If you’re looking to watch people play games live there’s really only one place to look: Twitch. It started out its life as the bastard stepchild of Justin.tv, a streaming platform for all things, however it quickly outgrew its parent and at the start of last year the company dumped the original product and dedicated itself wholly to Twitch. Various other streaming apps have popped up in its place since then but none have been able to hold a candle to Twitch’s dominant position in the game streaming market. The one platform that could however has just announced YouTube Gaming which has the potential to be the first real competitor to Twitch in a very long time.
Whilst the product isn’t generally available yet, slated to come out sometime soon, it has already made its way into the hands of many journalists who’ve taken it for a spin. The general sentiment seems to be that YouTube has essentially copied the fundamental aspects of Twitch’s streaming service, mostly in regard to the layout and features, whilst adding in a couple of additional things which serve as bait to attract both streamers and consumers to the platform. Probably the most interesting aspects of YouTube’s platform are the things that are missing from it, namely the subscription payment system, alongside the dreaded ContentID system which will be in full force on all streams.
The main thing that will draw people to YouTube’s streaming service however is most likely the huge infrastructure that YouTube is able to draw on. YouTube has already demonstrated that it can handle the enormous amounts of traffic that live streaming can generate as they currently hold the world record for most number of streams at 8 million for the Felix Baumgartner jump back in 2012. Twitch, despite its popularity, has experienced numerous growing pains when it has attempted to scale up its infrastructure outside of the US and many have pined for a much better service. YouTube, with the Google backbone at its disposal, has the potential to deliver that however I’m not sure if that will be enough to grab a significant share of this market.
Twitch has, for better or for worse, developed a kind of culture around streaming games and has thus set a lot of expectations for what they’d want in a competing streaming product. YouTube Gaming gets most of the way there with the current incarnation of the product however the absence of a few things, like an IRC backend for chat and the paid subscriptions, could end up being the killer features that keep people away from their platform. The former is easy enough to fix, either by adopting IRC directly or simply providing better tools for managing the chat stream, however the latter isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Sure, YouTube has their one off payment system but that runs against the current community norms and thus will likely not see as much use. That then feeds into a monetization problem for streamers which is likely to deter many from adopting the platform.
All that being said however it’s good to see some competition coming to this space as it should hopefully mean more fierce innovation from both parties as they vie for more marketshare. YouTube Gaming has a massive uphill battle ahead of it if however if anyone has the capability to fight Twitch on their own ground it’s them. The next 6 months will be telling as it will show just how many are willing to convert away from the Twitch platform and whether or not it will become a sustainable product for YouTube long term.
My stance on game streaming services has been well known for some time now but for the uninitiated let me sum it up for you: I think they’re rubbish. The investment in capital required to get them to work well at scale seems incompatible with the number of potential users who’d want such a service and nearly all offerings in this space priced the games similarly to their full blooded, non-streamed cousins. Sony doesn’t share my view on this however having invested several hundred million dollars into buying game streaming service Gaikai and committing to providing a sort-of backwards compatibility service using that platform. Since I wasn’t entirely interested in the idea I hadn’t looked into it much further but at a tech level it’s quite interesting, even if I think the service won’t be the cash cow I’m sure Sony thinks it’ll be.
I’ve mentioned in the past that there weren’t too many ways for backwards compatibility to make it’s way onto current generation consoles even if some form of streaming service was going to be offered. I postulated around the potential ways of doing it, either by running a whole bunch of old consoles in a data center or developing an emulation framework, neither of which I felt was going to be particularly scalable due to my percieved lack of demand for the service. As it turns out Sony has gone with the former option for their streaming service, opting to run a bunch of PlayStation3s in the cloud and providing access to them through their new PlayStation Now service. However they’re not consoles as you’d recognise them, they’re in fact all new hardware.
Sony has developed a custom motherboard that contains on it 8 PlayStation3 chips allowing them to achieve a pretty incredible amount of density when compared to simply racking consumer units. Some back of the napkin calculations puts this at about 384 PlayStation 3s per rack, quite a decent number although I’m sure the cost of that hardware is going to be non-trivial. This custom solution does have its benefits though like them being able to throw in a new network interface and hardware video encoder, reducing the latency between the customer and their PlayStation3 in the cloud. This might not be enough to make the service feasible but it’ll do a lot to make the majority of games on their far more playable than they would be otherwise.
Right now the service offers up about 200 titles for individual rent or an all you can eat subscription that has a selection of 100 titles for $15 per month at the cheapest option. That’s a damn sight better than pretty much every other game streaming service I’ve seen before but it still suffers from the same restricted availability (only select US and Canada areas currently) issues which hamstrung other services. The one thing the service does have going for it though is the veritable cornucopia of devices that PlayStation Now can run on, including Sony’s recent range of TVs and even DVD players. That’s definitely an advantage that other competitors didn’t have since they all required another hardware purchase but I’m still not sure there’ll be enough demand even if the barrier to entry is low for Sony’s more loyal customers.
With the average cost of producing a PS3 apparently down around the $280 mark (which I’ll assume is relatively similar for the custom solution) it will take Sony around 18 months to recoup the costs invested in hardware based on the current subscription fees which doesn’t take into account the licensing arrangements for streaming. There’s potential for them to make up a bit more margin with the single rentals which appear to be quite a bit more pricey but it still seems like a long time for the investment to pay off. That being said with the life of consoles now getting dangerously close to 10 years there’s potential for it to work but I still think it’s a bit of a gamble on the part of Sony.
The age of the Internet has broke down the barriers that once existed between Australia and the rest of the world. We’re keenly aware that there are vast numbers of products and services available overseas that we want to take advantage of but either can’t, because they don’t want to bring it to us, or won’t because it’s far too expensive. We’re a resourceful bunch though and whilst companies will try their darnedest to make us pay the dreaded Australia Tax we’ll find a way around it, legitimately or otherwise. Probably the most popular of services like this is Netflix which, even though it’s not available here, attracts some 200,000 subscribers here in Australia. That number could soon rocket skywards as Netflix has finally announced that they’ll be coming to our shores early next year.
Australia will be the 16th country to receive the Netflix service, 7 years after they originally launched in the USA. Whilst there’s been demand for them to come Australia for some time now the critical mass of semi-legitimate users, plus the maturity of the cloud infrastructure they will need to deliver it here (Netflix uses AWS), has finally reached a point where an actual presence is warranted. Details are scant on exactly what they’ll be offering in Australia but looking at the other 14 non-US countries to get Netflix we can get a pretty good idea of what to expect when they finally hit the go live button for the Australian service.
For starters the full catalogue of shows that the USA service has will likely not be available to Netflix Australia subscribers. Whilst original content, like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, will be available the content deals inked by rights holders with other companies in Australia will unfortunately take precedent over Netflix. This doesn’t mean that this won’t change over time as it’s highly likely that rights holders will look to move onto Netflix as old contracts expire but it might put a damper on the initial uptake rate. Considering that there are numerous services to change your Netflix region to get the full catalogue though I’m sure the restriction won’t have too much of an effect.
The DVD service probably won’t be making it here either, although I don’t think anyone really cares about that anyway.
Probably the biggest issue that Netflix will face coming to Australia is the dismal state of the Internet infrastructure here. Whilst most of us have enough speed to support some level of streaming the numbers of us that can do anything above 720p is a much more limited market. As long time readers will know I have little faith in the MTM NBN to provide the speeds required to support services like Netflix so I don’t think this is a problem that will be going away any time soon. Well, unless everyone realises their mistake at the next election.
Overall this is good news for Australia as it has the potential to break the iron grip that many of the pay TV providers have on the content that Australians want. It might not be the service that many are lusting after for but over time I can see Netflix becoming the dominant content platform in Australia. Hopefully other content providers will follow suit not long after this and Australia will finally get all the services it’s been lusting after for far too long. Maybe then people will realise the benefits of a properly implemented FTTP NBN and I’ll finally be able to stop ranting about it.
Twitch.tv started out as the bastard child of Justin.tv, a streaming website that wanted to make it easy for anyone to stream content to a wider audience. Indeed for a long time Twitch felt like something of an after thought as divesting part of an already niche site into another niche didn’t seem like a sound business maneuver. However since then Twitch has vastly outgrown its parent company becoming the default platform for content streamers around the world. The sponsorship model it has used for user’s channels has proven to be successful enough that thousands of people now make their living streaming games, giving Twitch a sustainable revenue stream. This hasn’t gone unnoticed of course and rumours are starting to circulate that Google will be looking to purchase them.
The agreement is reported to be $1 billion all cash deal, an amazing deal for the founders and employees of Twitch. The acquisition makes sense for Google as they’ve been struggling to get into the streaming market for a long time now with many of their attempts drawing only mild success. For the Twitch community though there doesn’t appear to be any direct benefits to speak of, especially considering that Google isn’t a company to let their acquisitions just do their own thing. Indeed if this rumour has any truth to it the way in which Google integrates Twitch into its larger platform will be the determining factor in how the brand grows or ultimately fails.
At the top of the list of concerns for Twitch streamers is the potential integration between YouTube’s ContentID system and the Twitch streams. Whilst most of the games that are popular on Twitch are readily endorsed by their creators (like League of Legends, DOTA2, World of Warcraft, etc.) most of them aren’t, something which has seen content producers and game developers butt heads multiple times over on YouTube. With the Twitch platform integrated into YouTube there’s potential for game creators to flag content they don’t want streamed something which is at odds with the current Twitch community ethos. If not handled correctly it could see much of Twitch’s value evaporate after they transition across to YouTube as arguably most of it comes from its wide community, not the technology or infrastructure powering it.
On the flip side though Twitch has been known to suffer from growing pains every time a popular event happens to grace its platform, something which Google could go a long way to fixing. Indeed that would likely be the only thing that Twitch has to gain from this: a global presence without the need to invest in costly additional infrastructure. If Google maintains Twitch as a separate, wholly owned brand then this could be of benefit to both of them as a more stable and available platform is likely to drive user numbers much quicker than Twitch has been able to do previously.
We’ll have to see if this rumour turns out to be true as whilst I wouldn’t begrudge Twitch taking the cash the question of what Google will do with them is what will determine their future. Whilst the combination of Twitch chat and YouTube comments sounds like the most unholy creation on the Internet since /b/ there is potential for both Twitch and Google to gain something from this. Whether that’s to the benefit of the community though remains to be seen.
You don’t have to look far on this blog to know that I’m a Sony fan although my recent choice in products would tell you otherwise. I do genuinely appreciate them as a company as whilst they’ve made a whole bunch of mistakes they’ve also delivered some amazing products on the years, typically in industries where they’re far from being industry leaders. My relationship began with them many years ago when I first laid my hands on the original PlayStation console and has continued on since then.
Today they announced the next generation of their home entertainment systems: the PlayStation 4.
Whilst the event is still unfolding while I’m writing this there’s already been a lot of rumours confirmed, surprises unveiled and of course a whole bunch of marketing blather that no one is interesting in hearing. Among the confirmed rumours are the fact that it’s an x86 platform under the hood, the controller has a touchpad on it (among several other features including a Kinectesque motion tracking system) and a customized PC GPU. Of course the really interesting things are the features that have managed to remain secret throughout the various leaks and speculative sprees that have been occurring over the past couple months.
For starters it appears that the PS4 will come equipped with a whopping 8GB of GDDR5 rather than the 4GB that was previously advertised. This is interesting because the Durango apparently faced issues trying to integrate that amount of memory due to the bandwidth requirements and thus opted to go with DDR3 and a speedy 32MB cache to counter-act that. Sony has either made a last minute change to the design to get specification parity (although 4GB GDDR5 is arugably much better than 8GB of DDR3) or had this planned for quite a long time, meaning that they overcame the engineering challenge that Durango couldn’t (or wouldn’t, for various reasons).
One of the much speculated features was the integration of streaming services allowing users to share screenshots, game clips and all manner of things. Part of the leaked specifications for both Durango and Orbis hinted at an external processing unit that would enable this without the main GPU or CPU taking a hit. This has come to fruition and it appears that Ustream will the the platform of choice. Whilst I know a lot of people aren’t particularly thrilled with this (it seems a lot of us gamers didn’t get out of the anti-social gaming box we cocooned ourselves in during our formative years) for someone like me who reviews games it’s an absolute godsend as it means that my convoluted recording rig won’t be required just so I can get a few in game screen shots. Realistically this is just an organic progression of features that have been present in some games to making them available natively in the platform, something I’m sure the developers are thankful for.
There’s also a swath of remote play stuff which looks like a natural progression of the stuff that’s already in the PS3/PSP combo. Some of the pictures shown during the stream indicate that it might extend further than just the Vita and that’d definitely be something as not everyone (not even me, shocking I know) wants to invest in a Vita in order to get that kind of functionality. With their acquisition of Gaikai, which was ostensibly for the streaming backwards compatibility that’ll come for PS1/2/3 games, they do have the opportunity to take that same streaming and let you play your games anywhere with your PS4 providing the underlying grunt. There’s no mention of that specifically but all the key parts are there and that’d certainly give them a leg up on Microsoft when it comes to delivering a ubiquitous platform.
Fanboyism aside the PS4 does genuinely look like a great piece of hardware and the services that are being built on top of it are going to be really competitive. Sony has been lagging behind Microsoft for a long time in the services space and it looks like for the first time they’ll at least be at parity with them. We’ll have to wait for the Durango announcement first before we can make true comparisons between the two but if the leaks are anything to go by it’s going to be a good time for us gamers, whatever our chosen platform is.
Now if only they gave us a release date. That one delicious piece of information is curiously absent.
For the longest time large media and entertainment companies have been competing against pirates by any way they deem necessary. For games they lavish on restrictive DRM schemes, giving us only limited installs and mandating Internet access before we’re allowed to play. For music, movies and TV shows us Australians seem to be relegated to the backwaters of delayed releases at prices that are cemented in decades old thinking when it actually did cost a lot to ship stuff to us. The pirates then have been offering a service that, put simply, were far more attractive than their legitimate counterparts and this is why it continues to be such a big problem today. A few companies have got the right idea though and surprisingly one of them is our very own Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
For uninitiated ABC has long had a pretty darn good service called iView, an on demand streaming service akin to the BBC’s iPlayer. For PlayStation 3 owners in Australia we’re also lucky enough to have a dedicated link to it on our cross media bar, making it quite painless to use. If you also happen to be on Internode all the traffic to iView is unmetered as well meaning you can stream a good section of the entire ABC back catalogue for nothing. When a couple of my favourite shows were on there (Daily Show, Colbert Report) I used it quite often as I could just browse the list and then hit play, nothing more was required. The service has gone down hill as of late as they don’t keep entire back catalogues up for very long (I think it was about 6 episodes per show, usually for a time after they had aired) but the idea behind it is very solid.
News comes today though that they’re doing some quite extraordinary: putting up episodes of Doctor Who online right after they’re shown in the UK, a week before they’re shown in Australia:
In an Australian first, the new adventures of Amy, Rory and The Doctor will be available on the ABC’s iView player from 5.10am AEST on Sunday September 2, just hours after the first episode airs in the UK.
The show will then reappear in the future, on ABC1at 7:30pm the following Saturday, September 8.
ABC1 controller Brendan Dahill said the decision to air the show online before television was motivated by a desire to reduce piracy, as well as fulfill the needs of drooling Whovians, who have waited almost a year for the new series.
Indeed the biggest complaint that many people had regarding the Doctor Who series was that even if it was available in their region it was often significantly delayed. The Doctor Who fans are a rabid bunch and being out of sync with the greater community is something that many of them couldn’t bear and so turned to pirated solutions. Offering up the episodes at nearly the same time will go a long way to turn those pirating users into viewers that can be monetized in some way, although how that will be given ABC’s lack of commercial interests remains to be seen. The producers of Doctor Who must be in on this however so I’m sure there’s something in it for them.
I think it’s quite commendable that ABC has decided to tackle piracy in this way instead of trying to take more draconian measures, as is the usual route. Whilst it won’t stop pirating entirely it will go a long way to making the ABC’s offering that much more desirable. I’m sure they could up the ante significantly by opening up their entire back catalogue for a nominal fee but I’m not sure what kinds of regulations they’re under, being a government funded initiative and all. I might not be an ongoing customer but I could see myself buying a month here or there when a I got interested in a series they had.
This is the future that media giants should be looking towards. Instead of trying to force the pirates further underground they need to make their offerings better than what they can get elsewhere. iView is a great example of that and they really are only a couple steps away from beating the pirate option in almost every respect. Hopefully this spurs the other commercial stations to do similar and then Australia won’t be the pirate ridden media backwater that it has been for the past couple decades.