A screenshot from "Assassin's Creed Odyssey," the only game currently playable on Google's Project Stream. (Image via Ubisoft)

A far cry from the plug-in plays of yesteryear, game-streaming platforms are now a popular alternative to hard-copy versions. Being not much of a video gamer myself, I admit I was a little confused when my brother was talking to me the nuances of game streaming. I understood that it involved the internet, but had no real idea of what kinds of games could be streamed or the various ways to do so. Nodding my head as my brother spoke, I figured I’d look up the details another time. But that time never really came, and I continued to only vaguely understand the concept.

However, when I checked Google News recently and saw Google was offering a free computer version of my favorite game, Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” to testers of its new, closed, beta-streaming service, “Project Stream,” I knew I had to find out more. So, what exactly is game-streaming, and what implications could Project Stream possibly have for the service if it succeeds?

Game-streaming allows users to play a video game directly over the internet. It is attractive to users because it allows them to play video games without needing to download them or buy a physical disc. Because the games store their data on the cloud, users can access them on any computer as long as it has a fast enough internet connection. Plus, streaming doesn’t require typically needed equipment, such as costly gaming computers, to run the game.

There are already many popular game-streaming services out today. PlayStation Now is a paid subscription service from Sony that allows users to play exclusive PlayStation games on their PC or PlayStation 4. The service requires a PlayStation console, a PlayStation Network account and a minimum of 5 Mbps of internet download speed. Recently Sony expanded PlayStation Now to include the ability to download games and play them directly on your system, which allows users to play even if they can’t find a strong enough internet connection.

Xbox Game Pass is another streaming service tied to a console. This paid subscription provides access to over a 100 Xbox games, which users download onto an Xbox One console to play and whose data they store on the cloud. Xbox also lets users stream their games onto a PC through Windows 10, no paid subscription required.

Project Stream, on the other hand, is very different from PlayStation Now and Xbox’s services. Google announced the project on Oct. 1, and most of the beta testing just began in early 2019. To run Project Stream, all you need to do is go to the website through Google Chrome on your computer and sign into your account. “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” is still the only game offered right now, but that makes sense given the project is still in closed beta testing. Being able to play the game just by using Chrome in and of itself is extremely significant, as similar games tend to take up anywhere from 20 to 100 GB of storage.

Project Stream seeks to address common issues people have with streaming games, most notably buffering and latency. In the Project Stream announcement, project manager Catherine Hsiao said, “When streaming TV or movies, consumers are comfortable with a few seconds of buffering at the start, but streaming high-quality games requires latency (sometimes known as lag) measured in milliseconds, with no graphic degradation.” Google has pledged to address such issues with Project Stream, and if the venture succeeds, it has the possibility to upend game-streaming as it exists now.

Jessica Conditt from engadget wrote about her experience playing “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” using Project Stream’s service. She called it “the next generation of streaming video games” and has positive reviews on the service’s deliverance on its promises so far. She referenced other times she has used game-streaming services, such as OnLive or Geforce Now, but in her experience “the game begins. And stops. And starts up again. And stops. The dialogue is chopped, animations are disconnected and any type of action scene is impossible to control.”

This wasn’t the case when she used Project Stream, which requires a streaming rate of 15 Mbps, latency below 40 milliseconds and data loss below 5 percent. While Conditt doesn’t give the exact measure of her internet connection while playing in two locations, there was an icon letting her know her connection was weak, and because of that the game could pause at any moment.

Still, her graphics were clear, the game only paused once at each place and both times it was up and running smoothly after just a few minutes. The game restarted right where she had stopped and Conditt was able to seamlessly continue. This all became especially impressive after she revealed that playing “Lego Harry Potter on PlayStation Now using the same internet connection was impossible

Mark Knapp gave a more critical review of Project Stream’s gameplay on techradar. He describes the experience as “at least playable” The service’s largest problems came from a bad connection. “If the connection speed drops, so does the game quality, with lower resolutions, latency and far more noticeable compression,” he wrote.

He praised the graphics on a whole, but points out issues with a low frame-rate and compression. The frame rate was between 30 and 60fps, but 30 is considered the minimum needed for pliable gaming. When faced with a detailed scene and intense movement, compression blurred faces and hard edges, in one instance making a character’s normally defined hair appear soft. Knapp does say these issues, on a whole, are pretty unnoticeable, especially if you were not looking for them as he was.

All in all, Knapp believes Project Stream’s service wasn’t “mind blowing,” but when considering it uses very little of a computer’s processing power, it becomes much more impressive. He was actually able to run a full-system virus scan while streaming “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” with no change in gameplay, and graphics comparable to those on a console.

With a generally favorable outlook for the future, Google’s Project Stream is shaping up to be a strong contender with the streaming services out now. There are even reports that Amazon is developing a streaming service as well.

If games typically limited to a console or complex gaming computer can be enjoyed on a regular computer, what does that mean for the future of consoles or the future of physical copies of games themselves? Will streaming services become the Netflix of video games? I can’t say for sure, but time will surely tell.

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