Featured Article

Cloud-gaming platforms were 2020’s most overhyped trend

The future of the technology is bright, but much less sexy

Comment

Friends play a games console
Image Credits: 10'000 Hours (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

It was an unprecedented year for [insert anything under the sun], and while plenty of tech verticals saw shifts that warped business models and shifted user habits, the gaming industry experienced plenty of new ideas in 2020. However, the loudest trends don’t always take hold as predicted.

This year, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon each leaned hard into new cloud-streaming tech that shifts game processing and computing to cloud-based servers, allowing users to play graphics-intensive content on low-powered systems or play titles without dealing with lengthy downloads.

It was heralded by executives as a tectonic shift for gaming, one that would democratize access to the next generation of titles. But in taking a closer look at the products built around this tech, it’s hard to see a future where any of these subscription services succeed.

Massive year-over-year changes in gaming are rare because even if a historically unique platform launches or is unveiled, it takes time for a critical mass of developers to congregate and adopt something new — and longer for users to coalesce. As a result, even in a year where major console makers launch historically powerful hardware, massive tech giants pump cash into new cloud-streaming tech and gamers log more hours collectively than ever before, it can feel like not much has shifted.

That said, the gaming industry did push boundaries in 2020, though it’s unclear where meaningful ground was gained. The most ambitious drives were toward redesigning marketplaces in the image of video streaming networks, aiming to make a more coordinated move toward driving subscription growth and moving farther away from an industry defined for decades by one-time purchases structured around single-player storylines, one dramatically shaped by internet networking and instantaneous payments infrastructure software.

But shifting gamers farther away from one-off purchases wasn’t even the gaming industry’s most fundamental reconsideration of the year, a space reserved for a coordinated move by the world’s richest companies to upend the console wars with an invisible competitor. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the most full-featured plays in this arena are coming from the cloud services triumvirate, with Google, Microsoft and Amazon each making significant strides in recent months.

The driving force for this change is both the maturation of virtual desktop streaming and continued developer movement toward online cross-play between gaming platforms, a trend long resisted by legacy platform owners intent on maintaining siloed network effects that pushed gamers toward buying the same consoles that their friends owned.

The cross-play trend reached a fever pitch in recent years as entities like Epic Games’ Fortnite developed massive user bases that gave developers exceptional influence over the deals they struck with platform owners.

While a trend toward deeper cross-play planted the seeds for new corporate players in the gaming world, it has been the tech companies with the deepest pockets that have pioneered the most concerted plays to side-load a third-party candidate into the console wars.

It’s already clear to plenty of gamers that even in their nascent stages, cloud-gaming platforms aren’t meeting up to their hype and standalone efforts aren’t technologically stunning enough to make up for the apparent lack of selection in the content libraries.

Google is farther along in their launch that any of their competitors, yet feedback has been less than positive for the effort, and given the company’s track record of killing consumer products that fail to gain traction early on, it’s unclear how much longer Google will support its Stadia platform.

Amazon has had plenty of time to observe Stadia’s pitfalls as it preps a wider launch for Luna, its own cloud-gaming platform. The company’s big differentiation is an early partnership that will bring a number of games in Ubisoft’s library to the platform if users also subscribe to the $15/month service. It’s hard to tell whether Amazon will be able to throw its weight around and score deals to bring more publisher deals into the fold, or whether the company will meet its match entering a space where everyone wants to own the biggest slice of the pie.

Amazon announces Luna game-streaming platform

The hiccups betray that while cloud gaming may be the most hyped technology shift in 2020 consumer tech, it’s not likely that the current product iterations will be the way most gamers experience the tech. Instead, consumers will likely see the tech in less sexy integrations revamping marketplaces and providing deeper experience to users.

Today’s products are far from dead ends for what the broader industry does with the technology, though it might not be enough to sustain a unified upstart effort like Stadia or Luna. What seems more likely is that cloud gaming provides a path toward greater discovery across marketplaces. This falls more in line with what Microsoft seems to see in xCloud as a vehicle for widening the appeal of their Game Pass subscription service with the cloud tech offering a lower friction path toward discovery and potentially enabling gamers a way to dive straight into a title while downloads carry on in the background.

The sell seems particularly strong for console downloads where certain titles can take hours to download. But as storefronts look to strip away steps from the buying and discovery processes, it’s likely that cloud-rendering downloads before saving them on-device will be something gaming and app marketplaces pursue on desktop and mobile platforms as well.

While Google and Amazon are pitching a subscription service that sells the convenience of hardware agnosticism for a low monthly fee, others see ways to channel cloud streaming tech into their existing revenue channels. Facebook announced this year that it was launching a cloud gaming service, albeit one centered on mobile games that it can easily push users toward after they click on an advertisement in their newsfeed.

Facebook won’t be charging consumers any monthly fees, instead taking a 30% cut from in-app purchases that take place while users are playing the title inside the company’s Facebook Gaming portal. This is an easy pitch for the technology, but their path to success is complicated by a familiar 2020 bogeyman: Apple’s App Store rules.

Facebook steps into cloud gaming — and another feud with Apple

Stadia, Luna and xCloud have each placed a particular premium on the fact that their platforms technically allow mobile users to play console-quality titles on their mobile phones. For Android users, that promise is a reality. But on iOS, Apple spent much of the year aiming to find a path forward that would allow the functionality in its base form but would prevent any revolutionary shifts that might complicate the company’s ownership of what it lauds as the world’s largest gaming platform across its mobile devices.

Though few consumers are knocking down the App Store’s front door to ask for less-restrictive iterations of the tech, outlawing cloud-streaming and subsequently forcing platforms to repackage solutions into comparably clunky networks of shortcut icons seems like some of the company’s most consumer-hostile decisions in years and something that will genuinely slow progress as the gaming industry tries to level up its marketplaces amid so much consumer growth.

The reality is that cloud gaming is very likely the future of the App Store, and Apple has more to gain than anyone. By preventing competing platforms from fully realizing the fruits of the tech, Apple has ample opportunity to play catchup and present itself as the company that wasn’t early to the technology but was instead right on time.

Apple goes to war with the gaming industry

If Microsoft, Google and/or Amazon aren’t successful with consumerized cloud-gaming platforms, they are all still poised to win big if other major platforms adapt technology that leans so heavily on cloud computers.

Cloud gaming has a pretty daunting infrastructural path to a minimum viable product especially when it comes to global rollouts. Users need more than a strong internet connection to stream high-quality games — they must be near data centers to play with low levels of latency.

Even if publishers or studios are avoiding working with these companies now for their own siloed subscription products, it’s likely that the cloud giants will have a big role to play in the future of how consumers play their titles regardless.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

13 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

15 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android