For months, AT&T has had a tantalizing opportunity: what if its network let you try blockbuster games for free right away? The company began by generally bundling free six-month subscriptions to Google Stadia, and then began allowing its customers to stream full copies of Batman: Arkham Knight AND control through the internet. Then he hinted at something even more intriguing: a try-before-you-buy game service where you can try out a game directly from a search resultbuy and download a full copy once you decide you like it and pick up where you left off.
No current cloud gaming service offers anything like this.
But after speaking with the man responsible for these AT&T initiatives, we learned that AT&T isn’t planning to create such a thing on its own. In fact, the company’s experiments are not pointing towards a cloud gaming business at all.
“We’re not going to turn it into a business,” says Matthew Wallace, AT&T’s assistant vice president of 5G product and innovation. “Our purpose in life is not to provide a gaming app or gaming service; is to provide the basic network capability and then make those capabilities available to gaming companies and customers.”
I ask the question in other ways as well, just to make sure I’m getting it right. Would AT&T be willing to provide the missing pieces of that try-before-you-buy vision? “We’re not interested in launching a gaming service for this,” Wallace says. The company has existing relationships with Google and Microsoft, so it’s not investing in building its own cloud network to attract game publishers, nor does it have another free game like Batman or control lined up; Wallace says AT&T is looking for its next partner there now.
So what does AT&T want from cloud gaming? Wallace, a 25-year veteran of AT&T, was willing to be honest. His role with it only dates back to 2019 and began as a test case for 5G — just one particularly useful example of a difficult but potentially desirable network workload that benefits from faster connectivity. “Gaming, especially cloud gaming, was one of the first things that came to the fore,” he says.
So the job was to partner with the game companies and figure out how the network could best serve their needs. “Our focus is what we can do on the network to make sure the client session has the right characteristics,” Wallace says. This includes not only radio performance, but also optimized paths for all data passing through the network, shortening the time it takes to travel “from the cellular core to where the applications are,” among other hops.
A misunderstood fact about cloud gaming is that a fast connection in terms of download speed is not fast enough. Much more important is latency – here, the time it takes for your button press to travel to a remote server, move your game character, and make its way back to your screen. Wallace says AT&T has learned that speed and latency need to be consistent for cloud gaming, and that consistency has “definitely held back mobile networks.” This is what the company is working towards with these public tests.
And there, AT&T may have an opinion on how to dramatically improve consistency, but it’s a potentially contentious issue. Wallace says the company is testing quality-of-service adjustments that can “ensure that resources are allocated to customers using a cloud gaming application.” In other words, AT&T could prioritize cloud gaming usage over other types of data — something that would fly in the face of net neutrality principles. (Net neutrality is mostly dead in the US, but alive and well in California, and could be brought back nationally.)
Mind you, Wallace says AT&T has only tested this in the lab and in the field. “It’s not something we’ve offered live yet,” he says. “We haven’t figured it out in the market for any of these things, but you can imagine a future where for the right service levels, games just work for the customer — they don’t have to do anything special.”
I’m torn. Cloud gaming needs to “work” if it’s ever going to succeed, but it sure sounds like AT&T is thinking about paid prioritization with that “adequate service levels” comment. If I had to choose, I would choose net neutrality.