The most-played game of the 2000s was not Wii Sports, Grand Theft Auto, or The Sims. It was Minesweeper. The boxed minefields came preloaded on Windows starting in 1992, when the game was so mesmerizing that Bill Gates used to sneak into his friend’s office just to play. The original function of Minesweeper was to teach players how to use right- and left-click, but it was beloved decades beyond providing mastery of this skill. Microsoft didn’t remove Minesweeper until Windows 8 was released in 2012, at which point another game had taken the throne: an intriguingly purposeless indie sandbox called Minecraft.
Every once in a while, a game comes along that shifts the landscape. The gaming world lowers the volume on everything else. For a while, developers can only pump out copycats, and even non-gamers are obsessed. It’s hard to discern a single thread that characterizes these “game-changers” beyond circumstance. Minesweeper, Minecraft and Fortnite are fun to play, but they were also in the right place at the right time. This is not a particularly useful tip for industry forecasters.
How do you predict the right time and place for a game-changer to emerge? There are a lot of directions to look. One is at the technology powering the game, particularly technology that has recently become widely popular and reliable. Think how Angry Birds became the “it” mobile game three years after the first iPhone was released, or how streaming’s new popularity was essential to launching Minecraft.
This is the reason why so many people are betting on cloud gaming.
“Cloud gaming seems like it’s a sweet spot between…we’ve got it working, but it hasn’t been around long enough and had enough of a push for us to really know exactly how it will work yet.” said Brendan Sinclair, North American Editor for GamesIndustry.biz. Facebook, Google, and Amazon have recently joined the usual suspects in addressing this trend.
What’s so special about cloud gaming’s potential? Sinclair explained, “You don’t have to have the most powerful supercomputer at home to run your game as long as that computer exists somewhere in the cloud.” The cloud can deliver powerful service to average computers, allowing anyone to play data-heavy games, anywhere.
But figuring out how to utilize this capacity in game design is, in Sinclair’s words, “The million-dollar question.” So far, Sinclair’s mostly heard the argument for cloud gaming framed in terms of scale. For example, cloud gaming allows for 1,000 people to participate simultaneously in a first-person shooter as opposed to 100. “For the end user, I haven’t seen an argument as to why a thousand players out there would inherently be more fun than 100,” he said.
The cloud supports tons of individual users simultaneously, like an MMO, if every user could play at the same time—some from their PCs, some from their smartphones. Matthew Ball, Venture Partner at the Makers Fund and reader of the tech crystal ball, calls this genre the “Massive Interactive Live Event.” He likened MILEs to “The Hunger Games,” where only users can choose to play in the arena themselves or shape the course for featured players from the stands. One example of an early MILE is Reddit’s “Place” experiment, where every user got to color in the same set of tiles for a locked amount of time. Another example is 2014’s “Twitch Plays Pokémon,” in which viewers called the shots on an anonymous streamer’s old copy of Pokémon Red.
MILEs might be the genre of the future, but there are some steep barriers to realizing this vision. First and foremost, MILEs are, by definition, massive, so any cloud-based MILE game-changer would need an enormous user base from day one.
It’s not clear to Sinclair that all of these stars are going to align, that the next game-changer will successfully utilize the cloud to revolutionize gameplay. “It would have to be a really spectacular, once-in-a-generation kind of lucky break,” he said.
More and more industry players seem to be thinking, Crazier things have happened.
Bigger, Faster, Cheaper
Professor Stephen Jacobs teaches at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Interactive Games and Media, but he’s not one for making bets.
“Anybody who predicts anything in this industry three to four years from now is likely an idiot,” he joked.
Jacobs has lived through three cycles of VR hysteria. He knows that the flashiness of new technology has nothing to do with its adoption. Gaming is a business that moves in one direction. “Everything around technology is always bigger, faster, cheaper.”
Cloud gaming isn’t an exciting investment because of its potential for new artistry, it’s exciting because streaming lends itself to a business model with demonstrated success. Sure, a major name tech brand might end up funding the next Fortnite, but this would be incidental to a greater goal: becoming the next go-to subscription service for cloud gaming.
Jacobs does not believe that the cloud changes gameplay, it’s simply a different way for companies to deliver games bigger, faster and cheaper. Even MILEs feel like old news to Jacobs, the inevitable byproduct of a greater shift in the gaming narrative.
“Video game play has evolved from the old stereotype of someone playing alone in their basements to primarily participatory groups, whether it’s families or friends sitting at the same console in the same living room, or networked groups, or a version of both,” Jacobs said.
Justin Miller is a software engineer and co-founder of Echtra Games, and sees this greater narrative shift as precisely what’s exciting about moving games to the cloud. “To me, one of the really interesting pieces [of cloud tech] is when the player doesn’t see it,” he said. The cloud can make some processes like matching players for live sessions completely seamless.
“To players,” Miller said, “it just means that a lot more of their experiences playing online are going to be smoother and not that kind of standard meme of: Don’t log in on day one! It’s never going to work!” Using cloud storage, games can scale with such flexibility that the tech becomes invisible. When the whole world is obsessively playing a new game, that game, via the cloud, might just feel like the whole world.
Though it may happen incidentally, making that game would be the business move of a lifetime.
It’s hard to predict game-changers because they are, by nature, unpredictable. Minesweeper was a logic game but also a tool for teaching players how to use the computer. Minecraft is a sandbox game but also a coding platform, argues Senior Video Producer Simone de Rochefort in a Polygon video essay. According to Bryan Feldman in New York Magazine, Fortnite is The Most Important Video Game on the Planet because it functions like social media.
Game-changers of the 21st century have evolved gaming beyond the limits of genre. It is becoming something else, something that doesn’t have a name yet. Like a choose-your-own adventure movie so intuitive the player doesn’t feel themselves flipping to one chapter or the other. Roark Hilomen suggested we call this “interactive cinema.”
Hilomen is the senior director for corporate strategy at Western Digital. A gamer father to three gamer kids, Hilomen’s been keeping his eye on the market for years. Cloud streaming cannot support innumerable users playing the kind of high-gigabyte games currently popular on consoles. Not yet at least. But Hilomen believes these expansive, seamless, cinematic game worlds are coming.
So long as developers can figure out how to make massive live interaction fun.
“Think of Lord of the Rings being played by a bunch of players, and then all of a sudden a ganker comes in and kills half of them because they can,” Hilomen said. “Ganker” is a gaming term—and not an awful slur—referring to anyone who takes out another player in a way that can’t be defended. Interactive cinema can only tell a story if there are some baseline rules, Hilomen said.
“The perfect mix [for a game] would be: it’s convenient. You can play it on your phone. It has content that tells a story and engages the player. And it has you interact with a handful of people you want to interact with but allows you to interact with other people in a nonintrusive way,” he said. The crowd of people creates adventures rather than ganking them. You can live in the cinematic content with your close and extended network from any device. For Hilomen, this is the new genre at stake.
And the cloud is its no-brainer host. “Cloud gaming has the convenience. It has the immediate access, and it allows you social interaction,” Hilomen said.
Through cloud technology, games can fully harness the interactivity of the internet, becoming open books to be written as opposed to “fixed media” like a movie or TV show that reveals the narrative in one particular way. “To do the gaming is storytelling,” Hilomen explained. To play through such a world is to iterate a particular fix of the game’s media, to tell a single chapter of the infinite story.
This is Jacobs’ picture of contemporary, networked gaming, fully realized: the family poised around the hearth, sharing and inventing stories … via the latest first-person shooter.
MILEs of Clouds
Hilomen said we’re at least three to five years out from seeing interactive cinema in the wild. He can’t predict what the next game-changer will be, or even say for certain that it will be on the cloud. But he reads their synergistic relationship in the tea leaves.
Gaming is evolving into something so interactive, social and seamless, gameplay will soon feel like, well, play—unencumbered by bulky console. Data storage has already undergone this transformation via the cloud. Consumers can now purchase cloud storage rather than their own physical drives. The tech becomes invisible, as does the entire data storage process, so retrieving files feels less like a mechanical than a biological process, almost like recalling a memory.
The game-changer to successfully harness this synergy might change the conversation forever, opening the genre so fully that games no longer feel like platforms for distraction from the real world, but constitutive of the real world.
“Massive, interactive live event” might describe a kind of game, but, in a way, also describes life. Soon, we all might be playing from the cloud.