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What Games Are: Local Stream Gaming

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He has recently moved into managing developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Along with all of the furore over wearables and their lack of oomph at CES, there were three big gaming announcements. One was the announcement of Huawaei’s Tron microconsole hot on the heels of China relaxing its rules (albeit possibly only temporarily) about the sale of foreign consoles within its borders. I should let others talk about the whys and wherefores of the Tron (conflicts of interest etc) but I find it significant that larger manufacturers are showing an interesting in the micro-space.

The other two pieces of stand-out news were also about TV gaming. First: Valve showed off some Steam Machines from OEM manufacturers that almost immediately confirmed months of speculation about performance and price. The overall reaction from the gaming media has been pretty dubious, essentially asking whether in a world where gamers can own super-lush PS4s running next generation games for $400, the prospect of shelling out three times as much just because it’s Steam is realistic.

Second: PlayStation Now, a subscription service that will allow users to play back catalog PlayStation 1,2 and 3 games via an updated version of its Gaikai technology. You will be able to play Ico on your phone, goes the promise, via the cloud. Yet the physical problems of remote gaming via the cloud that undid Onlive are still real. Then there’s also the support issues of working with back catalog games and jimmying them into working with new devices. Will PlayStation Now support some standard soft-joypad for touch devices, for example? Furthermore although gamers often hoard back catalogs of games, they never really jive with the idea of paying $10 a month a la Netflix or Spotify to do so.

So I don’t think either the Steam Machine or PlayStation Now are going to prove game changers. However I do think both are dancing around the core of an idea that could prove moderately disruptive: local streaming.

When Valve announced SteamOS etc a few months ago, one of the features that it pushed was the idea of streaming games in the home. It goes something like this: You have your gaming PC with its vast hard drive and whatnot in one room, and your fancy Steam Controller interfacing with your Steam Machine in your TV room. SteamOS can then stream your games from one to the other across your local WiFi network, et voila. You can play Godus from your couch.

Nintendo has essentially the same idea (in reverse) with the Wii U. Its big controller can act as a screen, allowing you to play Super Mario 3D World in your lap while someone else watches TV. Sony likewise with Remote Play. You can currently use a PS Vita and a few PS3 games in a manner similar to Wii U. But you can do it much more easily with a PS4 and apparently it works well.

Like the appeal of Apple’s AirPlay or other technologies, there’s an argument to be made that local game streaming is a neat problem that some people would like solved. That rather than big cloud adventures whose appeal is uncertain or over-specced TV-PCs whose attraction gets lost in questions of price, companies like Valve and Sony should be thinking in simpler, thinner terms. Here’s what I mean:

If local streaming works well then why does the Steam Machine need to be a warhorse computer under your TV? Why can’t it just be a tiny $100 streaming box whose sole job is to efficiently read controller input and zip that info back and forth to your PC? Valve may indeed have 65 million users on its service but don’t most of them already have powerful PC gaming rigs? Rather than try to sell them second or replacement rigs, why not work with what they’ve got and provide them with a neat solution? Hell might even an app for the next round of microconsoles not do the same job?

And for Sony and the other console makers, I have a similar question. If a PS4 can be used as a hub machine that can stream out games locally, why is a big cloud necessary? Console gamers don’t generally care about back catalog games as much the Internet thinks they should, so while I can see the argument that it’s tough to make PS3 games run on the PS4 without some external support (because they were developed for Cell) I don’t see PS4 gamers subscribing en masse to a service that provides them with last year’s games, especially not when Sony already has a subscription service in PlayStation Plus.

On the other hand focusing on supporting Remote Play in both directions (streaming Vita games onto TV as well as the opposite) in the local environment? That seems more appealing. It’s a little first-world-problem of me but I have several TVs and monitors around my house to which I would like to be able to stream games. Sometimes I want to play a console game while my wife wants to watch a TV show, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want my game to be reduced down to a Vita’s less-than-impressive 5 inch screen. Moving a console is a pain, so often I just don’t bother.

But I would buy a PS Vita TV sized product to solve that problem if my PS4 games could stream to it. Maybe I’d buy a couple and hook them up to the various screens in my house, so I could game in bed, game on the couch, game in my office and so on at the flick of a switch. Much as I have with my Apple TV and iTunes, I could see myself buying into that kind of local streaming for my gaming because it would solve a convenience problem. But do I really need a subscription to play laggy versions of games I played years ago?

That I just don’t see.

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