Who loses and who gains when consumers get access to vast libraries of content for a minimum monthly fee or because they are willing to put up with ads? If you ask musicians, they may have a case for decrying the subscription economy for reducing their opportunity to make money and turning them all into data analysts as they try and navigate their stats to figure out how to break through the noise. To some degree, that may also be true for filmmakers and television producers. Interactive entertainment, on the other hand, faces other challenges.
Streaming entertainment can be easily distributed and played across multiple devices with very little to no investment to adapt. Interactive entertainment, on the contrary, has returns on investment (ROIs) tied to platform capability and often requires expensive adaptations. The simple reason for the difference is that the consumer experience changes by platform for interactive entertainment but remains similar for streaming entertainment. And yes, the consumer experience is highly subjective.
So, is it any wonder that interactive entertainment is transitioning to a streaming model? For now, you can call it cloud gaming, but that seems very limited. An abundance of creative tools now brings together the 3D virtual world creation of virtual reality (VR), games, augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and extended reality (XR) under one banner. The creative workflow for any of these approaches can be considered to be the same thing. Ultimately, the underlying code for delivery may also be the same. See 3D world, be in 3D world, interact in 3D world. So, there’s a good reason to assume that we are about to enter the golden age of world-building with all its inherent territorial wars, political machinations, and enmity among nations. Yay, metaverse! And who is driving the market?
It’s that hunched-over human with a dowager’s hump staring down at a phone (a surprisingly Victorian posture for a 21st-century blight). It’s always the phone. There are billions of phone users and we’ve never, ever had billions of potential interactive entertainment consumers on one platform. They have become as one with their apps, and despite the promise of years of therapy, they’re probably just hoping that Musk comes along and makes them join with their devices at some sort of Burning Man initiation with mind-melding and brain-chip implants. In contrast, there are hundreds of millions of computer users, but most of them resent the time they are on their machines because it is usually for work, and, well, they have phones and Wordle and a TikTok dance they have been dying to pull off.
Phones are where the eyeballs are. Phones are where the fun happens, and where all the social stuff happens, and where people spend most of their free time. And for the longest time, they were off-limits to the coolest interactive entertainment products, until the world’s networks decided that phones tend to gobble up everything you throw at them and still ask for more. So, if they could keep feeding the beast, it would keep paying back. Hence, a new Moore’s law: Every two years, you will cram more crap onto your phone screens and expect to pay less for it and be twice as distracted, while the human vertebrae evolve to take a 90-degree right turn somewhere around your neckline.
Consumption of content on phones is pushing the processing of content into the cloud. If consumers don’t want to pack a laptop bag any more than they want to type on a keyboard, why should they expect to sit at bricks of hardware? Cloud gaming is just the first stage of graphics-intensive applications catching up to all the other software applications that figured out the whole software as a service (SaaS) thing.
We can safely assume that we are entering a significant cycle of innovation on the server side without having to assume that innovation will tail off on the client side. The graphics market for client computing is mature but remains interesting as the mothership of pixel power. The server is where a new 3D pipeline may evolve. One that is driven by the needs of streaming and interactive entertainment, the infrastructure that supports them, the engines that enable them, and the demands of billions of consumers spread around the globe who will expect the same experience on their Android budget phone or their latest bedazzled iPhone.
Omid Rahmat sits at the intersection of technology and entertainment, the place where all the best pixels seem to be having the most fun.