‘Gather Around’ everyone, Google commands. Unless you’ve been actively avoiding it, you’ve probably heard about the company’s plans to reveal long-rumoured hardware at this year’s Game Developers Conference taking place in San Francisco next week. The latest teaser for the keynote – the company’s first at GDC since it began attending – seems to suggest a serious attempt to court console gamers, with highly detailed environments that nod towards a wide range of genres shown as the camera slowly approaches a grand, light-filled entrance…
As teasers go, it’s a good one, casting viewers themselves as ‘the future of gaming’. That phrase carries the caustic odour of PR, but we’d assume the web giant has better instincts than to prime an audience with hyperbole before unveiling some sort of Android-based box that streams mobile games to the telly. All evidence points to something more substantial, and that ‘Gather Around’ tagline implies some sort of social angle, too.
The exact form the hardware will take is still unknown, and while it could well be a big box of tech along the lines of the Xbox One X, that would feel out of step with the direction the industry is headed. The success of PS4 proves there’s still a huge appetite for a big console running hot under the TV, but Switch has shown that people are also eager for convenient devices that integrate better with their mobile habits.
With that in mind, it’s arguable that Google’s hardware may resemble a souped-up Home box (the company's smart speaker and digital assistant), incorporating elements of its Chromecast dongles; a hub that pairs with a controller (of which a patent surfaced last week) designed to stream games running remotely to the TV or to Chrome-enabled devices around the house via its imaginatively titled Project Stream tech.
Naysayers may point to Apple’s rumoured subscription-based service for App Store games or Amazon Game Studios' disappointing output despite grand overtures for several years and conclude that this announcement is simply marketing fluff. It’s hard to argue that those giant corporations talk the talk when it comes to games, but have largely failed to deliver on their promises; for the most part, PC and console-level experiences remain in those domains. That being the case, should Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft be worried about Google blowing its own trumpet, heralding the future of the medium?
Well, third place Microsoft should probably be most concerned. The company has long been touting the virtues of streaming via its xCloud service and whispers of proposed partnerships with Nintendo, in whatever capacity, suggest it's on the back foot already – the last thing they need is another rival platform to consider when underlining the Xbox brand’s Unique Selling Points in its internal PowerPoint presentations.
Conversely, Sony has done very well this generation by selling a loud and proud ‘traditional’ console. This no doubt gives the company confidence going forward with plans for PS5, whatever form that will take, safe in the knowledge that it's got an excellent foundation to build upon if it can only avoid the hubris that characterised the PS3 launch.
Nintendo, we’d argue, is somewhere in the middle. On the face of it, a strong catalogue of IP helps insulate the company to an extent. The success of both 3DS and now Switch provides a tremendous financial cushion, too – Switch’s inevitable successor could fail horrifically and there’d still be plenty of juice in the tank to rejoin the race.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the Kyoto company is the social, family angle Google seems to be playing, and the fact that the Blue Ocean strategy that served Nintendo well with Wii and Switch won't be effective against such an omnipresent corporation. As family-friendly as the Switch is, Nintendo could face direct competition from a company whose name has become a verb, the world’s homepage, the first port of call for millions of us across the internet. Microsoft can only dream that you’d ‘Bing’ train times or closing time at the nearest pub. Google, and its parent company Alphabet, has access to every family member across their favourite devices.
Nintendo simply can’t compete with that. Google’s online ubiquity leaves fingerprints on nearly every digital media device that isn’t a video game console, with access to an enormous potential audience. Worldwide figures indicate there’s a good chance (over 60%) you’re reading these very words on Google’s browser, with the next most popular option being Apple’s Safari with approximately a quarter of Chrome's user share; millions of people are already intimately familiar with Chrome. As boundaries blur between rival tech, there's little need for an in-house developed device if Google has Trojan-horsed its content delivery system onto competitors’ products; there are already millions of people who own an iPhone but rely on Google's amazing iOS-based ecosystem of apps.
Nintendo itself has contributed to the merging of game spaces, with the success of Switch's core hybrid concept proving the appetite for full-blooded video games on-the-go. Nintendo, though, has only a minuscule fraction of Google’s presence across all devices – a handful of successful mobile games can hardly be compared to something as far-reaching as Chrome. Nintendo's initially salty relationship with Apple arguably blossomed thanks to the very different spheres those companies operate in (and Nintendo's need to tap into the audience on mobile devices); Google looks to be encroaching on traditional video game turf, potentially offering something the big companies have thus far failed to.
The ability to stream full-sized AAA games without noticeable lag seemed like pure fiction until very recently, despite streaming being trumpeted as the ‘next big thing’ for what feels like years. Sony acquired Gaikai in 2012 and channelled its know-how into Remote Play, Share Play and PlayStation Now. By all accounts, Sony’s streaming solution is far from the best way to play those games, with plenty of latency kinks left to iron out. Almost everything we’ve seen to date, including Switch’s streaming-only Resident Evil 7 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey editions in Japan, points to the technology not being ‘there’ just yet.
However, the general consensus on Project Stream's invite-only beta of Ubisoft's Assassin’s Creed Odyssey seems to be that it works surprisingly well, as long as you’ve got decent internet. That’s an unavoidable caveat for streamed content, but reports have been broadly positive, with the game playing solidly across a range of devices through a browser. With so many tendrils spilling out onto online-connected devices across the world, Google is in a position to truly make good on the prospect of the all-encompassing ‘X box’ that Microsoft has tried, and arguably failed, to create ever since joining the industry.
While that may sound ominous, the big three video game companies might take solace in the fact that Google has a history of internal projects failing over time. Most of its big successes – Drive, Docs, YouTube – have come about through acquisitions. Internal developments such as Buzz, Plus, Hangouts, Wave and YouTube Gaming have a far patchier hit rate. Despite its incredible resources and buying power, the company’s history is littered with failed projects. Is this gaming push going to be any different?
The crucial thing, though, is that Google has the capital to fail repeatedly and keep on trying; it only needs one hit to land and the gaming landscape could change very quickly. And it can hire the best people; just yesterday Jade Raymond, famed producer of EA’s The Sims Online and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs, tweeted that she’d joined Google:
Of course, Amazon hired (and subsequently lost) some top game developers, too, so Raymond’s appointment hardly ensures success, but it’s an indication of how seriously Google is taking its entrance into the gaming arena proper. Despite a history of failed projects, it’s a tenacious company with the resources to brute force its way in.
Perhaps – just perhaps – the technology has caught up and Google is poised to make a big splash at GDC. Rumours that Sega is joining Ubisoft in partnering with Google don’t tell us much – the ability to buy Sonic the Hedgehog for the umpteenth time on this new hardware would surprise precisely no-one. The teaser’s got our attention, though, and you can be sure all the big players in the industry will be keeping a close eye on what Google has to say on 19th March. We’ll see next Tuesday.
Have you have good experiences with streaming games? Do you think this potential hardware from Google will make Nintendo nervous? Share your thoughts below.