Last Friday Reuters broke a story about Comcast's X1 service adding streaming games from Electronic Arts to its offerings. It's nothing official yet and is based on tips from the ever-present but rarely-named "sources" but it seems plausible, though the report sends some mixed messaging:
Under the agreement now being hashed out with Electronic Arts, Comcast will offer action, sports and casual titles from EA's portfolio, including potential titles such as "FIFA," "Madden," "Monopoly" and "Plants vs. Zombies," the people said. The game offerings have not been finalized.
Comcast will focus on casual and family games at first and consider offering other first-person shooter and action games later based on user preferences, the sources told Reuters.
When we talk about streaming games in this context, it means the games run on hardware in a data center somewhere, and sound and video gets streamed down to a local client, while your input gets sent back up the pipes to be acted on. In this particular case, the client will be your X1 cable box.
It's not a unique idea: OnLive has been trying to build a business on streaming games for years. Sony is beta testing their Playstation Now service which streams Playstation 3 games to Sony consoles. Even the Android micro-console Ouya is beta testing a streaming service.
So back to EA & Comcast; I'm going to accept that the rumor is true. It's a good fit for all parties. Comcast and EA both get another source of revenue and casual gamers can drop a few bucks to play Plants vs Zombie without buying a console.
I mention PvZ because it's a good fit for this kind of service. Why? Because it already runs on a tablet and Comcast is going to have you re-purpose your tablet to act as the controller. That'll work fine for casual games but I think the jump from Monopoly to FIFA or Madden (assuming we're talking about the full games and not the tablet versions) is huge. For these games you need the consumer to invest in some kind of controller -- there goes your casual impulse purchases.
Over at the Motley Fool, Sam Mattera says Comcast's New Cable Box Could Be a Major Threat to Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation and I think he is way off base.
The Xbox and the Playstation both cater to hardcore gamers, and hardcore gamers have not taken to streaming game services. Why? A few reasons (and I don't claim this is a complete list):
1) Input lag. There's no way to code around physics and it takes time for the signal from your controller to travel up the pipes to the datacenter and the results to travel back down to you. For casual gamers (and casual games) it's no big deal; I've enjoyed dinking around in plenty of OnLive games over the years. For serious gaming, though, it's unacceptable.
2) You don't really own the games. When they initially revealed the Xbox One, Microsoft learned the hard way that a lot of console gamers still want to buy a game on disk and be able to trade/sell it when they're finished with it.
3) Friends. Comcast X1 streaming will, of course, be limited to Comcast customers. Gamers who have spent years building their online Friends list won't be willing to ditch everyone that isn't on Comcast X1.
4) The library. Sure EA is a big publisher but limiting the library to just EA games won't fly with most gamers. In fact EA tends to get more than its fair share of negative feelings from the gaming community. I realize EA is probably just the first step for Comcast, but until you can get games from most publishers, no one is going to ditch their Xbox or Playstation in favor of streaming some, but not all, games on X1.
To be clear, I'm not knocking the idea of the service. It'll be a great add-on for some X1 customers, particularly if (as I expect) Comcast rents as well as sells games. Even hardcore gamers who own a console might throw down a couple bucks to take a new game for an easy test-run via the X1 game streaming service now and then.
But as for the service being a major threat to Microsoft and Sony? There's just no way that's true. If anything streaming to your X1 cable box will be a 'gateway' experience that creates new gamers who may decide to buy a dedicated console. Everybody wins!
Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.