Video Game Streaming: Bridge To The Future, Or One Too Far?
Certainly, the numbers superficially suggest Americans are extremely wired. As of 2010, approximately 239,893,600 Americans, or 77.3%, use the Internet. However, of those 239,893,600, only 85,287,100 are broadband users. And those broadband users enjoy only the 12th fastest connectivity in the world, not the ideal foundation upon which to build a new model of interaction between developer and gamer. Furthermore, US Census data suggests more complex story (PDF). Of those millions of Americans using broadband Internet, a large percentage are getting it primarily through work and school. And more importantly, millions more, especially those living in rural areas or smaller population centers, even if they’ve purchased broadband, they’re getting extremely terrible service.
The fact is that tiered Internet service, with hard caps on data, is the golden dream shared by all ISPs. and despite America’s (stupidly) unwritten tradition of an open Internet, companies continue to find new ways to accomplish that goal. Time Warner, for instance, began last year to introduce usage-based pricing in certain regions. It wasn’t the first time they tried this con, but it might be the last. The current pricing scheme, still in place for customers in Texas and other parts of the south, is designed to discourage heavy use rather than punish it. In exchange for accepting a pathetic 5 dollar discount, customers are asked to endure a 4GB cap on data. It is inconceivable that they won’t eventually tilt in the opposite direction, charging for high data flow rather than discounting. Such schemes force all but the most affluent or hardy customers to accept pathetically small data usage in exchange for access to the Internet.
This is assuming, of course, that Time Warner won’t do away with usage-based pricing altogether and simply cap all customers regardless of how much they’re paying. AT&T already has. Last year, the company imposed caps on all of their Internet plans, including the already too expensive Uverse, eliminating all unlimited data options. Standard DSL customers are restricted to 150GB worth of uploads and downloads, while Uverse customers get 250. Going over the limit gets you throttled (and in some cases, billed additional fees).
Photo by Rebecca Chantry
The limitations of AT&T’s data caps don’t make it impossible to watch several movies a month, but as you approach the limits of your data usage, they begin to seriously throttle you. (Full disclosure: I’m a Uverse customer). By months’ end, the customer finds that even streaming Youtube videos causes massive slowness, and this is in cities with serious Internet infrastructure. Depending on local law, as well as infrastructure, your own experience could be far worse. Many regions expressly allow tiered service with all packages – my father, for instance, who lives in rural Oklahoma, incurs serious fees for data usage, and his service is limited enough that he can barely stream for more than a few hours in a given month. His experience is typical in that area of the country.
And this doesn’t take into account the 154,606,500 Americans who aren’t using broadband at all. They not only lack the ability to stream almost entirely, they’re even being denied full access to non-streaming services they’ve already paying for. They can’t access DLC (free or otherwise), they can’t engage in online multiplayer, and they definitely cannot download necessary patches larger than a few MB. The same is true for PC gamers forced to make due with dial up. And frankly, the advocates for gaming as a service never take these facts into account.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that the current recession will end, and that technical constraints and the business practices of Internet service providers will be transformed. But until these glad tidings come to pass, the gaming industry is going to have to go to war with the consumers they have, not the consumers they want. Their actual consumers are neither prepared, nor particularly interested, in switching from a model that has worked for nearly 30 years. It would be best, we think, that the industry instead focus on how to make people more willing to pay for their products rather than making the purchase as restrictive and inconvenient as possible.
But perhaps we’re wrong. Game Front would love to take the temperature of our readers. Do you still prefer physical, or at least individually owned copies of your games? Could you imagine a world in which you access your games in the same transitory style as you might stream a movie? We’ll cull the best of your responses for a follow up on this analysis.