Companies like OnLive and Gaikai have promised seamless game-streaming experiences in the past, but they were clearly deployed too soon. These services offered broken, lag-laden games, when they worked at all. Sony purchased Gaikai in 2012 and has supported a cloud service, PlayStation Now, for the past four years, but it still doesn't offer consistent or reliable gameplay. NVIDIA's GeForce Now is the best proof-of-concept currently on the market, but it's languished in beta since 2013.
Google argues that Stadia will work because the company has spent the past two decades building a dense, global cloud network. Plus, the company has a direct-peering relationship with major internet-service providers like AT&T and Comcast, giving it a direct line of data from its servers to your device. Google hosted a beta for Stadia in October and the results blew developers out of the water.
"It's the depth of the pairing relationships that we have with ISPs to bring Google data to the internet today," Stadia head Phil Harrison told Engadget in March. "We're able to build on top of that to build a very high-performing game experience streamed to players. Whereas other streaming services that have come before have had to go through that multi-hop scenario, we know what it takes to get to that high quality."
However, Google doesn't have a special relationship with every ISP in the world. There are more than 2,000 ISPs in the US alone, many covering rural areas that routinely struggle to maintain consistent internet speeds. Fiber-optic, the fastest internet pipeline around, isn't even accessible in 70 percent of the nation. Google has already, quietly raised the recommended minimum connection speed for 4K Stadia streams from 25 Mbps to 35 Mbps.
All of this means Microsoft has a chance. Google is promising a perfect version of streaming, and in November, it'll have to deliver. Meanwhile, Microsoft will be able to watch, and learn.
Xbox is the only gaming brand with access to Google-level server infrastructure, and Microsoft is one of the few technology companies with enough capital, resources and experience in cloud computing to make game-streaming a reality. Sony can't compete at this tier, and executives there know it. The company's coming hardware, commonly called the PlayStation 5, is a traditional console upgrade, supporting 8K graphics and 3D audio with a brand-new CPU and GPU. It definitely won't hit the market this year, but when it does, it'll have a disc drive.
Microsoft is pivoting away from this traditional model. Sure, it'll still release new consoles with beefed-up guts, but the business behind those boxes is shifting. Xbox is fortifying its digital biome with Game Pass Ultimate, which combines Xbox Live Gold and Game Pass. It's testing the waters for an online-only console generation with the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition. It's happily enabling cross-play with any game and platform, and expanding its PC offerings. It's putting Halo on Steam.
Xbox is breaking out of the console-gaming space to compete with the broader tech market. PlayStation isn't Xbox's top concern any longer.
Microsoft and Sony announced a cloud-computing partnership this May. Under this deal, Sony will tap into Microsoft's data centers and artificial intelligence services for its own gaming and streaming efforts. Meanwhile, Microsoft will get access to Sony's image sensors. The partnership could be positive news for the future of cross-play -- and mean that Sony might be ready to compete on streaming -- but it's also a sign that Microsoft is confident in its position as a leader in this space, snagging its most notorious gaming rival as a cloud customer.
Netflix, but for games
Google is massive enough that Stadia could crash and burn, and the company could walk away with barely a blip in its business model, a lot like it did with Fiber. And YouTube Gaming. And Google+. And Glass. And Project Ara. And... you get it. Xbox and Sony, meanwhile, have reputations and revenue streams to protect.
Xbox got the timing wrong for digital gaming once before, and there's no guarantee that today will be any different. However, it's certain that streaming plays a massive role in the future of video games. Global internet infrastructure grows denser by the day, and advancements like 5G are on the horizon. Over the next decade, it's likely Xbox, PlayStation and even Stadia will evolve into apps like HBO Now, Hulu or Netflix. Dedicated gaming hardware will become, and already is becoming, less important to the everyday player.
In this world, content is king. PlayStation has a history rich in exclusive franchises and Xbox has a few of its own -- plus it just bought a handful of notable creators under Xbox Game Studios. Microsoft and Sony will compete into eternity, when it comes to games. Microsoft and Google, however, are building the platform on which those games will exist.