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The 9 biggest questions about Google’s Stadia game streaming service – TechCrunch

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Google’s Stadia is an impressive piece of engineering to be sure: Delivering high definition, high framerate, low latency video to devices like tablets and phones is an accomplishment in itself. But the game streaming services faces serious challenges if it wants to compete with the likes of Xbox and PlayStation, or even plain old PCs and smartphones.

Here are our nine biggest questions about what the service will be and how it’ll work.

1. What’s the game selection like?

We saw Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (a lot) and Doom: Eternal, and a few other things running on Stadia, but otherwise Google’s presentation was pretty light on details as far as what games exactly we can expect to see on there.

It’s not an easy question to answer, since this isn’t just a question of “all PC games,” or “all games from these 6 publishers.” Stadia requires a game be ported, or partly recoded to fit its new environment — in this case a Linux-powered PC. That’s not unusual, but it isn’t trivial either.

Porting is just part of the job for a major studio like Ubisoft, which regularly publishes on multiple platforms simultaneously, but for a smaller developer or a more specialized game, it’s not so straightforward. Jade Raymond will be in charge of both first-party games just for Stadia as well as developer relations; she said that the team will be “working with external developers to bring all of the bleeding edge Google technology you have seen today available to partner studios big and small.”

What that tells me is that every game that comes to Stadia will require special attention. That’s not a good sign for selection, but it does suggest that anything available on it will run well.

2. What will it cost?

Perhaps the topic Google avoided the most was what the heck the business model is for this whole thing.

Do you pay a subscription fee? Is it part of YouTube or maybe YouTube Red? Do they make money off sales of games after someone plays the instant demo? Is it free for an hour a day? Will it show ads every 15 minutes? Will publishers foot the bill as part of their normal marketing budget? No one knows!

It’s a difficult play because the most obvious way to monetize also limits the product’s exposure. Asking people to subscribe adds a lot of friction to a platform where the entire idea is to get you playing within 5 seconds.

Putting ads in is an easy way to let people jump in and have it be monetized a small amount. You could even advertise the game itself and offer a one-time 10 percent off coupon or something. Then mention that YouTube Red subscribers don’t see ads at all.

Sounds reasonable, but Google didn’t mention anything like this at all. We’ll probably hear more later this year closer to launch, but it’s hard to judge the value of the service when we have no idea what it will cost.

3. What about iOS devices?

Google and Apple are bitter rivals in a lot of ways, but it’s hard to get around the fact that iPhone owners tend to be the most lucrative mobile customers. Yet there were none in the live demo and no availability mentioned for iOS.

Depending on its business model, Google may have locked itself out of the App Store. Apple doesn’t let you essentially run a store within its store (as we have seen in cases like Amazon and Epic) and if that’s part of the Stadia offering, it’s not going to fly.

An app that just lets you play might be a possibility, but since none was mentioned, it’s possible Google is using Stadia as a platform exclusive to draw people to Pixel devices. That kind of puts a limit on the pitch that you can play on devices you already have.

4. What about games you already own?

A big draw of game streaming is to buy a game once and play it anywhere. Sometimes you want to play the big awesome story parts on your 60-inch TV in surround sound, but do a little inventory and quest management on your laptop at the cafe. That’s what systems like Steam Link offer.

Epic Games is taking on Steam with its own digital game store, which includes higher take-home revenue rates for developers.

But Google didn’t mention how its ownership system will work, or whether there would be a way to play games you already own on the service. This is a big consideration for many gamers.

It was mentioned that there would be cross platform play and perhaps even the ability to bring saves to other platforms, but how that would work was left to the imagination. Frankly I’m skeptical.

Letting people show they own a game and giving them access to it is a recipe for scamming and trouble, but not supporting it is missing out on a huge application for the service. Google’s caught between a rock and a hard place here.

5. Can you really convert viewers to players?

This is a bit more of an abstract question, but it comes from the basic idea that people specifically come to YouTube and Twitch to watch games, not play them. Mobile viewership is huge because streams are a great way to kill time on a train or bus ride, or during a break at school. These viewers often don’t want to play at those times, and couldn’t if they did want to!

So the question is, are there really enough people watching gaming content on YouTube who will actually actively switch to playing just like that?

Photo: Maskot / Getty Images

To be fair, the idea of a game trailer that lets you play what you just saw five seconds later is brilliant. I’m 100 percent on board there. But people don’t watch dozens of hours of game trailers a week — they watch famous streamers play Fortnite and PUBG and do speedruns of Dark Souls and Super Mario Bros 1. These audiences are much harder to change into players.

The potential of joining a game with a streamer, or affecting them somehow, or picking up at the spot they left off, to try fighting a boss on your own or seeing how their character controls, is a good one, but making that happen goes far, far beyond the streaming infrastructure Google has created here. It involves rewriting the rules on how games are developed and published. We saw attempts at this from Beam, later acquired by Microsoft, but it never really bloomed.

Streaming is a low-commitment, passive form of entertainment, which is kind of why it’s so popular. Turning that into an active, involved form of entertainment is far from straightforward.

6. How’s the image quality?

Games these days have mind-blowing graphics. I sure had a lot of bad things to say about Anthem, but when it came to looks that game was a showstopper. And part of what made it great were the tiny details in textures and subtle gradations of light that are only just recently possible with advances in shaders, volumetric fog, and so on. Will those details really come through in a stream?

Damn.

Don’t get me wrong. I know a 1080p stream looks decent. But the simple fact is that high-efficiency HD video compression reduces detail in a noticeable way. You just can’t perfectly recreate an image if you have to send it 60 times per second with only a few milliseconds to compress and decompress it. It’s how image compression works.

For some people this won’t be a big deal. They really might not care about the loss of some visual fidelity — the convenience factor may outweigh it by a ton. But there are others for whom it may be distracting, those who have invested in a powerful gaming console or PC that gives them better detail at higher framerates than Stadia can possibly offer.

It’s not apples to apples but Google has to consider these things, especially when the difference is noticeable enough that game developers and publishers start to note that a game is “best experienced locally” or something like that.

7. Will people really game on the go?

I don’t question whether people play games on mobile. That’s one of the biggest businesses in the world. But I’m not sure that people want to play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on their iPa… I mean, Pixel Slate. Let alone their smartphone.

Games on phones and tablets are frequently time-killers driven by addictive short-duration game sessions. Even the bigger, more console-like games on mobile usually aim for shorter play sessions. That may be changing in some ways for sure but it’s a consideration, and AAA console games really just aren’t designed for 5-10 minute gaming sessions.

Add to that that you have to carry around what looks like a fairly bulky controller and this becomes less of an option for things like planes, cafes, subway rides, and so on. Even if you did bring it, could you be sure you’ll get the 10 or 20 Mbps you’ll need to get that 60FPS video rate? And don’t say 5G. If anyone says 5G again after the last couple months I’m going to lose it.

Naturally the counterpoint here is Nintendo’s fabulously successful and portable Switch. But the Switch plays both sides, providing a console-like experience on the go that makes sense because of its frictionless game state saving and offline operation. Stadia doesn’t seem to offer anything like that. In some ways it could be more compelling, but it’s a hard sell right now.

8. How will multiplayer work?

Obviously multiplayer gaming is huge right now and likely will be forever, so the Stadia will for sure support multiplayer one way or another. But multiplayer is also really complicated.

It used to be that someone just picked up the second controller and played Luigi. Now you have friend codes, accounts, user IDs, automatic matchmaking, all kinds of junk. If I want to play The Division 2 with a friend via Stadia, how does that work? Can I use my existing account? How do I log in? Are there IP issues and will the whole rigmarole of the game running in some big server farm set off cheat detectors or send me a security warning email? What if two people want to play a game locally?

Many of the biggest gaming properties in the world are multiplayer focused, and without a very, very clear line on this it’s going to turn a lot of people off. The platform might be great for it — but they have some convincing to do.

9. Stadia?

Branding is hard. Launching a product that aims to reach millions and giving it a name that not only represents it well but isn’t already taken is hard. But that said… Stadia?

I guess the idea is that each player is kind of in a stadium of their own… or that they’re in a stadium where Ninja is playing, and then they can go down to join? Certainly Stadia is more distinctive than stadium and less copyright-fraught than Colosseum or the like. Arena is probably out too.

If only Google already owned something that indicated gaming but was simple, memorable, and fit with its existing “Google ___” set of consumer-focused apps, brands, and services.

Oh well!

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Netflix crackdown, monetizing ChatGPT and bypassing FB’s 2FA • TechCrunch

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Happy weekend, folks, and welcome back to the TechCrunch Week in Review. Henry here, standing in for a vacationing Kyle Wiggers, who is standing in for a parental-leaving Greg Kumparak. Listen, we’ve got a deep bench, and both blokes will be back very soon. Until then, check out just a few of the top stories from the week.

Want it in your inbox every Saturday AM? You can take care of that right here.

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Netflix’s password-sharing crackdown: The streaming giant has grown tired of its customers sharing passwords with friends and loved ones around the world. So this week it announced guidelines designed to keep the passwords close to home. Literally inside the walls of the abode of the account holder.

Monetized ChatGPT: OpenAI this week launched a pilot subscription for its text-generating AI. For $20 a month, subscribers can access more than what the base level gets: access to ChatGPT during peak hours, faster response times and priority access to new features and improvements.

Human or AI?: That is the question, and apparently OpenAI wants to help. The company launched a tool that is designed to distinguish between human-written and AI-generated text, but the success rate is only around 26%. OpenAI did say, though, that when used with other methods, it could help prevent AI text generators from being abused.

Bypassing FB 2FA: Meta created a new centralized system so users could manage their logins for Facebook and Instagram, but a bug could have allowed malicious hackers to switch off 2FA just by knowing a user’s phone number. Yikes. A security researcher from Nepal discovered the bug and reported it to Meta Accounts Center last September. And he got paid.

Salesforce layoffs hit: In January, the company announced the imminent reduction of 10% of its workforce. Not everyone was notified at the time, however. This week, hundreds more of the company’s staff found out the fate of their jobs.

“Spill the tea”: Alphonzo “Phonz” Terrell lost his job at Twitter as its global head of Social & Editorial three months ago and promptly got to work on a new app. Called Spill, the app has already attracted a seed round and 60,000 handle reservations. The app is due to launch in alpha during the first quarter of this year.

Google Fi breach: The company said its cell network provider, Google Fi, confirmed a data breach, which, based on the timing of the notice, was likely related to the recent security incident at T-Mobile that allowed hackers to steal millions of customers’ information.

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This week out of the TechCrunch Podcast Network, Equity covered the usual slate of venture and startup funding news, and Mary Ann spoke with Hans Tung, investor and managing partner of GGVC, a venture firm with more than $9 billion in assets under management. On Found, Darrell and Becca talked to Rosie Nguyen, a co-founder and the CMO of Fanhouse, about her journey from content creator to founder and how her experience as a creator informs every product decision at Fanhouse.

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TC+ subscribers get access to in-depth commentary, analysis and surveys — which you know if you’re already a subscriber. If you’re not, consider signing up. I doubt you’ll regret it. Just check out the highlights from this week:

Not quite secondarily: Becca reports on data this week that shows secondary deals are breaking away from the downturned venture market this year.

Open source startups: Paul Sawers examines a report out this week that explores which commercial open source software startups are growing fast and raising cash.

Go team: Ever wonder which slide is the most important slide in a startup’s pitch deck? Why, it’s the team slide and Haje expresses his surprise at just how many startups fail to tell a good story about their teams. And speaking of pitch decks, Haje brings Laoshi’s $570K angel deck breakdown to you.

Dear Sophie: Immigration Sophie Alcorn answers the question, What H-1B and other immigration changes can we expect this year?

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Amazon ramped up content spending to $16.6B in 2022, including $7B on originals • TechCrunch

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Amazon detailed the costs of its content business during its fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday, citing that its content expenses jumped to $16.6 billion in 2022, a 28% increase from $13 billion in 2021.

According to Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky, around $7 billion of that figure went towards Amazon Originals, live sports programming, and licensed third-party video content included with Prime. In 2021, Amazon had spent $5 billion on those three areas of content, for comparison.

While the company didn’t break down exactly how much it invests in each title, it’s reported that Amazon is spending more than $1 billion annually for its NFL streaming rights. Plus, the first season of “The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power,” the most-watched Amazon original series worldwide, cost over $500 million.

Streaming services know by now that original content is the key to standing out amongst rivals and reducing churn. Amazon is likely boosting its content investments to better compete with Disney, Netflix, and HBO Max. Disney spends approximately $33 billion on content, while both Netflix and HBO Max spend a reported $18 billion. *Note that a portion of Disney’s figure goes towards sports rights—around $11 billion.) Paramount+ also plans to increase streaming content spending to $6 billion by 2024, it recently said.

Amazon didn’t report subscriber numbers for its streaming business. However, Olsavsky boasted during the earnings call that its Prime Video content is a “strong driver of Prime member engagement and new Prime member acquisition,” Olsavsky said.

For instance, “The Rings of Power” was viewed by over 100 million global viewers with more than 24 billion minutes streamed. The company added that, during its launch window, “The Lord of the Rings” series helped drive more Prime sign-ups worldwide than any previous Prime Video content.

Amazon also touted that Thursday Night Football reached the youngest median age audience of any NFL broadcast package since 2013, and viewership among fans ages 18 to 34 years old increased by 11% compared to the 2021 season.

The company claimed the TNF games had an average audience of 11.3 million viewers. The first exclusive TNF game on Prime Video had 15.3 million viewers. Before the 2022 season began, Amazon expected to reach about 12.5 million viewers per week.

Other original content added to the streamer in 2022 includes “My Policeman” starring Harry Styles, the third season of “Jack Ryan” and the Western drama “The English,” among others.

Amazon is also benefiting from its 2022 acquisition of MGM for $8.5 billion. The company noted that “Wednesday,” the MGM-produced series on Netflix, premiered at No. 1 on Nielsen’s weekly streaming charts and earned two Golden Globe nominations. In December, “Wednesday” became the second most popular English-language series on Netflix, surpassing 1.02 billion total hours viewed in just three weeks since its streaming release. Over 150 million households watched the show.

Prime members in the U.S. also saw the return of HBO Max as a Prime Video Channel offering, giving customers access to approximately 15,000 hours of premium content.

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‘Nothing, Forever,’ an AI ‘Seinfeld’ spoof, is the next ‘Twitch Plays Pokémon’ • TechCrunch

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“So, I was at the store the other day, and as I’m checking out, the cashier asks me if I have any coupons, and I say, ‘No coupon problem!’” recalls a pixelated, barely three-dimensional figure that vaguely resembles Jerry Seinfeld. “So I’m walking down the street, and this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and I say, ‘It’s going coupon!’”

An automated laugh track plays, but the joke doesn’t make sense. Then again, it doesn’t have to make sense.

“Nothing, Forever” is a never-ending, AI-generated spoof of “Seinfeld,” the show about nothing. It’s been streaming on Twitch since December, and until a few days ago, the stream had an average of about four concurrent viewers. Now, at the moment I write this, there are 15,097 people watching a group of badly animated friends — Larry Feinberg, Fred Kastopolous, Yvonne Torres and Zoltan Kalker — cycling through infinite “Seinfeld”-like scenes with very little plot.

The show has been streaming almost non-stop on Twitch since December, but it only reached a wider audience this week, when its creators slowly started promoting the stream on Reddit. Now, “Nothing, Forever” has over 98,000 followers on Twitch, and a Discord with about 6,000 members.

Behind the project are Skyler Hartle, a senior product manager at Microsoft, and Brian Habersberger, a polymer physicist. They call themselves Mismatch Media, though this venture remains a side project.

Aptly, the duo met online while playing “Team Fortress 2” and they kept in touch over time. Four years ago, they started working on creative projects together.

Image Credits: Nothing, Forever (opens in a new window)

“It kind of started its journey as a kind of art project that Brian approached me with, and we ended up collaborating and working on it together and iterating on it over the last four years,” Hartle told TechCrunch. “The show we’re creating is really cool, and scratches that creative itch as just a surreal, fun kind of project, but we saw the merit of generative technology as a tool for broad scale content creation and generation.”

To make “Nothing, Forever,” Hartle and Habersberger use various AI models to generate text, speech, and movements. The “script” of the show comes from an Open AI’s GPT-3 model, Davinci. To voice the characters, they use the Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services speech API, and the visuals are made on the Unity game engine.

“The Unity engine just does a lot of interpretation to basically run the show and inherit all this content, and the voices, and all these kinds of other pieces of direction from what we call ‘the director’ in the cloud,” Hartle said. “And the director dictates what happens on the show from a generative perspective.”

They set out to create a surrealist, never-ending television show, and it simply made sense to base it on “Seinfeld,” a show that has defined the structure of a sitcom.

“A sitcom has a laugh track and a sort of formulaic structure,” Habersberger told TechCrunch. “So when characters are saying things that don’t quite make sense, but the structure is one that you’re very familiar with, it really helps you to interpret and make sense of it, even though the sense isn’t there.”

AI dialogue can get repetitive. Characters are constantly referencing new restaurants and stores to the point that it’s become an in-joke. On a fan-made “Nothing, Forever” bingo generator, the free space is “New thing!”

Per the nascent wiki, some new places include a new type of bagel (it’s shaped like an octopus, and called the octobagel), a new shake shop (they serve pickles in their shakes), a new taco truck (they sell tacos and burgers) and a new all-you-can-eat buffet (nothing but pink flamingo wings!). One of the few interactive items in Larry’s apartment is a microwave, a prop that characters frequently and inexplicably use in ways that have no bearing on the plot — the microwave has spurred a fandom of its own, custom Discord emojis and all.

Image Credits: Nothing, Forever bingo (opens in a new window)

“To take that idea even further, ‘Seinfeld’ is famously the show about nothing. What could be more nothing than a robot, right?” said Habersberger. “And then even further with ‘Seinfeld,’ there was a period of fifteen years or so where you could just turn on the TV, and if you flip through the channels, there’s a good chance it’s on, because it was syndicated […] So I was like, wait, now it can really be always on.”

We’ve all seen far too many AI-generated gimmicks, but the AI isn’t what’s most interesting about “Nothing, Forever.” It’s the community that’s gathered around the stream, making the project feel like this generation’s “Twitch Plays Pokémon.”

Image Credits: Nothing, Forever (opens in a new window)

In 2014, an anonymous Australian streamer set up a channel where fans could collaboratively play “Pokémon Red,” pressing buttons and moving the player character via Twitch chat commands. When enough players got involved, the stream turned into chaos. (The route through Rock Tunnel is confusing enough, but imagine navigating it with thousands of people clamoring to control the character’s movement.)

Yet over the two weeks it took to beat the game, fans built deep lore to explain why the character was behaving so erratically. No, we didn’t keep opening our bag to look at the Helix Fossil because of the chaotic button mashing in the chat; indeed, it was because our player character worshiped the Helix Fossil like a deity.

In the same vein, “Nothing, Forever” fans try to parse dialogue to learn more about the universe of the show. On Discord, fans requested a new channel to keep track of new lore as it develops; one page on the wiki chronicles what we know from past mentions of aliens. The community also keeps track of Larry’s recurring standup jokes, which are pretty bad (“What do you call a bear with no teeth? A gummy bear”), but somehow get funnier the more they’re repeated.

“The way that the chat is engaging, they’re kind of creating their own memes and their own culture,” said Hartle. “We’ve had people who have reached out wanting to be community mods and have been watching the show for eight hours at a time.”

Like “Twitch Plays Pokémon,” the creators of “Nothing, Forever” hope to include audience participation features in the future. Hartle told TechCrunch that there are not currently any interactivity features embedded in the livestream, though some fans began theorizing that they were causing Larry to repeat his jokes by getting excited when he talked about gummy bears again.

Mismatch Media hopes they can repurpose the tech stack behind “Nothing, Forever” into an actual system for creating generative media projects. For now, Hartle and Habersburger are taking things slow with their newfound popularity. They’ve been able to make a bit of money from Patreon and Twitch subscriptions, but it’s still unclear how long it will take for the novelty of “Nothing, Forever” to wear off.

Sudden virality can’t last forever. “Twitch Plays Pokémon” became an ongoing series after the completion of the first game, but fan engagement dropped drastically once the excitement around the initial experiment died down. Now, we just fondly remember it as a time when the internet felt less hellish, capturing the same lightning in a bottle as projects like r/Place.

Similarly, it’s difficult to predict how long “Nothing, Forever” will retain its fanbase, and whether or not people would find more joy if the creators started other constant, AI-based sitcom spoofs.

For now, it’s a simple delight to just click off Twitter and watch Larry tell the same jokes over and over.

“What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?”

“Dam!”

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