It's easy to think that Intel's primary challenger to its desktop PC gaming dominance comes from the resurgent AMD, especially with its new line of 7nm Ryzen 3000 series processors on the cusp of release. But there are larger, more ominous shifts that could alter the future of gaming: Namely, game streaming services.
Google's entrance into the streaming market (Stadia), not to mention the plethora of other services that aim to mix Netflix-style ubiquity across a wide range of devices with high-performance AAA gaming, could pose a threat to Intel's gaming-focused businesses. But Intel isn't entirely convinced these services will usurp its market dominance, and if they do whittle away at its base, the company has a plan to keep its silicon in the game.
We caught up with Mark “Bot” Subotnick, Intel's Director of Business Development for Games and eSports, on the sidelines of the E3 conference to talk about the company's view on the future of gaming and how game streaming services, like Google's Stadia, will impact the company moving forward.
Think of Bot as Intel's gaming developer ambassador. Bot began his career in 1993 and previously worked for big-name gaming companies like Microsoft / Xbox and Sega. His remit at Intel is to establish and cultivate relationships with the game development community to keep Intel's flag planted in one of the company's primary high-margin revenue-generating sectors.
Services like Stadia will require hefty amounts of compute to serve up fast, accessible gameplay, but how to best deliver that experience remains a challenge. These games will be streamed from massive amounts of compute hardware spread across the world’s data centers, which Bot thinks meshes nicely with Intel’s data center business.
"Where does that compute sit, is it on the edge, is it adding a lot of graphics to the actual server node, is it a combination of that?" Bot asked. "We'll learn a lot from the Stadia roll-out, but we have Nvidia out there already, and we have a lot of other services out there already, and this isn't new to Intel."
Intel Capital famously invested in the Gaikai game streaming service in 2008. Gaikai was eventually sold to Sony for $380 million, where it now serves as the bedrock technology behind Sony's PlayStation Now streaming service. Much like today's new streaming services, Gaikai was initially intended to deliver high-end AAA gaming with all compute done in the cloud and served across an internet connection to any number of devices, including PCs, tablets, and mobile phones. Like today's strategy for game streaming, the service relied upon fast internet connections and used the latest technology.
"We were a lead investor in Gaikai, which was 10 or 11 years ago. Not to diminish it, but there was the same hype that ‘cloud’s coming, client's going to be irrelevant, everyone is going to be playing in the cloud.’" Bot later expanded on his thoughts on game streaming services, and how they will impact Intel's desktop CPU sales, "I think it’s a great service for a certain class of game, and back catalog games, which is very healthy for publishers to have a way to monetize back catalog, and I think that can be very wonderful for TAM expansion. But I'm not sitting here quaking in my shoes saying 'Oh my God, look at this, we're going to have a hard time selling i9's in the future because everyone is going to be playing in the cloud.’"
Bot thinks that history tells us that tremendous amounts of modern compute aren’t necessarily going to solve the challenges of game streaming. “OnLive and Gaikai had a very similar offering, they really did. I encourage people to go back and look at the story that was being told ten years ago and ask yourself what's different. I will 100% admit the infrastructure has changed; it is much more robust. What Google has done to create that on their side, they definitely have a very healthy data center infrastructure. But the story back then wasn't much different, and now our story is 5G, and my comment about developers eating up as much compute as you throw them kind of eats at that argument a little. “
“Yeah, sure, we have more bandwidth, and we need more bandwidth. But we weren't doing 100-person battle Royal matches every two seconds. That's my main point is the headroom isn't there that everyone assumes is there because technology has caught up--the content moves at a faster pace. We're trying to keep up with the developers and where they want to push the limits. They're ready to eat up compute; they're always asking for more. It's a very healthy relationship."
Bot believes that boundary-pushing game developers will continue pushing the limits of hardware, and says the PC is well positioned. "We're going to deliver a world-class experience, and we're going to continue to talk to developers about that roadmap, and they're going to continue to eat up every ounce of compute we throw them. And that's the healthy relationship of our business and the gaming industry that has existed for a long time, and I can't see a world where game developers stop and say 'Oh, that's good enough! We're not pushing the envelope anymore.'
“I used to make games. Everything we do is always 'how do we push the medium further?' That's the nature of art, that's the nature of entertainment, and especially what consumers want now. We're in a good position where we can continue to deliver world-class experience and performance, and the developers will continue to just eat it up," Bot said.
Bot expanded on the importance of exclusive titles for gaming consoles, and how that is important for streaming services like Stadia to attract and expand their user base. “I don't see us being competitors with Stadia any time soon. I was confused by what they showed. I would have expected them to show new experiences never capable before by using this distributed compute, or some slice of what that looks like. And then more casual games, that are latency tolerant. Which is fine… I think it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out.”
Our conversation turned to how services like Stadia will impact desktop PCs and consoles. “It's confusing to me a little. They showed a lot of newer games. My belief is that there are a class of games that will run well on that. I personally have a high bandwidth connection at home, and I don't know if I can say, 'Wow, I’m going to always have the requirements they say to get the experience they say I can get right now off of my desktop.' And I'm in a privileged setting, so it's interesting to see: Who is the gamer base they are actually going to serve, and how is that class of game going to evolve? I think it's a really exciting space, I do. I think it's going to be a TAM expansion, and I think it's great for people to get more experience on any side of the spectrum, and I still think there is that class of gamer that always wants what you and I talked about [high performance].”
“[...] It's a different world than me when I grew up, we were the geeks in the corner at LAN parties, and it wasn't hip to do this. But it's actually cool to have a badass PC rig. Consoles are OK; I come from a background of working on them. I'm not going to bash that world. I think gaming is a wonderful thing no matter what you're doing it on, but I can safely say that what we deliver is the best experience, and I think we're going to continue to do that."
"So, they'll be a top of the pyramid, so to speak, people that always care about performance. I personally have a hard time seeing a future where I can’t distinguish between that and what is being served to me from the cloud. Maybe that exists. I think that's really far off if it is coming. And I think we're going to always be in a position of where we say 'OK, here is the next wave of amazing performance,’ and we'll match this with developers and publishers that maximize that, and that experience is going to be the best native. And if other people can get a taste of it from the cloud, we're going to be a part of that, too."
Bot said that services like Stadia would expose more casual users to AAA gaming, which could eventually lead them to buy a desktop PC to get the best experience. “We're in a unique position where that's not hurting us from a business standpoint; we'll be serving that up with amazing Xeon parts and our GPU. But from the PC part, the part that you and I are talking about today, I don't really think it's frightening. I think it's going to grow the business. I may be crazy, but I really see this TAM expansion. It's almost like, 'Thank you, Google, go get everybody else that can't afford what we deliver a taste.'“
Intel can play both sides of the ball by selling its Xeon data center processors, and the collection of complementary technologies, to could service providers. “Part of the conversation that's shifted is that now we are starting to talk to people about what their needs are in the cloud, from the games as a service aspect to different forms and flavors of streaming, and we have some partners in that segment as well [Play Giga, Tencent, and Gamestream]. I can't share much more than that, other than we are obviously a segment leader on that side.”
“Intel recognizes that cloud gaming is being looked at, and they feel that they are in a healthy position to be a partner and provider in that space," Bot said. "We've already developed some key partnerships. Being competitive on the server side isn't new. But I can't imagine a shift where we go 'well, client is dead.' We lead in that space, and we're going to continue to lead in that space. It’s a healthy business, and gaming is a growth segment of our business, it is a growth segment of the CPU business at Intel, so it is important to us as a company.”
"Gaming is so broad now, it is the thing that people are doing across any aspect of their lives, and they tend to do it across a wide range of platforms. So, we want to be able to provide a good product for all of those ranges. We're uniquely positioned, there are companies doing great things on CPUs, great things on GPUs, some focus on different aspects, but we have a very healthy server story, a very healthy CPU story, a storage and memory story, a GPU story, and I would say a good part that came out with Ice Lake. We’re doing a lot of nice things."
Bot also believes that the desktop PC will continue to have a role in a gaming world that is becoming more fragmented with mobile gaming, consoles, and now streaming services. “I would have never ever believed that this world would have existed today where you see games playing across all these different services. When that world is broken down, what platform is the platform of choice? What's the best future proof for your money over time? Sure, you could save money over the short term if you go the console route, but if you want something that is going to be badass and run over a healthy cycle, and be upgradeable based on what you need, PC is the way to go."
Photo Credits: Intel / Shutterstock