This week, Amazon, the world’s biggest online company, launched a new cloud-based gaming service called Luna. For $5.99 a month (to begin with, at least), anyone will be able to play over 100 popular video games streamed directly from an app you can install on your desktop, laptop, phone, TV, tablet, or basically whatever, all through the Amazon marketplace. You play Luna using a smart-speaker enabled controller (sold separately, naturally).
What’s the controller look like? It’s, well… a controller. It has buttons and sticks exactly where you’d guess they were supposed to go in order to play 100 different video games more or less how they were designed to be played.
The future of gaming is here, so sayeth the marketers, and it’s in a cloud behind a monthly subscription fee. Look ma, no box!
Gamers Are Winning (Right Now)
When more people join a race, it starts to make the prize seem worth it.
Luna, if you’re following along at home, is not all too different in concept than Google’s fledgeling cloud gaming attempt Stadia, or the shuttered streaming service OnLive before that. The promise of these services are not only alluring, they’re utterly game-breaking: full retail games at a click, via subscription-based access. (Google’s Stadia perplexingly offers both full retail games on top of the subscription service, sort of like if Netflix allowed you to digitally buy a film from their already streaming menu, but the concept is the same.) All one prays for when diving into this new wave of entertainment is that their personal internet connection can bolster that 4K, 60 frames-per-second cornucopia.
The first attempt at accomplishing this was a novelty. Amazon’s version officially makes it a trend. In response, what is the old guard doing to handle the looming threat of non-box based services?
Well, both Microsoft and Sony – the titans behind two-thirds of the video game market share over the last two decades – are not too far behind this so-called cloud vanguard. Both company’s next wave of in-home consoles are set to arrive late this year alongside alternative (and cheaper) digital-only models, signalling the beginning of the end of physical, in-your-hands discs, not at all different to how music and movie streaming eventually devoured the CD and DVD market.
This digital tide isn’t likely to sweep away your favourite console in the immediate future, though. Microsoft shocked the world this week by outright purchasing the company ZeniMax Media, parent company to hit game makers Bethesda, the artisans behind the Elder Scrolls, Doom, and Fallout series, among many others. This acquisition heavily bolsters what once appeared to be Microsoft’s toe-in-the-water “xCloud” service, revealing it for the cannonball into the pool it really was. Now, a Game Pass subscription gives you access to a triple digit number of games – exclusively including Bethesda titles – on whichever device it is installed onto (albeit via a download, at least here in the year 2020). The common denominator between all these offerings? Consoles want to cut out the physical, too.
Whether on your console or in the cloud, digital-only gaming is the “next big thing” in a more tangible way than what virtual reality headsets have been able to accomplish with far more time. You can set your watch to the fact that cloud and streaming services will both be ferociously competing for your allegiance. They already are.
This upcoming marketplace goldrush will do at least these two things for gamers: drive down prices, and make way more games accessible to people who have less money to spend. (There is something to be said about this trend’s environmental impact as well, even if done for profit margins.) In fact, this may be the most accessible gaming has ever been, which is a relief given an industry-wide suggested retail price increase for all major video games has come due, rising from $59.99 to $69.99.
If you’ve already got a screen in your home, and you do, you can keep up with the Joneses at a fraction of the cost of owning a console. And if you have a console, your library is ostensibly about to mirror that of YouTubers with walls of video game cases paraded in the background.
An offering for digital-only games isn’t a side bet, it’s the entire casino; many have noted Bethesda’s price tag ($7.5 billion) is almost twice what Disney paid for the Star Wars license ($4.05 billion). That acquisition wasn’t made just because Microsoft are huge Fallout fans; it’s because their business model necessitates you buying into their ecosystem, seemingly at all costs. All the ecosystems do.
With the announcement of Luna and the final next-gen console details, all the major players are finally in, from Amazon to Google, to Microsoft and Sony. And they’re taking aim at that rhapsodized marketing-axiom of dreams, “The Netflix of gaming,” in hopes that by saying it, they will become it.
And then… there’s Nintendo.
But Gamers Will Lose (Later on)
What is obviously the dawn of a new standard for this industry brings with it an obscured problem. This is best illustrated with a short history lesson.
The Atari VCS joystick was once so high-tech, so ubiquitous, it was hard to imagine anything better to play a game with. Inside the minds of many young people (as well as their slack-jawed parents), the digital joystick and single red button was the logical endpoint for digital interaction.
If you need your memory jogged, that little joystick, which cropped up on various early '70s arcade cabinets and which was famously separated and packaged alongside every Atari VCS in 1977, was so ingenious as to feel future-proof. Unlike its controller predecessors, which were devices that appeared more like heavy machinery or expensive remotes than toys, the joystick felt more of this Earth, more approachable. Newcomers could wrap both their minds and hands around something that worked like a mini aeroplane yoke. The burgeoning technology of the time allowed for the concept of added inputs, which was way better than the simple dial turning of Pong. This really was it, guys.
Of course, this didn’t end up becoming it. The Nintendo Game & Watch revised directional inputs into a simple D-Pad configuration, and the 1983 Famicom system iterated this into a two-handed approach that crucially stretched further away from the device. The late '80s and the '90s brought with them form-factor, from the round contours of the Sega Genesis controller to the added shoulder buttons on the Super Nintendo controller. Sony’s PlayStation would double up the shoulder buttons by 1994, and the 1996 Nintendo 64 analogue controller reintroduced the joystick concept in time for the advent of 3D gaming.
By the late 2010s, the concept of the controller had evolved to what many today consider to be the logical endpoint for digital interaction: two hands wrapped around a combination of D-pad, analogue sticks and no more than ten, easy-to-reach inputs. Of course, this won’t be it, either. And yet, it truly might be it for quite a while if the industry as a whole cashes in on pure continuity across all devices, over the necessary need for hardware-specific design.
When sifting through media stories during the launch of Google Stadia a while back, few if any alarm bells were rung regarding the threat to novelty. But in this piece published by Variety written by Jon Irwin, he warns us on an all-cloud-based future:
What might be special in one distinct instance becomes sub-par when concessions are made. “Pac-Man” in the arcade was a revolution. “Pac-Man” on iOS is an abomination. When built for the ground up for touch and mobile, our old friends still thrill–see Hipster Whale’s smart update “Pac-Man 256.” But the excitement died when that game was ported to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Microsoft’s xCloud and Google’s Project Stream are built on a faulty assumption: that the game can be separated from its hardware and still thrive. But each needs the other... The resultant mess will be a cacophony of checked boxes, playable in all situations but never focusing on one.
Irwin astutely reminds us that games are not passive, and therefore cannot emulate the models of other passive media, like Hulu and Netflix. Today, just as they did two years ago, the gaming media is far more concerned with digital services’ implications on literal consoles purely for the sake of their historical existence, as opposed to the far more dire issue at hand: the fate of having to play more or less the exact same kind of games for many more years to come.
Seemingly standing in the way of that fate is the other prominent third of the gaming-universe: Nintendo.
The act of play is the central thesis not just to Nintendo’s hardware, but to Nintendo as an overall enterprise. Nintendo’s seminal creation, Super Mario himself, was originally dubbed “Jumpman”, because Nintendo’s designers found that digitally representing momentum was fun, and that kind of fun needed a vessel. The ethos of the Legend of Zelda series was invented not for its own sake, but largely to colour-in between the lines of solving top-down puzzles on a TV screen. And to combat the still-too-high cost of modern-day virtual reality, Nintendo recently recreated the VR experience using literal cardboard, as opposed to expensive glass and plastic, then made the construction of the headset into a literal game in and of itself.
Developing unique ways to play is inexorable from Nintendo’s DNA, and in turn, the act of play is the compass by which Nintendo moulds all emerging technology. You can’t grow unless you step outside of your comfort zone, after all. Of course, this concept is not unique to Nintendo, but certainly, Nintendo stands alone among titans of industry in the realm of surprise and awe (this, as opposed to awe all by itself).
Gaming’s biggest successes serve to obscure the importance of hardware development. Directional input did not just magically emerge, the Mattel Intellivision helped to frame the concept with its circular dial, likely inspired in part by Pong machines before it. The ideal number of inputs on any given controller needed experimentation before a happy medium was declared, as the front of any Atari Jaguar controller will remind you. The concept of force-feedback was at one time considered a playful add-on to the Nintendo 64 for a single game, but now is a built-in industry-standard on virtually every controller. And the real-estate in the middle of most controllers might have remained largely barren, if not for the Sega Dreamcast’s bold move of adding an LCD screen for added interaction, a ballpark concept highly influential to PlayStation 4’s modern-day touchpad. Heck, the damn Nintendo Wii U controller became a whole new system in and of itself, it being the obvious spiritual predecessor to the Nintendo Switch.
What is the most logical way to play games is only logical by the standards of the stuff we currently are making. And more importantly to the end game, how we play directly influences what we play.
The Design Philosophy Determines the Whole
This upcoming generation of technology is unwittingly setting the stage to eliminate most previous yardsticks for innovation, sacrificing hardware development for ultimate convenience, saturating what games themselves can actually become.
This is a shame when glancing into the rearview mirror. The immersive platforming of Astro Bot Rescue Mission would simply not be possible without the PlayStation VR headset. Where would 3D gaming be if not for the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation 2 DualShock controllers? In one interview, famed Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto once playfully reminded a journalist that the touchpad on Nintendo’s handheld Nintendo DS system actually predated those of the iPhone and iPad, reminding us that innovation is cross-industry, too.
Nintendo has, for its part, dabbled in the same digital-only trends as Microsoft and Sony and Amazon and Google, to very minor degrees. As has been the case for other companies for decades, Nintendo finally offers a subscription for online functionality where it provides access to retro titles – though, of course, only through Nintendo hardware. Notably, its current selection of games is reduced to the bare minimum of the company’s own touchstone classics. This is akin to a streaming service offering Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and literally nothing else... not quite "Mario-on-demand".
This is by design. It is Nintendo’s prime directive to think up and create exercise games, toys-to-life figures, to install tilt controls inside Game Boy cartridges, and, not to mention, to resell their old games back to you over and over again – not stream them indefinitely on every device. These ambitions necessarily depend on non-uniform approaches to research and development. Even when experimenting with putting its games on mobile devices, Nintendo can’t help itself; all its mobile games were original titles designed from the ground up for mobile, too.
The industry needs far more of this kind of experimentation, but all signs point to less playfulness than ever before. Do not fool yourself into thinking Nintendo or anyone else invests in "different" just for difference’s sake. Trial and error is a necessary component to creativity, and the resultant home runs and swings and misses make up some of the most enjoyable highlights in the industry’s admittedly short history, whether it be by completely flipping the script, as was the case with the Game Boy and the memorable Nintendo Wii remote, or with smaller but appreciable iterations, like the Nintendo Switch’s detachable controllers. It is a little bit unnerving that all these examples come from exactly one company.
As the saying goes, what we want and what we learn to love are not always the same things.
Cloud and subscription-based gaming, at the very least, may be a great monetary value, but they will slow down the innovation of play to a snail’s pace because Game Pass, Luna, and others are only accessible through the carbon-copy controllers of the present day. And this too is by design. The more stuff you put your games on, the bigger the market share. The bigger the market share, the more cash there is to be had. The more cash there is to be had, the more competition. And the more competition, the better the value for you, the player. That’s the logic of the free market, anyway.
But be warned. The real cost of an every-platform, app-based gaming revolution will be a game-breaker, as promised, just in a different sort of way than intended. And when that bill comes due, we’ll probably be too stuffed full with mass-produced food from the buffet line to even notice.