games hardware is massive, users are buying that hardware mainly to play MMO/MOBA games. This part of the market is consolidated around franchises from major public games publishers such as Tencent and Activision Blizzard, as well as independents like Wargaming and Bluehole.

The console abides

Console games were the market leader for games hardware/software for decades, and remain huge despite no longer being an engine of growth. The highest growth here could come from console games (digital sales) and console games (online), with console games hardware and console games (physical sales) both ex-growth long-term. Despite flattish platform growth for console games hardware/software, they could still deliver multiple tens of billions of dollars revenue by 2023.

High-growth from a low base

Of the remaining market sectors, a handful are small today but have high-growth potential long-term. These include VR games, VR hardware, AR games and esports. Yet taken individually, each sector is likely to deliver in the 1 percent to 2 percent range of total games market revenue in five years’ time. So great for indie developers, but more challenging commercially for the big guns in terms of scale.

United nations of games

Geographical games market discussions tend to focus on China and the U.S., but there are more than 50 country markets driving growth at a global level. Scales and growth rates vary dramatically from giant, stable growth countries such as China (even with its current uncertainty), the U.S. and Japan to higher growth markets like India and Russia. In aggregate, Asia could take around half of global games market revenue by 2023 (despite short-term concerns about China). Europe might deliver around a quarter of global revenue, followed by North America at around one fifth in the same time frame. Countries in MEA and Latin America make up the balance at a much lower level.

Concentration versus growth

The law of big numbers caught up with the games industry years ago, with the 10 largest publicly listed games companies taking three quarters of public games company revenues globally (Note: This ratio does not include private games company revenues, which are substantial). When you already produce billions to tens of billions of dollars in revenue, high growth rates aren’t easy to come by as new hits counterbalance maturing franchises.

Public games company revenue share

(Note: Heat map displays relative revenue scale of publicly listed games companies. Private games company revenues not shown on this chart.)

Top grossing mobile games of recent years (outside China) often came from independents. Standouts include Supercell, King, Epic Games, Niantic, Machine Zone and others. Perhaps in response to this dynamic, there was more than $75 billion of games M&A over the last five years. Major games companies have been buying both growth and cash flow.

Mobile games as platforms?

The beauty of what Steve Jobs created with the App Store is that it democratized distribution of apps at scale beyond the early social games market. It also enabled indie games developers to build some of the rocket ships we’ve seen over the last decade. Yet despite massive growth, even the biggest mobile games couldn’t really be described as platforms in the traditional sense. Not yet.

Where Tencent’s WeChat messaging platform looks like a domestic app store rival with its “mini-programs,” some mobile games pureplays are taking very different routes to becoming platforms in their own right.

For Epic Games, the recent Marshmello concert in Fortnite held out the tantalizing prospect of the beginnings of the “Metaverse” on ubiquitous, affordable mobile devices. With 10.7 million concurrent attendees, this represents a significant milestone in the evolution of games as platforms. Given Fortnite’s previous records for streaming on Twitch and concurrent esports tournament viewers, the savvy Tim Sweeney is beginning to leverage all that scale in a totally new way. Together with building its own app store and the quality of its Unreal Engine, the lessons learned from Fortnite and partial owner Tencent are leading to new horizons.

Where Epic Games is building a metaverse that is a little like Ready Player One without the headsets, Niantic has taken a different approach. Leveraging the real-world, big data stream coming from Pokémon GO, Niantic is building the core of an AR cloud ecosystem to challenge Google, Apple and Facebook. It could also move the company far beyond its entertainment origins for real-world navigation, social, e-commerce, advertising and more.

Epic Games and Niantic could become two of the most valuable platform companies in the world, with long-term potential even they might not fully understand yet.

To infinity and beyond

All this potential doesn’t mean that short-term concerns aren’t valid, or that some games companies (even those currently at scale) might not fall from grace. Some of the volatility of recent times could turn out to be right on the money. When we talked to Epic Games’ CEO Tim Sweeney about all of this, he said “I think that we’re just in the final days of a long transition away from the old retail-centric game release model. Good times ahead.”

With the long-term prospects for games still looking positive, the brave, bold and lucky could have a bright future.

What latency feels like on Google’s Stadia cloud gaming platform

After peppering Google employees with questions regarding Stadia’s latency, pricing and supported devices to mostly no avail, I got my hands on one of their new controllers and pressed play on the Doom Eternal gameplay they were showing off on a big-screen TV.

Things started off pretty ugly. The frame rate dropped to a fast-paced PowerPoint presentation, the resolution dipped between 4K crispness and indecipherable blurriness and latency seemed to be as much as a half-second. As the Google employees looked nervously at each other, someone grabbed the controller from me and restarted the system.

After a system restart, things moved along much, much more smoothly. But what the situation sums up is that when it comes to game-streaming, things can be unpredictable. To give Google credit, they stress-tested their system by running Stadia on hotel WiFi rather than taking me down to Mountain View and letting me play with Stadia under much more controlled conditions.

Stadia is Google’s cloud game-streaming service and while there’s a lot we don’t know the basic tenants are clear. It moves console-level gaming online into your Chrome browser and lets you access it from devices like smartphones that wouldn’t be able to handle the GPU-load initially.

Despite the initial hiccup, my experience with Stadia was largely positive. Doom Eternal was in crisp 4K and I was able to focus on the game without thinking about the service I was playing it on, which is ultimately the best endorsement of a new platform like this.

This will likely be a great service for more casual gamers but might not be the best fit for the most hardcore users playing multi-player titles. While you may be launching this service directly from YouTube feeds of eSports gamers, this is something they probably wouldn’t use. That’s because the latency between input and something being displayed onscreen isn’t imperceptible, though it’s probably good enough for the vast majority of users (myself included) which is still a worthy prize for the company’s efforts to take on the massive gaming market.

Google wouldn’t give me a proper range of where exactly latency fell, but they did say it was less than the time it took for a human to perceive something and react — which a Google employee then told me differed person-to-person but was generally 70ms-130ms — so I suppose the most official number we’ll get is that the latency is probably somewhere less than 70ms.

There is no hard truth here though because latency will really depend on your geographic proximity to the datacenter. Being in San Francisco, I connected to a data center roughly 50 miles away in San Jose. Google confirmed to me that not all rural users in supported countries will be able to sign-up for the service at launch because of this.

Other interesting things to note:

  • Google said they’d confirm devices later, but when asked about iOS support at launch they highlighted that they were focused on Pixel devices at launch.
  • It doesn’t sound like you’ll be able to restore purchases of games you’ve previously gotten, you’ll unsurprisingly have to buy all of your Stadia titles on the platform.
  • You’ll be able to access games from YouTube streams, but there will also be an online hub for all your content and you can access games via links.
  • The controller was nice and probably felt most similar to the design of Sony’s DualShock controller.

We’ll probably be hearing a lot more at Google I/O this summer, but with my first hands-on demo, the service certainly works and it certainly feels console-quality. The big freaking question is how Google prices this, because that pricing is going to determine whether it’s a service for casual gamers or hardcore gamers, and that will determine whether it’s a success.

Media fragmentation is annoying consumers

Deloitte’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications division published its 13th-annual Digital Media Trends survey, focused on identifying changes in the ways US consumers engage with various types of media.

Led by an independent research firm, the survey had roughly 2,000 consumer respondents across demographics – with the report categorizing respondents based on age (Gen-Z: ages 14-21, Millenials: 22-35, Gen-X: 36-52, Boomers: 53-71, and Matures: 72+).

While already accompanied by a succinct 13-page executive summary, the report can largely be summarized in just a couple of sentences: more people are using streaming or alternative media services than ever before, largely due to more user freedom and customization, though the growing quantity and fragmentation of platforms are becoming more frustrating for users to manage.

The survey results directionally echo already well-discussed dynamics, which we’ve previously dug into such as here, here and here. Instead, the most poignant aspects of the report were not the answers or conclusions themselves, but the immense level of support many of them received.

 

Somewhat interesting: