Historically, Australian internet is hot garbage. There might be small pockets of the country with something approximating a modern broadband connection, but for the most part, we’re behind the curve. It’s why Aussies have never really taken cloud gaming seriously, and why the companies that have offered it have never seriously expanded into Australia: it’s a service for countries that don’t treat modern infrastructure like a political football.
But eventually progress brings everyone forward. And while previous attempts to introduce cloud gaming to Australians has been forgettable, the upcoming launches of Microsoft’s Project xCloud and Google’s Project Stream will finally give us a workable glimpse into the future.
The reasoning is fairly simple. Both companies, much in the same way Amazon does with Amazon Web Services, have a huge investment in the fabric of Australian infrastructure.
Apart from their local advertising operations, Google’s local data centre business is enormous. It officially launched its cloud services platform (GCP) in Sydney two years ago. That was well behind Amazon and Microsoft, who launched local data centres in 2012 and 2014 respectively, but Google’s entrance has already been felt.
For one, there’s a good chance you’ve already played a game on a dedicated Google server. Some of the Australian servers for Apex Legends are hosted by Google’s Sydney centre, although Respawn’s battle royale also uses servers from Amazon and Microsoft’s Azure service (following the diversified network strategy established for Titanfall 2).
Outside of games, but importantly for Google’s local economics, the GCP was added to the Australian Signals Directorate’s Certified Cloud Services List late last year. In the shortest terms possible, it essentially means that some of Google’s services have been given the A-OK by the Aussie equivalent of the NSA, which allows various levels of government to store data and workloads on Google’s servers.
Google aren’t the only ones allowed to offer those services, of course. But being on the list definitely widens the pool of contracts Google can target. The company’s also investing in undersea submarine cables, with a new connection serving Google traffic between Sydney, Perth and Singapore due to come online later this year. That’s not something that most of the Eastern coast will care a great deal about, but those connecting through Perth, or those whose data travels through Perth first, could definitely benefit.
Put simply, Google has the infrastructure. They’re already making Oz Lotto amounts of money from data locally, and there’s plenty of investment to ramp that up even further.
That’s the first major hurdle covered. It was something that stopped companies like NVIDIA from bringing their service down under sooner – GeForce Now relies on pulling data from NVIDIA-owned data centres, and even though the company famous for its gaming graphics cards makes about a quarter of its revenue from data centres, those centres aren’t in high supply locally.
The problem for Project Stream is content. While some major publishers are already on board – Ubisoft being the obvious example, especially since they don’t have the infrastructure right now to offer a similar service for their own titles – and talk of Google funding their own games development, the company doesn’t have a huge back catalogue to play with.
That’s where Microsoft comes in.
Using the Xbox as a streaming device – either to or from – has been on Microsoft’s cards for a while. Not long after the launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft officially patched in the functionality to stream from the console to a PC. The company went further this morning, rolling out the Wireless Display app for Xbox One. In short, the app lets users stream any Android or “Windows-based devices” to their Xbox One, which is a neat way of saying you can now stream your PC games to the Xbox in your living room.
Or Real Cricket 18 from your phone, if you like.
But Microsoft have been on this warpath for years. The company’s Game Pass service is ridiculously good value for money right now, and it’s already positioned to completely reinvent the expectations and experience players have when it comes to the launch of a new console generation.
Instead of grabbing a new console and three or four games to play at launch, it’s likely the next Xbox will have a library with hundreds of compatible games, a few of which will be enhanced, and all for the price of less than what a standard retail game would cost.
It’s impossible to underestimate the impact that will have across the industry. For one, it’s shaping up as a massive kick in the guts to brick-and-mortar retailers. Even if first party publishers don’t completely cut the cord (and the cut) from stores like JB Hi-Fi, Big W and so on, the prospect of fewer gamers coming into stores to get a cheap copy of something like Gears of War 5 or whatever the next exclusive is will undoubtedly hurt.
So it’s only natural that Microsoft finds some way of making that entire library playable elsewhere. Because while the company has ramped up its bevy of inhouse studios, the value of Microsoft’s library isn’t really from their exclusives. They’re extras on top of an extensive offering of multiplatform games, and if Microsoft doesn’t haul arse to get a working solution in time, then Google will – or Amazon.
So, the clock is ticking. But in a similar manner to Google, Microsoft’s local cloud infrastructure is substantial. The company is locked in a constant three-way battle with Amazon’s AWS and Google for cloud dollars in Australia, and their Azure centres has been housing dedicated gaming servers for titles on console and PC since its launch in 2014. It now has four Azure “regions” in the area, having added two last year after a partnership with Canberra Data Centres.
So in the same way that Google has the backbone to make cloud gaming work, not just in one part of Australia but the entirety of it, so does Microsoft. Microsoft’s advantage is that they have a better library of content, and they’ve got a longer history in working with external publishers in bringing that content to their platform.
And that’s ultimately all cloud gaming is – it’s just another platform. The functionality and execution is obviously a different beast than a retail game, or a game as a service, but it’s still just a platform. Publishers have been doing this dance with Microsoft for decades, especially if you wind back to the days when Microsoft was convincing developers to build exclusives for Windows 95.
And given that many of those publishers – Ubisoft perhaps the most vocal of them all – are thrilled at the ability to expand their product offering into continents like Africa, or parts of Asia that never fully adopted the console market (but absolutely love mobile gaming), we’re really looking at the next form of the “console” wars.
It just won’t be physical consoles this time. It’ll be in the cloud.
And while it’s not a huge factor in 2019, it’s worth noting that Microsoft’s Xbox Live infrastructure also has always been a favourite locally. The console esports community still prefers Microsoft’s infrastructure to this day – ask any Call of Duty pro what they think of the PS4 – and despite the global success and overall base of the PS4 here and abroad, I’ve lost count of the amount of conversations with in-house PR, developers and executives who have remarked on how Xbox One sales have always performed better than expected in Australia.
Australia loved the Xbox 360, and some of that love has extended to the Xbox One. Sony’s made a much better fist of things this generation – not launching a console at $1000 certainly helps – but their server infrastructure and overall performance is still a key frustration for many.
If you’re not getting consistently reliable download speeds from your PS4 today, can you imagine what streaming The Last of Us or something like Gran Turismo to your phone would be like?
And that’s always been the problem historically for Australia. There’s been plenty of streaming or streaming-like services available globally. Most haven’t bothered to launch in Australia, either because of scale or a lack of local infrastructure.
That’s not a problem for Google or Microsoft. And by the time these services are available, the baseline performance of most Aussie internet connections – either through 5G, or the slow crawl of the NBN – will be sufficient. And I say sufficient, because it’s worth remembering the quality of what most people will actually be streaming. It won’t be 1080p, 2K or 4K content. More Australians tend to stream at 720p or lower resolutions, either because they’ve become accustomed to the limitations of their connection, or because they’re generally viewing content in a restricted form that makes 720p (with sufficient bitrate) perfectly acceptable.
This, of course, won’t mark the end of consoles. Aussies love buying new tech, we love being first adopters, and we spend a hell of a lot of money to enjoy the privilege. And companies like Sony, Microsoft and various PC manufacturers are going to continue selling hardware to countries like ours for precisely that reason. If you’ve had a sufficiently crappy experience with the cloud in the past, you won’t be forced to switch over. The world simply isn’t ready for that yet.
But Australia will finally get a reliable cloud gaming service. It might not be this year, and possibly won’t be ideal until at least 2020 or 2021, but it’s coming. Google and Microsoft have the infrastructure to actually make it work, and the repercussions that has on the gaming industry, and the economics of gaming, will be enormous.