Sage’s Gaming Corner: Could Google’s Yeti Program Become Gaming’s Netflix?

by Sage Ashford

While it’s becoming more common to stealth drop some of the year’s best titles near the start of the year–like with last year’s Resident Evil, Horizon, and Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and this year with Dragon Ball FighterZ and Monster Hunter World–the news in the gaming world grinds to a crawl. It can be frustrating if you constantly need to hear about new titles, but after being hit with a barrage of announcements from places like GDC, E3, Gamescom, Tokyo Game Show, Paris Games Week, The Game Awards, and Playstation Experience, we need a few months at the start of every year to cool down and allow gaming companies to build back up for the next year. That’s why generally, if something major happens (that isn’t a release date confirmation), it tends to come from outside the usual sources.

That’s what happened last week, when rumors surfaced on a variety of tech and gaming websites of Google introducing a new console. If you managed to miss the news, the gist is that Google is supposed to be working on a subscription game streaming service. Currently code-named “Yeti“, the service is rumored to have been an ongoing project over at Google for the last two years, with a launch that was predicted to be at the end of 2017, but got delayed for reasons unknown.

So, let’s get this out of the way: this could be fake, or the idea could have been indefinitely shelved or canceled. There’s no way to know unless we get launch information on the service itself. But since that’s boring and I’d rather not do another list until next week, let’s assume it isn’t.

Streaming services aren’t exactly new–Sony’s doing one as we speak with Playstation Now, and Microsoft is working on their own with Xbox Game Pass. That brings me to the primary question/issue I have with the Yeti: what’s the point? Obviously making their way into a new market is the goal, but is that even possible? To begin with, there’s the problem inherent to most streaming services: the inherent latency that comes with streaming a game across a person’s internet service.

Buffering isn’t a big deal when you’re watching a film, but even the slightest lag in most multiplayer games can be the difference between a win and a loss, and that’s going to be unacceptable to even the lower-level competitive gamers. But let’s look past that and assume that Google can pioneer some new technology that allows for the buttery-smooth 60FPS gameplay that most players require for PVP gaming. This brings us to the next major problem: how do they make gamers switch?

There’s the popular opinion that this might not even be for the current gaming population, and there’s nothing wrong with asking why everything needs to be for “us”.  You have to grow the brand at some point, and that means occasionally going outside of the conventional desires of people already playing games and figuring out what potential new customers might want. Fair, but in this case I’d argue those people are already well-served by their Apple and Android with their phones. Playing mobile titles on the big screen feels like an idea that wouldn’t work–the appeal is in the play anywhere ability of the mobile devices. I would argue that the disruptive potential is much greater in a product like Nintendo Labo, or Sony’s PlayLink series–products that can appeal to a family audience or be used in a party setting. In this respect, if Google’s going for something along those lines, it will find that they’ve already been beaten to the punch by older, more experienced game developers.

If they’re going for the traditional gamer however, then that’s an even tougher sell. Over the last decade, Sony and Microsoft both have made waves towards making it more and more difficult for their users to divest themselves from their respective platforms. For multiplayer gamers, it’s almost impossible to move unless they know their friends are going to come to new platforms with them. And for both single and multi-player gamers, achievement and trophy lists are hard to leave behind.

That’s not to say it can’t work, just that pulling gamers away from their chosen platform (console or PC) is going to involve quite a bit of effort. Even if the subscription service is only $5-6/mo, it’s going to have to be worth the like money in the eyes of most gamers, and that won’t happen without a wide selection of games of all genres and production values.

To start, they’d need to make themselves known as easy for indie developers to work with. Creators of independent titles are generally happy to have more platforms to get to potential users on, so long as it’s not a hassle for them to do. But they’ll also need AAA, high production value titles and the popular service games Rocket League, Overwatch, and Ubisoft titles as well. Then after all that, it’d really help out if they had some exclusive titles of their own. They don’t have to be expensive to start; something akin to publisher Take-Two‘s new “Private Division” publishing label where they pay well-known medium-sized developers to create games for their platform would work.  Exclusive games help to establish an identity for the company, and they would go a long way towards proving Google is here to stay in the gaming business.

None of this is impossible; it’d take time and a sizable investment in capital, but it could be done. Google found a way to fight back against the shockingly dominant Apple, so if this rumor is true I can absolutely see the tech giant climbing their way to the top of gaming. It’s just a matter of them finding the thing they do differently and better than anyone else. A lower barrier to entry could motivate a lot of people. Getting into games these days requires an initial investment of anywhere from $3-500 on a console, and a sixty dollar yearly subscription just to play online games–and that’s before you’ve bought a single game. I’ve spoken before on how much more expensive gaming has become for consumers, and that could become Google’s niche: a cheaper platform for users to enjoy all their favorite games on.

Still, for now this is all just speculation. Google could have trashed the entire plan because it didn’t seem worth it, or they could be reworking it into something even larger. Normally I’d suggest waiting until E3 to find out, but Google’s enormous–an announcement like this could come tomorrow and still make the same number of waves.

In the meantime, let’s all get back to hacking away at our backlogs, lest some new company drown us in video games when we aren’t looking.