A year ago, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick said he was “pretty optimistic” about Google’s Stadia game-streaming service. The concept of “being able to play our games on any device whatsoever around the world, and to do it with low latency, well that’s very compelling if that can be delivered,” he offered in May of 2019.
Now, though, Zelnick has changed his tune a bit. In an interview given during the Bernstein Annual Strategic Decisions Conference late last week, Zelnick acknowledges what has been apparent to industry watchers for a while: “The launch of Stadia has been slow,” he said. “I think there was some overpromising on what the technology could deliver and some consumer disappointment as a result.”
While major publishers like EA and Activision stayed away from Stadia’s “Founders” launch last November, Take-Two provided three of the service’s highest-profile games in its early months—Red Dead Redemption 2, NBA 2K20, and Borderlands 3. And Zelnick said such Stadia support will continue in the future “as long as the business model makes sense.” (Take-Two’s PGA Tour 2K21, WWE2K Battlegrounds, and the Mafia series are currently planned for future Stadia release.)
That said, Zelnick was pretty bearish on how much of an impact the streaming business model will really have on Take-Two’s bottom-line sales.
“It’s not a game changer,” Zelnick said. “People who want our games now can get our games now. The fact that you could stream them and not have to have a console interface is really not that big of a deal.”
Who is streaming for, exactly?
Zelnick went on to deride a key concept underpinning the entire Stadia business model: the idea that streaming would appeal to billions of potential players clamoring for high-end games on their mobile phone or low-end PCs.
“If you’re going to pay $60-plus in US dollars for a frontline release, and more internationally, are you really unwilling to buy a $300 console?” Zelnick mused. “The belief that streaming was going to be transformative was based on a view that there were loads of people who really [had] an interest in interactive entertainment, really wanted to pay for it, but just didn’t want to have a console. I’m not sure that turned out to be the case.”
If this whole argument sounds familiar, you may be remembering the ill-fated microconsole boom of the early- and mid-2010’s. Back then, a surprising number of hardware makers thought there was a huge market of potential gamers who weren’t willing to spend $400 on a high-end console full of marquee releases but were willing to spend $100 on a low-end console full of indie games.
Stadia and other streaming gaming services aren’t an exact repeat of the microconsole trend. The platform can handle high-end games, for one, and the hardware cost-of-entry is practically nothing if you already have a smartphone, tablet, or laptop (though that wasn’t the case when Stadia launched).
But the streaming business case still rests on the idea that there’s a significant market of gamers who aren’t willing to buy in to the console market (or shell out for a gaming PC) to play marquee titles. Plus those gamers need to be willing to deal with potential latency and broadband connection issues for the privilege of playing. Maybe streaming works better as a mobile-focused bonus add-on for an existing downloadable games business, which is the direction Microsoft seems to be heading with the idea.
“So I’m excited about [streaming] technology and what it can do,” Zelnick summed it up in his conference interview. “But I don’t believe it’s going to multiply our market by 10 times or 20 times. And if it does, that’d be great. I’d love to be wrong.”
Listing image by Kyle Orland