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Cloud Gaming and its Concerning Implications

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m a fan of collecting old big box PC games. Not only that, but I love playing classic games, and I am a huge supporter of the abandonware community, who through their tireless efforts have managed to preserve our digital history long after the ruthless games industry has forgotten them in all but copyright.

I’m also somewhat financially conservative when it comes to my gaming rig – as much as I’d like to, I simply can’t afford to always have a gaming beast, capable of playing all of tomorrow’s releases on Ultra settings. Likewise, I often wait out for sales – the sheer volume of games being released these days is more than most wallets can handle. It is from both of these perspectives that I am both concerned and excited about cloud gaming.

Cloud gaming, if you haven’t heard the term, has been gradually building influence and credibility in the games industry. Also known as Gaming-on-Demand, it provides a way for gamers to play games by streaming them from the cloud. This simplistic definition only barely covers the concept, and there are several different technical approaches to achieve this. However, the core benefit to the end-user is minimizing overhead costs. You don’t need to go out and spend thousands of dollars on a new PC – you can just stream the game like you would a Netflix movie, and all the heavy processing is done on a computer somewhere in a data center owned by Microsoft, Google, Nvidia, or any one of the dozens of other companies vying to carve out some territory in this lucrative market. No need to fork out thousands of dollars for a new gaming rig.

Great, right?

There is no doubt that cloud gaming provides significant benefits for gamers. Firstly, it reduces the entry-level costs associated with gaming. In some cases, you might be able to stream a game through your browser, as Google recently trialed with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey in the Chrome browser. In other cases, you might need to fork out an initial amount for a thin client or simple controller peripheral. Either way, a great deal cheaper than a brand-new console or PC, as all the critical hardware is housed and maintained in a central data center.

Another benefit is performance. As long as your cloud gaming provider is keeping their host machines up to date with the latest hardware, you’ll be able to experience all of the latest releases at the highest settings that your display will allow. It also means that developers can start pushing boundaries with their game engines, as they will no longer need to consider lower-end systems, if their game is fully cloud-based. You’ll also be able to play your games anywhere, as long as you have access to a screen, a decent internet connection and a mouse and keyboard or a gamepad.

As Kyle Payne pointed out in his great article about Google’s Stadia, there really are a lot of exciting possibilities with cloud gaming, and I don’t blame anyone who is eager to embrace it. But there are many, many concerning implications for the games industry, and if these issues aren’t taken into consideration, there will be dire consequences for both the industry and consumers.

The first issue I want to address is something that has been occurring for many years already, even without cloud gaming, and that is game ownership. There was once a time when you purchased a game that you would walk away with something tangible – boxes, manuals, discs, artwork. The games industry has changed, and digital distribution is the new norm. However, cloud gaming will undoubtedly accelerate digital distribution faster than ever. Cloud gaming lends itself to a Netflix-style subscription model – why purchase a game when you can simply pay a flat monthly rate? The issue here is – what do you actually own? What happens if your streaming service shuts down? What if you’re halfway through a 300-hour RPG and your service loses the rights to the game?

Another issue that has become quite apparent to me, being an Australian gamer, is that of internet connectivity. At this early stage in the life of cloud gaming, there is currently no reliable way for me to experience the technology. Cloud gaming, up until now, has been mostly US, Europe, and Asia-centric. Internet infrastructure is not a quick fix, and it may be many years before some gamers are able to experience reliable cloud gaming, robbing them of the chance to experience games that may no longer be supported by the time their infrastructure is able to sustain the technology.

There are also dozens of smaller considerations. When it comes to savegames, will you be able to transfer them between game streaming providers? What if one of your providers shuts down? Will you still have access to your games? I don’t want to be overly alarmist – these are kinks that will most likely be ironed out thanks to consumer opinion and competition, the two great pillars of capitalism.

However, there are also more complex issues – how will the modding scene react to cloud gaming? The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a perfect example of a game that has been kept alive long past its release thanks to a vibrant modding scene. What will modding look like in the future? Modders require access to a game’s files, but how will they do this the files are locked away in a data center? There’s no doubt that cloud gaming is going to have a profound effect on modding, but what that effect will be remains to be seen.

Of all my concerns about cloud gaming, there is one issue that concerns me more than anything else – what will become of classic games? As contemporary games age, they drop in sales and popularity. Then, they can go one of two ways – they are either popular enough that they get remastered, or they fade into memory, or total obscurity, depending on how popular they were. In the case of the latter, it has largely been the efforts of the abandonware scene that has prevented many classics from completely disappearing, but what will happen to cloud-based games? When no one is playing them anymore, who will host the files? Will the cloud gaming platforms release these files to gamers, for the sake of preservation? I hope so, but I’m doubtful.

In order to protect our gaming heritage, and the history of games, this is a critical issue that needs to be addressed. Games are art, and to allow them to be lost in time and forgotten is a tragedy. I am cautious about legislation within the games industry, but in this case I think it is vital that, prior to removing games from their services, cloud gaming providers should be legally required to hand over all files to freely-accessible archives, such as The Internet Archive.

Cloud gaming has the potential to make games more easily accessible and approachable than ever before, provided you have access to the required infrastructure. And although it makes it easier to become a gamer today, there is a high risk of severing our ties to games of the past. Change is inevitable, but as consumers, we can influence the way change occurs. It would be futile to try and resist cloud gaming – its coming whether we like it or not.

But before you commit to a cloud gaming platform, consider whether the platform you choose is acting in the best interests of games and gamers.