Gears & Gadgets

All signs point to a Google game console announcement at GDC

A (not serious) artist's conception of what Google's gaming hardware might look like.
Enlarge / A (not serious) artist’s conception of what Google’s gaming hardware might look like.
Ron Amadeo / Apple

Normally, Google showing up to the Game Developers Conference isn’t a huge deal. The company does this pretty much every year—Android smartphones and Google Play are a pretty big gaming platform, after all—and it shows up with livestreams and blog posts and all the usual festivities. This year, though, is different. Google has been sending out vague teasers since last month for a GDC event, but as the date approaches, the company has been dropping more and more hints of exactly what it is announcing: Google is launching video game hardware for the Project Stream platform.

A new YouTube video for the event posted today asks people to “Gather around as we unveil Google’s vision for the future of gaming at GDC19.” Google recently wrapped up the “Project Stream” beta test, which streamed a full version of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey from the Internet to any desktop version of Chrome. A game-streaming platform certainly fits a vision for the future of gaming, but this is still just a piece of software.

Google hardware

There are two big pieces of evidence that this is a hardware announcement. First, Google is a heavily compartmentalized company, and the person promoting this event on Twitter is none other than Risk Osterloh, Google’s senior vice president of Hardware. Osterloh is behind the division that brought us the Pixel phone, Google Home, and every other Google hardware product. His involvement is a solid sign that, yes, new hardware is coming.

The second big piece of evidence is that Google is also hosting a teaser page on store.google.com. The Google Store. The Google Hardware Store. Google could host a teaser page at any of its thousands of sub-domains, but for some mysterious reason, it picked the Google Store. The “Google Store” doesn’t sell software—that would be “Google Play.” The Google Store only sells hardware—things like smartphones and tablets and laptops and Google Home speakers. Soon, apparently, it will sell video game hardware.

According to a report from The Information (subscription required), Google’s gaming hardware was reportedly codenamed “Yeti” and has been in the works at Google for over three years now. We can only guess at what Google gaming hardware might look like. In 2014, the company co-designed the Google Nexus Player with Asus, which was a dead-simple combination of some smartphone parts in a disk-shaped box, a TV remote, and a generic, Xbox-style game controller. That device was primarily an Android TV box, but a game streaming console could look similar to this.

There was also this Google patent of a generic-looking game controller that made the news rounds the other day. The patent involved pushing notifications to the controller, which could be interesting, and the drawings show Android-y hardware buttons—home, menu, and microphone—presumably for Google voice commands. The controller also acted as your authentication token, storing user information like your Google account and settings and using a button combination as a password. This patent was from 2014, though, so it’s hard to know if it is at all relevant. Companies patent every single idea they have, and random patents aren’t necessarily indicative of future plans.

Another option is just to use the Google Chromecast. The Information’s Yeti report noted that “an early version” of Project Stream originally ran on Google’s existing streaming stick, just with a controller paired to it. At the time we didn’t know of a way to pair a controller to a Chromecast, since the devices didn’t support Bluetooth or any other way to hook up a controller. Months later, a third-generation Chromecast started showing up in stores, packing—wouldn’t you know it—Bluetooth. As far as we know, there is no official explanation for the new Chromecast’s Bluetooth support. So maybe Rick Osterloh will walk up on stage at GDC, hold up a game controller, and say “Anyone that bought a Chromecast in the last six months now owns the Google game console.” Mic drop, exit stage right.

Google infrastructure

The Internet is a series of tubes—like these cooling pipes in Google's Oregon data center.
Enlarge / The Internet is a series of tubes—like these cooling pipes in Google’s Oregon data center.

Numerous companies have tried game streaming in the past, most notably Sony with the PlayStation Now and Nvidia with Geforce Now. Microsoft is jumping into the game with “Project Xcloud,” which is powered by literal Xboxes acting as blade servers. Sony and Microsoft both have existing traditional console businesses to safeguard, though, and Nvidia wants to sell graphics cards. Google is the only gaming newcomer that doesn’t have an existing business to protect.

While Google isn’t a gaming powerhouse, it is an internet infrastructure powerhouse. This could come in handy for a game streaming service that is heavily dependent on network performance and shipping video around the world. Google, of course, runs some of the most popular sites on the Web, including Google.com and YouTube, the latter of which is one of the biggest bandwidth users on the Internet. Google’s pioneering data center work is one of the key reasons sites like YouTube can afford to exist. Google has constantly worked to make the Web cheaper, faster, and lower latency, and today the company has a hand in pretty much every aspect of the Internet, from browsers to ISPs to protocols to fiber backbone. If Google really wants to invest in making low-latency game streaming a reality, there is plenty it can bring to the table.

Google… Games?

Having hardware and a streaming platform is nice, but it doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t have any games to play. A Kotaku report from the middle of last year said Google was pursuing “aggressive recruiting or even major acquisitions” in the games industry to try to build a library for its gaming platform.

There’s a good chance former Xbox and PlayStation executive Phil Harrison was involved in those negotiations, as Google hired him at the beginning of 2018. Another big hire was just announced recently: Google snapped up former Ubisoft and EA executive Jade Raymond. Raymond will be VP of an undisclosed division at Google. It sounds like she’s not allowed to talk about it right now.

Google’s press conference is March 19 at 10am Pacific. There will be a live stream here.

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Tech – Ars Technica