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Cloud vs. console: Why streaming game services haven't captured the TV yet

A spotlight has been shone on the expanding reach of cloud gaming. Today, there are many intersections, some quite lopsided, between companies offering streaming game services and those with a role in TV platforms
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Recent reports have shone a spotlight on the expanding platform reach of cloud gaming. Today, there are many intersections, some quite lopsided, between companies offering streaming game services and those with a role in TV platforms: Microsoft, of course, has a substantial living room presence with its Xbox. But that does little to expand its living room presence for streaming games beyond those already bought into Xbox Game Pass, hence Microsoft's motivation for a presumably cheaper game streaming box.

Nvidia, which offers GeForce Now, has had a small presence in the living room with the Shield TV, one of the few Google TV-based broadband TV options along with Google's own Chromecast with Google TV; both support Google's evolving Stadia service. And then there's Amazon, which owns Twitch and is new to the streaming game arena with Luna. It recently launched its own line of Fire TV sets as it continues to rank among the streaming TV stick leaders and license the OS to other TV makers a la Roku.

The TV represents a middle ground between the open PC platform that yields many titles on the popular streaming services and mobile. Smartphones offer the largest potential market for games, but service providers must contend with small screens, touchscreen controls, and app store restrictions that major providers have circumvented by targeting the browser. TVs may represent a much smaller market for games than smartphones. But while there are significant differences between the PC and console gaming worlds, the two are more similar in that they both feature large screens and longer play sessions.

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Why, then, have streaming game services not made more progress on TVs? As with smartphones, there's the matter of controls. Regarding mobile, while we've seen everything from niche manufacturers to industry giants propose a host of phones with Switch-style integrated controls, smartphone users playing complex streaming games demanding precise control must generally rely on a clamp-style controller such as the Razer Kishi on an external Bluetooth controller such as the official Xbox and PlayStation versions approved by Apple. When Nvidia brought Fortnite back to smartphones via GeForce Now, it worked with Epic to support touchscreens in the desktop version.

Also: Best gaming TV

While common enough, gamepads are far less likely to be in the living room if a user isn't already a console gamer. Google, of course, tried to address this by including its own controller as part of its Stadia starter kits and Amazon promoted game controllers when it launched games on FireTV, but a decent controller adds setup costs that discourage casual gamers. And even this assumes that the game in the streaming service supports gamepads; not all do although the percentage is improving. According to Patrick Beaulieu, senior business development manager for strategic partnerships for GeForce Now at Nvidia, more than three-quarters of games on GeForce Now support gamepad play.

Also: Gaming Accessories 

Second, while we've heard much about the democratizing power of game streaming services versus beastly gaming PCs, the former still have some technical requirements, particularly when it comes to low latency. While TVs far outclass smartphones when it comes to screen size, smartphones have some decisive hardware advantages over TVs when it comes to networking and memory, Robust Wi-Fi hasn't been a priority of many inexpensive streaming sticks. In addition, such devices are optimized for downstream video, buffering content so that they can endure a blip in connectivity without compromising the video experience. Here also, the situation is improving and will ultimately get a boost as TV manufacturers start implementing newer standards such as Wi-Fi 6 and later. However, even the user interfaces of these services can put demands on memory configurations; RAM represents an expensive component in the overall cost of even high-end TVs.

Ultimately, though, the TV gaming market is too proven and lucrative a market to ignore for streaming game services. While mobile platforms offer the largest potential user base, streaming games offer a clear alternative to those who like their mobile games with a bit more sophistication and a bit less reliance on in-game purchases. On the other hand, with the number of cross-platform console-PC games continuing to grow, it's clear that consoles and streaming services are competing for the same gamers. Getting more in step with Microsoft, Sony recently announced that it is increasingly thinking of its PlayStation business beyond the console. As the console giants look to defend and expand their turf, others would love to grab a piece of it via broader selection and platform independence.

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