We caught up with Intel’s general manager for gaming and VR/AR sales, Lee Machen, at this year’s IEM Sydney. And he’s had plenty of thoughts to share on how the arrival of streaming services like Google’ Stadia could change gaming as we know it.
“I think of gaming and gamers in a pyramid where you’ve got the players who are the most skilled and the most willing to invest in high end hardware at the top of the pyramid. Then you’ve got more people who spend less time as you head down the pyramid.”
"So," Lee says, “you’ve got your ultra-enthusiasts at the top of the pyramid then you’ve got your mainstream gamers and then you’ve got people who are gaming but they don’t need a Core i9.
"Let’s just say that the esports pros are the very top of that pyramid and let's just talk about what Google has announced and call that what cloud gaming will be like in the first instantiation.”
“Their goal is to take [a] game, run it in the cloud - 100% compute is the in cloud - and they’re going to stream it to you. And they think they’re going to solve the latency problem of me pressing the button and getting the round trip to the data center and back.”
“That’s a tough technical challenge and I assume that Google wouldn’t have made the announcements they did if they weren’t on a path to deliver a really good experience, at least among a certain type of game.”
However, Machen says that “it would be very difficult for them to launch that service everywhere in the world, with a great experience on every type of game all at once.”
He says he's expecting a more gradual rollout for Stadia, if and when it does arrive.
“Maybe at first, they’re not going to be trying to convince you that you can play competition level Counter-Strike in any country in the world."
"We’re going to have to ramp up to that.”
Still, Lee does concede that the “the idea of cloud gaming without any compute at the edge is a way to broaden the total available market of gamers and bring bigger experiences like Assassin's Creed or triple-A type games to people who might have not experienced them before.”
“The way we’re viewing it, at least for the next few years, is that we believe it’s mostly going to attract people who play games on their phones who might now be able to play bigger or more immersive experiences on that same phone.”
Machen says that Intel don’t see services like Stadia meaningfully changing the behaviour of people who usually play games on PC because they already getting the best experience possible.
Looking at the long term, Machen says there’s a number of ways he thinks things could go.
“Assuming the tech and the latency reduction an any other technical challenges that might be there get solved one after the other, you could see a time where it does get good enough that you could maybe play a competitive game using a cloud streaming type service.
“But if you told someone at ESL that or one of the pro teams that, they’d think that’s a ridiculous statement.”
“If there are technical challenges, they will be solved to the satisfaction of the pro gamer last - but there’s many millions of gamers before that who I think are going to be the target for this service.”
“People who aren’t paying PC gamers today. [People] who don’t buy triple-A content who will now be able to access triple-A content on a tablet or their phone or on a low-end PC that couldn’t support those games.”
He says what Intel are looking at when it comes to Stadia and similar services is whether they're able to take advantage of what he calls performance at the edge of the PC. In other words: will these streaming platforms be able to take advantage of your local hardware if it's already there?
"How does that cloud streaming service sense that and somehow make use of it?”
Lee says there’s a number of reasons this hybrid approach might prove compelling.
“First of all, if they can offload some of that cloud compute to my PC because I’m connecting to that service on my PC, that lessens the load on the cloud infrastructure – so that would be better from a total cost of running that service form the standpoint of letting me run some of that if it’s there.
“We’ve actually invested in a company called PolyStream that is looking into just that sort of thing and figuring out how you scale that workload from cloud to client in an intelligent way.”
“How do you make that workload scale to take advantage of hardware on the end and give you a better experience if that hardware exists?”
Of course, there is a final caveat here that Machen is quick to add.
"Just because you can play Assassin's Creed on your phone doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll want to do that all the time. I can watch Netflix on my phone but I would rather watch it on my big screen if it’s available.”