Google just announced "Project Stream," a "technical test" of a service designed to stream AAA video games à la Playstation Now and GeForce Now. We've heard rumors of a "Project Yeti" gaming service for some time now, and this looks to be the first sign of a real "Google Gaming" product.
The Project Stream test will involve streaming Ubisoft's Assassins Creed Odyssey to desktop-class Chrome browsers, which means it will work on Windows, macOS, Linux, and ChromeOS. Google's blog post says that a "limited number of participants" will be able to try the game for free starting October 5. A 25Mbps Internet connection is "recommended" for the service, and you'll need accounts with Google and Ubisoft. For controls, you have options of a keyboard and mouse or a USB (not Bluetooth) game controller. Google says a recent Xbox or Playstation controller will work fine. Provided you are 17 years or older and live in the US, you can sign up at projectstream.google.com.
Game-streaming services are still in their infancy, but the idea applies the standard "cloud computing" thinking to video games. Rather than have players buy and maintain their own expensive gaming hardware, game streaming offloads that compute work to the cloud and streams down only what you need (a video feed) over the Internet. When done correctly, the services allow for high-fidelity games on minimal hardware.
The hard part is latency. If you're playing a video game at 60fps, these services have 16 milliseconds to receive a button press over the Internet, render a new, live video frame, and send it back to you. This all has to happen with around zero lag or buffering, or playing the game will be very frustrating.
Because this is just a "technical test," Project Stream isn't the launch of a full-fledged commercial gaming service from Google, but it's obviously the beginnings of such a plan. Google's blog post spends a lot of time talking about just how hard game streaming is and how the company wants to get it right. Google already runs some of the world's most popular and/or bandwidth-intensive sites on the Internet (YouTube, Google.com) and has done low-latency streaming work with YouTube's live-streaming service. It develops Google Chrome, the world's most popular browser, and is not afraid to develop new protocols and codecs to make the Internet faster, cheaper, and more profitable. If Google really wanted to throw a ton of resources behind this gaming project, it is one of the few companies with enough control over the entire Internet stack that it could do something special.
Project Steam isn't the only streaming platform Assassins Creed Odyssey is headed to. In Japan, the game will also be streamable to the Nintendo Switch starting October 5th. On the other consoles, Odyssey is limited to 30FPS, so the 60FPS version on Project Stream could be one of the best versions of the game.
Like any game console, a commercial Google Gaming service would live or die by its game selection. When we last heard of Google's "Project Yeti," the company was reportedly doing the rounds at the 2018 Game Developers Conference and E3 to drum up developer support for the service. The report claimed that if developers didn't come willingly, the possibility of "major acquisitions" was on the table. Google also hired ex-Playstation and Xbox executive Phil Harrison this year, and he took the position of "Vice President and GM" of some mysterious Google division.
Yeti has supposedly been in the works for over two years, with executives from the Google Hardware team leading the project. For now, Google is sidestepping the hardware question with a test on Chrome, but internal versions of Yeti have been considered for the Chromecast or gaming-specific hardware. Connecting a controller to a 2nd-gen Chromecast would be difficult since it only supports Wi-Fi and USB, but an unannounced 3rd-gen Chromecast with Bluetooth onboard recently started popping up at Best Buy.
We expect to hear more about the new Chromecast at Google's big October 9 hardware event.