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Games battles are a taste of things to come

When we’re streaming our desktops, how will we pay for software? The games industry is going through these growing pains now

It used to be the porn industry that led the way in technical innovation – or so I’m told. Nowadays, the games industry is a better barometer. Right now, it’s starting to go through the licensing pains that will soon be felt across the computing spectrum, and you’ll doubtless be shocked to hear that it’s us consumers who will feel that pain most acutely.

I recently wrote a feature in IT Pro's sister magazine, PC Pro, about the burgeoning games streaming services, one of which was Nvidia GeForce Now. This arguably launched with the most enticing business model – a bring-your-own games service that allows you to play titles you’ve previously purchased on Steam, Uplay or other online games stores. Nvidia provides the streaming infrastructure, for up to £5 per month, you bring the games. 

At least, that was the theory – a theory that upset some of the games publishers, who hadn’t agreed to have their games on GeForce Now and demanded that they were removed.

This brings us to a philosophical dilemma: what constitutes a “PC”? Steam and other stores allow users to install their games library on any PC they own, but it seems some games publishers don’t believe that what Nvidia is offering can reasonably be classed as a PC at all.

I see both sides of the argument. GeForce Now isn’t a PC in any conventional sense. Unlike rival Shadow, which hands users their own Windows instance and lets them install what they like, GeForce Now users never see a Windows desktop. Instead, they pick from a graphical menu of preinstalled games and can play them on demand using a variety of devices, as long as they’ve already purchased the game from a supported stores or direct from the publisher. 

Games publishers, used to being paid afresh every time a customer installs their game on a new platform, are narked that they aren’t getting a cut from Nvidia. And without their games, Nvidia doesn’t have a business. Nvidia, on the other hand, is doing all the heavy lifting. It’s providing the server infrastructure, the bandwidth, and clearly doing all the optimisation work itself, since publishers weren’t even aware their titles were on the service. Why should those publishers expect to be paid yet again when it’s Nvidia that’s bearing all the cost and hard graft?

If your response to that question is a Gallic shrug, a yawn of non-gamer’s ambivalence, don’t be nonchalant: these are the types of questions that will soon have to be dealt with right across the software industry.

Streamed desktops are the future. In ten years’ time, we won’t be buying laptops or desktops with bundles of local processing power and storage, we’ll be buying dumb terminals more akin to ChromebooksWindowsmacOS and even Linux instances will be streamed, and then we’ll have the interesting conundrum of how apps are licensed on such platforms. 

At the moment, for example, if you buy a Microsoft Office subscription or Adobe Creative Cloud, you get to install the client software on as many systems as the licence permits – not very many in Adobe’s case

However, what happens when we’re effectively renting our OS from Microsoft or Apple? Will they adopt an Nvidia-like approach where the OS becomes invisible to the end user and you take your pick from a selection of apps in their stores? If that’s the case, you can expect Microsoft and Apple to demand a cut of app subs revenue and the whole licensing model is up in the air. Or will they go for a Shadow-like route, where you stream a Windows/macOS instance and things carry on much like they do today, with you paying for an OS subscription and software subs on top of that?

Last decade saw the demise of the one-off licence – the idea that you buy a piece of software and have the right to use it indefinitely, as long as you can still find a PC to support it. Aside from Serif’s Affinity packages, I can’t think of a piece of software from a major publisher that’s still clinging to that old model. 

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The difficult bit is predicting where we’re headed. The squabble between games publishers and Nvidia is just a warm up for what’s to come, with software publishers trying to retain their margins and the OS vendors determined to take a cut. We’re already seeing this with the Windows Store and Mac App Store. 

One thing’s for sure: it won’t be good news for us, the customer. Just as you have to pay twice if you want to play the same game on Windows, Mac or mobile devices, I can well see that happening with the streaming platforms that will emerge. It’s going to be an ugly, expensive fight.

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