Streaming platforms like Google Stadia may be the future of the video game industry, but here in the present, it’s unclear if sluggish home internet speeds are up to the task. Bethesda, the publisher behind games like Fallout and Doom, hopes to fix that with its new Orion service. It promises to do what broadband providers can’t, or won’t: make it easier to serve homes that don’t have great internet connections.
Orion is geared toward augmenting existing or coming game streaming services, like Google Stadia or Microsoft’s xCloud, rather than competing with them. It’s an additional tech layer added to game engines that reduces their bandwidth and latency demands. Though Orion could no doubt give Bethesda a competitive edge (imagine the Stadia subscriber with the choice between a silky smooth Doom Eternal experience and, say, a busted Destiny 2 option) it plans to sell the technology to other game engine developers. Ubisoft, for example, could make the newest Assassin’s Creed stream even faster — for a licensing fee, of course.
Developers are going to need all the help they can get with game streaming. According to Stadia’s own website, a 4K stream will require a home internet connection of 35 Mbps. For the lowest available quality, 720p, players will need at least a 10 Mbps connection. Meanwhile, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2018 broadband report, nearly 31% of Americans living in rural areas lack access to home internet speeds over 25 Mbps. Even if your broadband is fast enough, you’ll need to share that connection with every device in the house; you’ll compete for bandwidth with your partner if you’re trying to stream games while they watch Netflix, for example.
In other words, Stadia is asking a lot from your internet.
Orion’s goal is to help Stadia, and platforms like it, ask a little less. While Google has tons of experience delivering fast video content with YouTube, Bethesda has more experience with building and optimizing game engines. The company uses its Creation Engine in blockbusters like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for example, which has appeared on many different platforms. When developing Skyrim for the Nintendo Switch, Bethesda had to shrink its behemoth of a sandbox game down to run on what is essentially a powerful tablet. That kind of engineering experience puts Bethesda in a better position than a company like Google, even with all its resources, to optimize games before they ever leave the server. Bethesda is the first major developer to offer third-party tools to streaming platforms and their game engines, but others may follow suit in the future.
Orion isn’t offering a whole new platform so much as a set of what Bethesda calls “techniques” — four of which are currently patented, with others coming in the future — each designed to dramatically reduce costs associated with bandwidth, processing power, and latency. One such technique, for example, compresses a video frame before demanding aesthetic effects like anti-aliasing or film grain are applied, instead of afterwards as most post-processing is done today. This reduces the overall processing and bandwidth required, making game streaming much faster.
Bethesda still hasn’t revealed all of the techniques it’s planning to implement, as some are still awaiting patent approval, but they’re all designed to work directly in a game engine. According to Bethesda, just one of Orion’s techniques applied to a streaming gameplay test that normally required 23.43 Mbps dropped the speed required down to only 13.67 Mbps.
That drop in bandwidth might seem small, but it can mean a world of difference to homes across the country. According to a report from consumer research site BroadbandNow, 16 states have average internet speeds above 20 Mbps, but below 30 Mbps, while a whopping 36 states have average speeds less than 40 Mbps. A 14 Mbps game stream is a lot easier to fit in than 24 Mbps without grinding the whole house’s connection to a halt.
Reducing streaming costs serves as a bridge between the lofty goals of platforms like Stadia and the severe limitations of existing broadband infrastructure.
This gives game and platform developers something that the broadband industry doesn’t usually have: financial incentive to reach areas with poorer internet access. Whether a Stadia player is on a gigabit fiber connection playing a 4K HDR stream, or streaming at 720p on a meager 15 Mbps connection, cutting costs early in the pipeline is beneficial to Google. No matter who’s playing, the cheaper the stream, the more customers Stadia can reach. If this happens to benefit areas with slower internet, all the better.
Reducing streaming costs serves as a bridge between the lofty goals of platforms like Stadia and the severe limitations of existing broadband infrastructure. It’s the same approach Netflix took when it found itself expanding to countries with lower bandwidth infrastructure. The company developed a method of per-title encoding that could reduce bandwidth requirements for certain shows. This especially helped simpler-looking shows, like animation, look better using less bandwidth. Which, in turn, means better quality for low bandwidth internet users. If you can’t make the internet faster, make your content more efficient.
It’s still unclear whether Orion’s test results will be indicative of real-life impact — or even whether game developers and streaming platforms will adopt it in the first place. Bethesda still isn’t discussing any of its launch partners and didn’t respond to a request for comment. Regardless, it can only do so much for those with the slowest or least reliable internet.
Nearly 25 million people are still living with home internet speeds below 25 Mbps in rural areas alone, with over 19 million of those living in hard-to-reach rural areas. Bringing high-speed internet to places that don’t have it is incredibly expensive. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced a $600 million pilot program to bring broadband (defined as 25 Mbps download speeds) to areas that don’t have it already. It’s a sizable investment, but not nearly as sizable as the $40 billion the FCC estimates would be needed to bring broadband to 98% of Americans. And to close that final 2% gap? Another $40 billion.
Any effort to make streaming more efficient — and thus more accessible to rural America or any place with lower internet speeds — is a step in the right direction. But there’s an easier option: keep making physical consoles and games. The gaming industry has increasingly relied on the internet in the form of downloadable games, library subscriptions, and cloud syncing. In doing so, it’s left the most vulnerable internet users behind. When even downloading a game like Doom can take days for some users, streaming it won’t be an option no matter how efficient the programming is.
Tech like Orion might help make game streaming easier for those with decent, if not exceptional, internet. For the 24 million people who still live under the FCC’s already-low definition of “broadband,” however, a physical disc you can buy in a store and play on your console at home will continue to remain the best option.
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