This holiday season, only one of the two major next-gen consoles will feature an out of the box game streaming solution: Sony's PlayStation 4. And that streaming feature taps into some powerful trends that should act as an ambassador for the hardware and Sony's online network.
If you're not familiar with the feature, it's very simple. The PlayStation 4 controller has a streaming button that you tap at any point while playing a game. From this screen you can upload a clip of your last 15 minutes of play (the console buffers a chunk at all times just in case you do something cool you want to share). But you can also choose to live stream your gameplay, with or without a feed from the PlayStation camera or mic that carries your image or voice. You can also choose to allow comments to be displayed on the screen during your stream.
This is all powered by Twitch, the gaming video network born of Justin.tv. You can also use Ustream to send live video, but the majority of gamers I've seen are using Twitch. I'm not sure it matters which you use as the audience is likely coming mostly from your shared links, not the networks themselves. Though this could change if either/or builds special browsing tools that surface new streams faster.
Though Microsoft has plans to implement game streaming, also via Twitch, those plans hit a snag and the only option available at launch is to save a video and upload it for later watching. You can't do the same kind of real time streaming on Xbox One as you can on PS4, at least not yet. Microsoft says that this functionality should arrive early next year.
I've been testing out the live streaming on the PS4 and it's a pretty awesome experience. The streaming is incredibly easy to get going, you can sign up for a Twitch account right in the flow and get going. You can share the stream to Facebook or Twitter so that people can hop in and watch, and a channel gets made on Twitch as well. People can comment on your gameplay as you run through Knack or Call of Duty or what have you.
There's something invigorating about having people watch your play in the game live.
This partially taps into the ‘let's play' movement that's been gaining steam on video sites like Twitch and YouTube in a big way. Millions of people watch pre-recorded videos of other people playing games. It's a crazy phenomenon that seems counter-intuitive. Why wouldn't you just play the games yourself?
The answer, I think, lies in the realm of spectator sports. Yes, we can all play basketball or football in one form or another, but there is a pleasure in watching people play that are really good at what they do. And there's a sort of thrill that comes in seeing people fail as well.
In addition to the charge you get out of having an audience, there's also the collaborative aspects. People watching my streams give comments, advice, encouragement and yes, insults. I'm able to respond back with the mic without having to type anything. It's a super fun mechanic and really well executed on PS4.
Both ‘let's play' and the PS4′s livestreaming feature tap into something primal; games as performance art, to a degree.
I used to play games competitively in ladders, climbing rung after rung with every match, until I was close to the top of one of the biggest amateur leagues. Those matches often hosted spectators, who watched and chatted as they went on. This was long before the days of Major League Gaming or the Pro Gaming League or any of those huge formal events. It was cool then, but now the audiences are massive, with finals held in huge arenas. Livestreaming allows anyone to get a small taste of that kind of performance.
Live game streaming is set to be the next big social layer for platforms big and small. Yes, it's on the major consoles now, but I wouldn't be too surprised to see most portable devices including those running iOS and Android get some support for this kind of thing. Playing a game is fun, sure, but playing in front of an audience gives it another whole kind of punch, something I haven't felt for a lot of years.
Sony and Microsoft have tried for years to get people to share achievements and trophies on social networks, or even to passively send status updates like ‘watching Netflix' or what have you. But this is another whole level entirely.
Sony has a nice early start on the streaming layer for the holidays, and I think it's going to be a big win for them. Microsoft's Xbox One has a host of media related features that outstrip Sony's offering, and I'm enjoying both consoles. But when I play the Xbox One, I'm immediately missing the ability to just ‘pull' people into my session to see what they have to say. Not having streaming ready to go on launch day has to irk them.
Now, Sony has roughly two months to capture the interests of gamers with its streams and the network effects of the social followers of those streamers. People are going to be seeing tons of these Twitch.tv links on Twitter and Facebook over their winter breaks of whatever sort and they're going to be intrigued. Clicking on them and seeing a human playing a fighter or shooter in real time is a compelling sales tool.
Out beyond that, once both consoles have the capability, It will be interesting to see how fast and how far it spreads when it comes to other platforms. Twitch recently announced it had 45M monthly viewers, and raised $20M in a series C. That's growth of roughly 10M viewers in 3 months and all of that was before the PS4 and eventually the Xbox One.
Game streaming is just getting on its feet, but the possibilities are strong.