GDC kicks off this week, and Google's impending reveal is already the talk of the industry. It could well be a lot of nothing—a souped up OnLive that is swiftly forgotten. Or it could be our first true glimpse of what to expect over the next decade in gaming. We don't know precisely what to expect, but most observers agree that streaming will be central to the succeess of this new device.
Whatever it is, Google is pushing it hard. Ads are ominously proclaiming that "all will be revealed" at tomorrow's event, and studios ranging from Bandai Namco to Crystal Dynamics are all involved in one way or another. Google has also hired industry veteran Jade Raymond, whose resume includes Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs, on as a vice president.
What could it all mean? Here are a few thoughts.
1. Our streaming future may be almost here: A Netflix-like subscription service for games is the holy grail for platform holders. There are streaming options available, but programs like PlayStation Now have been hamstrung by a lack of current must-play games. That's on top of concerns about input delay, poor infrastructure in the U.S., and other problems.
Even with top-quality infrastructure, streaming will probably always be a sub-optimal way to play, say, Street Fighter or Call of Duty—games where a tenth of a second matters. But existing technology should be more than enough to support turn-based RPGs, walking simulators, puzzle games, and other genres. Even action games like Devil May Cry 5 might not suffer too much (assuming you're not a top one-percent player always seeking SSS ratings).
For an idea of what Google might have up its sleeve, cast your mind back to the test service that it rolled out late last year. Initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive among journos and developers who got the chance to play Assassin's Creed Odyssey in their browsers. It's admittedly a small sample with limited scope, but it is intriguing.
Whatever the case, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are all reported to be aggressively pursuing streaming as an avenue for distributing games. It's apt to be a central feature in whatever new technology comes out in the next year. It's been a long wait, but true streaming is almost here.
2. We may soon have a budget alternative for experiencing next-gen games: When the Google Box launches this year, it may not stand out much against other, more established distribution channels. But Google could be playing the long game here.
I could see this new Google thing gaining a foothold this year, then blowing up as the budget alternative for playing next-gen games for people who don't want to invest $500 in a new Xbox. "Assassin's Creed Odyssey 2, now on Xbox Next and Google Streaming"— Kat Bailey (@The_Katbot) March 18, 2019
For casual gamers, an Apple TV-like streaming box would be a simple alternative for enjoying the latest Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed. Hobbyists would probably continue to favor traditional console, but for many others, streaming plans would be an easy and accessible way to play the biggest games. That alone could give Google a huge audience.
Then again, there are signs that Google isn't content with just being a budget alternative to the Xbox Next and PS5. Among Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, there's fierce competition for original programming. Google certainly has the money to fund development and go head-to-head with Xbox, Sony, and Nintendo. If it strikes gold with an exclusive, the gaming landscape could change in a hurry.
3. The super heavyweights of tech are coming for gaming... again: It was a watershed moment for gaming when Sony and Microsoft entered the field. It showed that games had grown beyond arcades and toy stores and become legitimate gadgets. When mobile app stores launched a decade later, it was another massive sea change for the industry. Now, as we head into a brand new decade, games are about to change again.
With Google and Amazon entering the fray, gamers are going to have more ways to play than ever before. If their streaming services are able to take hold, it will put a great deal of pressure on traditional console developers like Sony, who may find themselves increasingly trapped in a hardcore niche. Everyone will have to adjust as the gaming ecosystem once again goes through radical changes.
For what it's worth, I don't think Nintendo is about to give up on console development or anything. Data caps and bandwidth will potentially put a damper on streaming services, particularly in rural areas (Comcast is probably licking its chops at the prospects of developing a special Gamer Package), so traditional developers will still have a niche. If anything, the biggest loser is apt to be GameStop, which will find itself further squeezed by online distribution.
Some Google thoughts as I fly to GDC: 1) Google has been funding games - maybe we'll see some tomorrow? 2) I think anyone buying the rumors of a high-end console might be disappointed. I expect the hardware to center on streaming. Maybe a dongle, or maybe..... just a controller— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) March 18, 2019
In the short-term, Google's reveal feels like a lot of hype for a service that will be dwarfed by established consoles. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone shrugs it off at first. But when new consoles start to come around, be ready. Tomorrow's Google keynote could be the first step toward a radically different future for games.
Major Game Releases This Week: March 18 to March 22
Here are the major releases for the week of March 11 to March 15. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice [March 22, PC, PS4, Xbox One]: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice might have more in common with Tenchu than Dark Souls, but it's still shaping up to be another outstanding action game by FromSoftware. The spooky atmosphere, environmental storytelling, and insanely hard difficulty are all there, with a grappling hook thrown in for good measure. This game is going to kick my ass, but I'm going to play it anyway. I trust FromSoftware to give me an amazing experience even if I can't get past the third boss.
- Super Robot Wars T [March 20, PS4, Switch]: Bandai Namco's long-running super robot crossover makes its debut on Switch with shows including Cowboy Bebop and Magic Knight Rayearth. It won't be getting an official release in North America, but the Asian version will include an English localization. Look, I'm not going to pretend it's Game of the Year material or anything, but Super Robot War consistently pairs outstanding 2D art with wildly entertaining crossover stories. It's an essential for mech fans.
This Week's News and Notes
- Matt, Caty, and I will be at GDC 2019 all week, which will mean coverage of the most interesting talks, news, and reveals. There will probably be a lot of next generation console rumors at this show, as well as plenty of chatter about tomorrow's Google reveal. Stay tuned to USG, because it's apt to be a busy (and very interesting) week for gaming.
- After much anticipation, Apex Legends is finally releasing its battle pass tomorrow... right on top of Google's big keynote. It's going to be an absolute mess as journalists scramble to give coverage to both. So uh, please look forward to it!
- Amid all this, I've seen more than a little cynical muttering from long-time players who are concerned that the hobby is becoming unrecognizable. With more and more attention being given to online service games, monetization, and mass audiences, such cynicism is understandable. On the other hand, it was a little more than a decade ago that retro platformers were a non-starter outside of the Nintendo DS; adventure games were dead, and tactics games were considered too niche to be viable. We live in an era where there's a game to fit virtually any taste. So even if you're not personally thrilled about the Division 2 or the prospect of streaming, keep your chin up. The industry has its share of problems, but the sheer variety of games to play has never been richer.
- On the other hand, sometimes it's nice just to go back to old games. I've been on a shoot 'em up kick of late, having recently played Under Defeat for Dreamcast, and 1943 for NES. Both are marvelous shmups with great music, rich graphics, and lots of action—all elements that have been missing from modern variants of late. It feels like it's been a million years since I played Jamestown, which never did make it to PlayStation Vita, let alone Switch. Alas, I don't see shoot 'em ups making a triumphant return like other genres. They may just be a relic of a bygone age. But it would be nice if Under Defeat HD at least made it to Xbox One Backwards Compatibility.
- I've never liked Mega Man 6, but I know some people do. So on the occasion of its 25th anniversary (in North America), I asked Nadia, our resident Mega Man superfan, to review it. Here's her verdict.
- Dark Souls has always been really good at weaving in subtle but rich world building. It seems like Sekiro will be much the same.
- In the meantime, Super Metroid is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week. Unfortunately, we're going to be crazy busy covering GDC, but we do have some cool coverage in mind for one of the greatest games ever made. Stay tuned!
- Waiting on the conclusion of our Division 2 review? It's just about ready. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on Division 2's solo play and whether it's worth playing without a group.
- Axe of the Blood God: Caty joins Kat to discuss #3 on our Top 25 list of RPGs: Witcher 3! The pair talk its splendid open world, its fantastic writing, and the expert way it handles romances. Kat has even come around on the combat. Plus, Nadia drops by to talk Fire Emblem Heroes, the drug scandal that has engulfed Judgment, and more! You can subscribe to the podcast here