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Google’s new Gaming Venture: A New Player?

Posted by on March 16, 2018.

Google in Gaming – Facts and Speculation

In January 2018, game industry veteran Phil Harrison announced that he was joining Google as a Vice President and GM. With Harrison’s long history of involvement with video game companies – having previously worked with Sony and Microsoft’s Xbox division – this immediately prompted speculation and rumours about Google preparing to enter the console market.

The rumour mill didn’t have to wait long for more fuel, with a report from The Information that Google insiders had revealed the existence of ‘Project Yeti’. Little concrete information about the Yeti was available; many sources eagerly assumed that this was confirmation of a new home-console product from Google, but the only thing known for sure was that the Yeti would offer a gaming-focused streaming service, in the same way that Netflix is a movie streaming service. If this involved proprietary, Google-made hardware, it would be the first home console focused on streaming games over the internet rather than using physical and pre-downloaded copies. However, Google already has a media-streaming device in their Chromecast product; it may be that the Yeti will be a pure service that can work on any Chromecast-enabled device, rather than a physical product itself.

Ultimately, all the information about the Yeti comes from a single source. With this single source based on an anonymous “insider tip”, we can’t ignore the possibility that the Yeti is pure fabrication. It’s certainly convenient timing, with rumours already buzzing from Phil Harrison’s hiring. The project codename ‘Yeti’ could even be a sly dig at those all too ready to believe any rumour they hear, just like its Abominable Snowman namesake. It’s equally possible that the Yeti is real but will eventually join the list of projects and services cancelled by Google.

While it may be best to take the Yeti rumours with a big grain of salt, the console marketplace has been stagnating over its last few generations, and Google becoming a new player on the field would be sure to shake things up. The discussion could simply stop dead at “probable hoax” and assuming the Yeti is another Bigfoot, but there’s more value in examining the possibility is that all the rumours are spot-on; that the Yeti will be a home-console focused on streaming games, to compete with the PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

The Duality of Console Wars

Historically, the home console market has been characterised by a certain dualism; strong competition between two companies. Each generation involves more than two consoles, but the so-called ‘console wars’ have always had two companies take the limelight – and the lion’s share of the market’s value. In the earliest days, it was Atari against Commodore; following the 1984 crash, Nintendo and Sega became the major competitors until Sony caused a period of turmoil with its Playstation products, eventually causing Sega to withdraw from the market. After a relatively brief interval, Microsoft threw its hat into the ring, and became Sony’s direct competitor. Nintendo still has a strong presence in the console market but seems to have been making a cautious effort to avoid direct competition with the other two companies, focusing instead on providing unique products with heavy first-party development and innovative hardware.

Today’s gaming industry is bigger and more powerful than it has been in its history, and the leading players have made a bigger investment in it than any before. With gaming no longer a niche hobby, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all have catastrophic amounts to lose if they’re dislodged from their positions, but also the advantage of more experience, bigger budgets and a strong, secure market to protect their investments. This has also lead to the competition becoming more homogenised than ever before – with so much at stake, it’s best for Sony and Microsoft to play it safe, with more hardware parity so that developers can comfortably make games on both platforms, and very little to differentiate the overall experience on either of their current consoles.

It’s puzzling that the Sony and Microsoft consoles are the most stable market-leaders in gaming history. The divide between console and PC gaming has been narrowing steadily since the days of the PS1 and the introduction of optical media – CDs, then later DVDs – to console gaming. While PCs have always offered more in terms of performance and graphical power, consoles were built around a more accessible, sociable experience. The “plug-and-play” aspect was a strong selling point, giving players the option for a quick, easy setup and no learning curve for the basic operation of the device.

For the last few years, PCs have retained their technological advantage, but consoles have been losing that plug-and-play edge with more and more patches required before playing a new game, downloadable content, less games catering to local multiplayer and so on – making current home consoles effectively just ‘weak’ PCs in some respects. Microsoft is even embracing this trend with the Universal Windows Platform, which intends to make compatible games playable on both a PC and the Xbox One console – or any other UWP-supporting hardware.

Console exclusives – games which are available on one or the other console, not both – are the biggest remaining factor keeping the console market competitive with PCs. The original Xbox’s foothold in the console market was largely thanks to its Xbox Live online service, but it’s doubtful that this approach to online multiplayer would have taken off if not for the success of Halo. In the current console generation, however, the importance of exclusives is significantly diminished. Developers are more reluctant than ever to limit their sales platform, and we’ve seen a rise in ‘timed exclusives’ or games which are exclusive to one console or the other but are sold on PC as well. Only Nintendo still has a significant bastion of true exclusives, owing to its reliance on developing its own games for its own hardware rather than depending on third-party developers.

The Lie of the Land

Today’s console market is coasting on its own success. Microsoft and Sony have fallen into a formulaic cycle of developing a new console generation and selling it on the strength of little more than people expecting it to be there. They’re easier to set up and purpose-built for couch gaming – as opposed to desktop gaming on a PC – though they offer no functionality or power above a PC, only ease of use and services.

Although the Xbox and PlayStation lines have been slowly making themselves less relevant with their functionalities’ overlap with PCs, they have accomplished something quite momentous by making online multiplayer part of mainstream console gaming. After the Sega Dreamcast failed in its early bid to bring online multiplayer to the forefront, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network eventually introduced the multiplayer culture that console gamers know today. However, neither company has been pushing for very much advancement within this technology; we’ve seen some services added and integrated, like PlayStation Now and Netflix running on the consoles, but no big advance to the way the online component is used since the original Xbox.

Even if the assumptions made about the Google Yeti are correct, there’s no way to say whether it’s bound for success or failure as a gaming platform. We know almost nothing about the project, and there are so many forms it could take – perhaps less a console and more an Apple TV-style gizmo which can connect to any output device, be it TV or PC, to stream gaming content from Google’s servers. Perhaps not a physical product at all, but something like the Universal Windows Platform which will allow games from Google Play to be played on any device.

With the Nintendo Switch occupying its own niche – thanks to its portability and first-party Nintendo support – this leaves Google the choice of competing with both Sony and Microsoft or competing with Nintendo alone. Avoiding direct competition with the ‘big two’ might seem more sensible, and would allow for a unique product and less intense rivalry with Nintendo, but in the long run it would require Google to offer something far different to anything already on the market, as well as invest in in-house development for its own titles, in order to offer gamers something they can’t already get elsewhere. As Halo has already shown, however, a single exclusive title can lead to a strong foothold for a new console, even if that console is not unique.

What the market has demonstrated is that to gain a foothold, a new product needs to either ride change or create it. Google has the budget, the capability and, with Phil Harrison on board, the experience necessary to do both. With the success of the Switch, Nintendo’s position seems unassailable for now, but the other two main players have spent the last console generation without changing or adapting their paradigm – resting on their laurels after having ridden the rise of online gaming. If the pattern of duality in the console market holds true, Google will need to dislodge one or the other from their perch; but with the right combination of a good product, a new approach to bring change to how gamers play their games, and, ideally, an enticing enough exclusive game to attract new business, they stand a very good chance of doing so.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |