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By Nelson Schneider - 02/07/21 at 04:12 PM CT

Way back in the 1980s, those who were on the cutting edge of technology, and who had a huge amount of discretionary income, were playing games on the prototypical systems – things like Amiga, Commodore, Atari (delenda est) and even incredibly early versions of DOS – that would eventually evolve into PC gaming as we know it today.

However, PC gaming as we know it has been greatly influenced by the dedicated, single-purpose game machines known as consoles, as these two branches of the same technological family tree have evolved side-by-side over the decades. Prior to the influence of single-function, ‘appliance-like’ game machines in the form of arcade cabinets and home consoles, gamers were content to interact with their games using the default control devices that came in the box: Keyboards. And while mice would eventually be added to the stable of default PC gaming control devices, it was something of a long-fraught ideological war, with hardcore typists insisting that pointing-and-clicking was “dumbing-down” the games; an idiotic argument that would rear its head again decades later after the advent of Xinput, which made dual-analog, dual-trigger, 10-button controllers a standard part of the PC gaming ecosystem – an argument which continues to this very day.

But recently, one of the biggest players in the arena of PC gaming – and an also-ran bit player in console gaming – Microsoft, has declared that it no longer considers Sony and Nintendo to be its primary competitors in the realm of videogames. Instead, Microsoft points at companies like Google and Amazon as the outfits to beat in order to rake in that sweet, sweet gaming profit.

Really? Amazon – a company that doesn’t actually develop or publish games, and which doesn’t manufacture any gaming hardware – is a big competitor in gaming? And Google – a company that, alongside Apple, corrupted mobile gaming into an irredeemable plague, which just shut-down internal game development, and whose most earnest effort, Stadia, the cloud gaming system, was dead on arrival – is more important in the Games Industry than Sony or Nintendo?

Yeah, really! This all ties back into a phenomenon I warned about back in 2018, which I then dubbed “The Network Wars,” in which getting people to buy dedicated gaming hardware is no longer relevant, as locking them into a platform via networked, always-online features will be far more profitable moving forward. And since Microsoft (with Azure), Amazon (with AWS), and Google (with… everything) are the biggest players in pervasive online functionality and cloud-based services, it does make sense that Microsoft is worried about what Amazon and Google will do, moving forward.

Of course, this doesn’t mean anything about the cloud-based future these huge, multi-billion-dollar corporations are envisioning is in any way good for the end-user. Especially when it comes with a perpetual price tag.

But instead of rehashing the anti-customer nature of Games as a Service, or how cloud-based gaming will actually lead directly to the no-ownership future that opponents of traditional digital distribution have been imagining in their closets and under their beds for over a decade now, I’d simply like to ask a question: How are cloud gamers supposed to control these things?

A huge part of mega-corporations’ desire to ditch end-user hardware and move to the cloud is the sheer size of the audience – similar to what Nintendo did when they adopted a “Blue Ocean Strategy” of targeting non-gamers as an expanded audience for the Wii, instead of competing for the existing audience. Everyone uses the cloud every single day – the proliferation of smartphones to the point where even the poorest hut-dweller in sub-Saharan Africa has a smartphone, ensures it. The end-goal of cloud gaming is to no longer target a specific, niche audience who will each drop $500 on a dedicated game machine or $1000+ on a powerful PC, it’s to target any person with any device.

As a result of smartphone proliferation, we got the mobile gaming ecosystem which, much like the ancient proto-PC gaming ecosystem, saw the need to produce games that work with the hardware’s default controls. Instead of a keyboard, this time around, it was a touchscreen. Neither of these default control schemes was actually good, ergonomic, or even intuitive. Both greatly limited the types of games playable on early PCs and modern smartphones, but as the defaults that came as part and parcel of the hardware, developers still targeted them. Thus we got an age of Text Parser-based Adventure games on PC and a plethora of poke-and-swipe games on mobile.

However, cloud gaming aims to put gaming ANYWHERE, including the billions of smart TVs what will soon ship (if they don’t already) with game streaming baked in. TVs don’t come with a game controller, or a keyboard, or a touchscreen. What they do come with, is a TV remote, a perpetually non-standard device with either too many buttons or two few, and with decidedly poor gaming ergonomics. Google’s Stadia failures have proven over and over that few people who are willing to try cloud gaming are also willing to pony up cash for a dedicated cloud gaming controller, so any developer that wishes to target Microsoft’s, Amazon’s, and Google’s cloud platforms will need to ensure their games are playable with no fewer than four different input systems, ranging from a standard controller, to a keyboard and mouse, to a buttonless touchscreen, to a damned TV remote!

Ultimately, I think targeting cloud gaming, much like Nintendo targeting the “Blue Ocean” will end up being a costly mistake in the long run. Playing games on devices that aren’t designed for playing games used to be the purview of hackers who became aroused at the prospect of playing the original “DOOM” on a TI-86 graphing calculator, not major corporations who are looking to turn a profit. And even if cloud gaming becomes a dedicated niche instead of a short-lived fad, the gaming community as a whole will still be stuck with a new generation of idiots who think a TV remote is a ‘superior’ input device, just like the generations of ‘default’ control users before them.

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