As digital media streaming becomes more popular and widely available, many gamers still prefer to own their games (both via digital downloads and physical purchases). However, Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud Project may usher in a new era of cloud-based gaming that could threaten not only physical and digital ownership, but also cause a massive disruption in video game piracy.
What is cloud-based video game streaming?
Cloud-based gaming works a similar way to other streaming services, such as Pandora or Netflix. The streaming service (Google, Microsoft, or others who enter the market), hosts the games on its own servers. These servers do all the hard work when it comes to data and graphics processing. The gamer then accesses the game through the company’s dedicated software or interface that allows interaction with the game within the cloud-based server.
With cloud-based video game streaming, the game runs on a server and a video of what’s happening is piped to your device over the internet in real-time. Conversely, your keystrokes and button presses are uploaded to the server to control the game. This format makes it easy to play video games on even lower-powered devices but also eliminates easy access to the game’s source code that video game pirates need to make a copy of the game.
Video game piracy threatened by consumer non-ownership
Arguments over the loss of physical or even digital ownership aside, cloud-based video game streaming offers benefits to gamers. It can reduce the cost of entry to access AAA games by using a subscription-based model, versus having to spend $60 on every new game that launches. Services like Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud Project could also offer the ability to play modern, graphics-intensive games anywhere with a decent internet connection.
Equipment costs are also much lower. Users do not need an expensive, high-performance PC to stream games. Assuming a good internet connection, someone with a mobile device or low-powered PC can stream and play games with only a marginal loss in video and audio quality.
For video game pirates, however, a cloud-based streaming model for video game delivery could make piracy infinitely more difficult, if not impossible. Unlike music and video streaming, where pirates can rip the digital stream on the users’ end using various software applications or additional hardware, collecting a game’s source code from a streamed video game would require hacking into the server.
It’s unlikely any company hosting video games will make their servers easily accessible. The biggest names entering the market (Google, Microsoft) tend to implement strong data security measures through their cloud services. Even foreign governments launching targeted attacks would have a hard time cracking into these company’s servers, let alone individual or video game pirates or well-known gaming pirate groups, like CODEX.
This reality has not gone unnoticed among video game pirates, many of whom are now worried about the future of video game piracy.
On the Reddit forum /r/Piracy, for example, a few video game pirates have been discussing the topic for the past few months:
Some pirates appear to view cloud-based gaming as the harbinger of death for video game piracy:
Many others, however, remain decidedly skeptical:
At present, opinions among gaming pirates appear to be mixed, but mostly trend toward one sentiment: as long as internet infrastructure in the US and other parts of the world is poor, cloud-based gaming will have a difficult time taking off.
Weak internet infrastructure will keep gaming piracy alive for decades
If cloud gaming becomes the norm for the industry, it could certainly have a significant impact on video game piracy. A complete inability to easily copy game files means gaming pirates can no longer seed them as torrents or share them online via file lockers like MegaUpload.
The impact would, in fact, be far greater than the video game industry’s digital rights management (DRM) efforts have ever been. Hacking servers to obtain video game code is not only more difficult than cracking DRM on physical or digital copies of the software, but it’s also far riskier to pirate.
Unlike streaming music and movies, however, the bandwidth and latency requirements for video game streaming will be extreme and in some cases, completely prohibitive. Google states that its Stadia service can be used with as little as a 10 Mbps internet connection for 720p video and audio.
However, most gamers interested in using such a video game streaming service would not settle for anything less than the maximum graphical and audio output Stadia offers (4K video, 5.1 Dolby digital audio). At that level, Stadia requires 35 Mbps down.
As some gaming pirates have also pointed out, however, a bigger problem for Stadia and any video game streaming service is latency or lag. In simple terms, latency is the delay that occurs between when a command to transfer data is sent, and the transfer actually occurs.
For online gaming, latency translates into how long it takes between hitting a button on your keyboard or controller and seeing an action occur on the screen. Poor latency has been a major topic of concern for gamers fond of online shooters and MMORPGs.
Because a cloud-based game streaming service is handling all aspects of the processing, latency issues may be much worse than anything experienced in other online games. Google and Microsoft will need to lower latency to less than 100ms for most games to be playable without lag issues (and even lower for games that require fast skill-based movements).
That may mean setting up content delivery networks (CDNs) and servers within a close enough proximity to users’ physical locations that they can achieve such low ping times. That kind of technical roll-out could take years and could make such streaming services significantly limited in geographical scope.
For what it’s worth, nearly 20 million Americans (mostly in rural locations) still cannot access fixed broadband that offers 25 Mbps. Many more also have only one provider, making rates and internet quality suspect in many locations. Rural Americans are the most likely to be far away from key internet exchange points, making latency issues a much bigger problem, as well.
Google Stadia and others will be data-hungry to a fault
Video game streaming requires a vast amount of data, which may completely blow past some internet users’ data caps with very little use. Even with its minimum requirements, Google Stadia will use 4.5GB per hour. Those streaming in 4K will use up 15GB per hour. As noted by PC Gamer, just 65 hours of gaming will use 1 TB of data, which, consequently, is Comcast’s and AT&T’s monthly data cap.
And that’s not taking into consideration all of the other streaming most gamers and their families may be doing, including 4K movies and HD music, as well as having multiple family members who may want to use the video game streaming services at the same time.
For now, video game pirates can probably rest easy. Game publishers will continue to sell digital and hard copies of games, just like you can still buy digital and hard copies of music albums, for at least the next 10 years. The current internet infrastructure and ISP data schemes make video game streaming a long-shot for replacing both physical and digital ownership.
Still, as the industry heads in that direction, the video game piracy market may ultimately be threatened as both internet infrastructure improves, and consumers’ desire for physical and digital ownership wanes over time.
See also: Best VPNs for Gaming