Recently, a developer criticized GeForce Now for allowing users to play a game that he did not give Nvidia permission to host. After both Activision and Bethesda pulled games from GeForce Now, it became obvious something was up, and now what’s up seems to be clear: it’s money. When the critical developer said, “devs should control where their games exist,” that is another way to say, “you need to pay me in order to get permission to host this game.” Ordinarily, this seems pretty simple; Steam, Sony, Nintendo, etc can’t publish and provide a game that they don’t have the rights to. So, it would appear Nvidia has done something wrong here and needs to pay up in order to be able to host games.
However, I am arguing that Nvidia actually hasn’t done anything wrong, at least not ethically or morally. Perhaps Nvidia has actually broken a law (the existence of which might be against the common interest), but I’m not a lawyer and can’t really say definitively. Ultimately, GeForce Now should not be compromised by developers who feel that they deserve some of the revenue, and it is a shame that this has happened given that GeForce Now is at least a very cheap way to game.
Is GeForce Now a platform or just hardware?
This is actually an important question. What is a PC? Is PC a gaming platform or is it just the hardware? What makes a PC different from a console? What makes streaming games different than playing games on a PC or a console?
It’s pretty clear that PCs and consoles are two totally different things, but it’s not as simple as PC having better hardware and consoles being cheaper. What really sets PCs and consoles apart is the software. Everything you run on a PC is more or less your choice. There is a limited amount of choices for operating systems, typing programs, internet browsers, etc, but there is a choice, which is an important distinction from the console which does not have choice. To choose differently is to choose a different console. If you don’t like Sony software, you don’t buy a PS4, you buy the Xbone. If you don’t like Windows, you can actually keep your hardware, your PC, and just get Linux. If you don’t like Steam, try the Epic Games Store or something. If you don’t like Chrome, get Firefox. The hardware does not dictate the software, both are up to the user.
This distinction is important to understand in the context of the GeForce Now controversy because GeForce Now is basically just a PC that is streamed to a device. It is not a gaming platform, it is hardware that is intended for gaming. It is different from the PC in that the user cannot choose his hardware, but the user still does choose his software (with an important exception that I will explain later). On GeForce Now, the software component is practically identical because Nvidia streams what is more or less a PC to your device. You don’t get to choose your OS, but you choose everything else that is relevant for gaming: the store, the launcher, and the games. Most importantly, GeForce Now does not provide games in the same way that Steam and others do. Nvidia stores all of its relevant software on site and then you can download it to your streamed PC over the local network instead of through an internet connection. So, you can’t choose literally any game to stream but that is due to a technical limitation of storage. That is different from when Sony doesn’t let a user install Chrome on its system or when Sony says unapproved developers can’t develop for PS4.
If Nvidia has done anything wrong in the slightest sense, perhaps it’s keeping local copies of games on site. But there isn’t anything ethically or morally wrong with the idea of streaming a PC to someone that owns a game in his own right rather than through Nvidia. If you thought that Nvidia was providing these games, you’re wrong; GeForce Now users can only play the games they’ve bought through stores like Steam. If this is legally wrong, then it shouldn’t be.
Does Nvidia unfairly benefit by streaming these games?
Even though GeForce Now is functionally a PC and users can only play games they own themselves, perhaps there is still an argument to be made that Nvidia is unfairly benefiting off of the work of developers who had no say in whether or not their games were going to be on GeForce Now. People are paying to play games, and without those games, GeForce Now wouldn’t be feasible. So, do devs deserve revenue based on this idea?
I would argue that, no, they don’t. Ask yourself this: what’s the difference between the version of a game on PC and the version on console? They are the same experience, but there’s a big difference happening when it comes to the platform. When a developer releases a game on the PS4, it is obvious that it’s going to be played by Sony gamers, via Sony’s store, on Sony’s platform, with Sony’s OS, and Sony’s hardware. Sony owns everything about the PS4 and making a game for the PS4 always involves Sony, at almost every level. GeForce Now, on the other hand, is quite a bit different. When it comes to the developer and GeForce Now, where exactly is the cooperation supposed to be happening? At the hardware level? The OS? The store and platform?
When it comes to hardware, well, why would there need to be any cooperation? If you’re familiar with PC, you would be aware that users can have any kind of hardware combination, from CPU to RAM to motherboard to storage to, most importantly, GPU. GeForce Now provides no special hardware. What you get from GeForce Now you can get on Amazon. Buy yourself an RTX 2060 and an i3 9100F and you have yourself pretty much the same hardware used for GeForce Now. Developers have free access to this hardware and can optimize for it without Nvidia’s or Intel’s permission. Nvidia isn’t changing the code of the games they stream to make it run better on their hardware, the developers do that already when they make a game for Windows.
The OS is also irrelevant and reveals no real cause for outrage. Nvidia chose Windows 10 for streaming, and most devs make their games for Windows 10. It’s also important to note that devs don’t need to ask for Microsoft’s permission to make a game on Windows 10. When devs make a game for Windows 10, that is a matter of compatibility, not copyright, which is very different from a console where the console manufacturer is extremely relevant to the whole game development process. Think of it this way: on Windows, developers get their game out via platforms like Steam or directly to gamers. Microsoft is not exclusively providing gamers games on Windows 10, because it’s not a totally closed system. Nobody needs to ask anyone’s permission to run a legal copy of Windows 10 on any device.
Finally, on stores and platforms, I don’t believe GeForce Now should be treated as a special case. Developers work with Steam, Epic, EA, etc when putting their games on their stores and platforms. Essentially, a company like Steam provides a way for gamers to buy games and own them. They are almost entirely hardware agnostic and do not care what OS you’re running your games on (except in the technical sense). The purpose of these stores is to provide gamers the games they play on whatever compatible device they have. Why should GeForce Now be treated differently than my PC? Did HP need to ask Steam if it was okay to run Steam games on their prebuilt PCs? Did they need to ask developers the same thing? They, of course, did not, because HP is selling hardware, not a platform.
On no level of GeForce Now is there really a reason to ask devs for permission. As long as Nvidia is just facilitating what process every PC gamer takes in order to play games, then it’s really no different than any other PC. As long as Nvidia is not customizing any software and is merely providing the hardware component of the PC experience, then it shouldn’t be wrong.
Is game streaming a unique case?
The final point that could be made is that game streaming is unique because it provides hardware as a service, which is different from PCs and consoles in that the hardware is outright owned. Maybe an argument can be made that because streaming is so unique and because it costs a monthly fee to gain access to the hardware, there is an opening for developers to ask for a piece of the revenue. However, I don’t actually believe streaming is a unique way to play games because it is a service.
Though they are not very popular in America and Europe, the internet cafe is extremely popular in Asia, and when you look at the differences between internet cafes and GeForce Now, the only difference seems to be physical location. Just think about it: both provide hardware and charge for access to it, both choose what OS and software its PCs run due to technical limitations, and both don’t provide any games and rely on the gamer’s owned games. In concept, the internet cafe and GeForce Now are almost identical, with the only major difference being that the PC comes to the gamer, instead of the gamer coming to the PC.
If GeForce Now owes devs money, then internet cafes would as well. But, interestingly, no devs were angry when internet cafes started hosting games without asking for permission. They’ve been around for years with no issue whatsoever. But there’s a key difference between Nvidia and internet cafes: Nvidia is bigger and makes way more money. It’s really easy to go after one company that is making alot of money rather than numerous and small companies that only make alot of money collectively and not individually. The concept of providing gaming PCs as a service is not unique and devs have been given several years to determine whether or not they’re okay with it. It’s no coincidence that some devs are suddenly complaining as soon as a profitable venture by a single company pops up.
Nvidia actually isn’t even unique for providing streamed games in this manner; Shadow Tech is another similar service that streams games to supported devices and existed before GeForce Now. Yet, Shadow Tech hasn’t been forced to pull games from its service. The difference is that Shadow Tech is just smaller and wouldn’t be as good of a target.
It’s all about the money, as usual
I have gone through several possible reasons why developers might have a real cause for concern about GeForce Now and none of them hold up very well. The only realistic reason why some devs wouldn’t be happy is because they want to make more money, which explains why Bethesda and Activision are thus far the only major devs to demand their games be banned of the service. To be clear, Nvidia also wants to make money, but GeForce Now is objectively cheap, and it is not very often Nvidia provides anything for cheap. In fact, Nvidia even has a free version of GeForce Now that they presumably lose money on if the free users never upgrade. Nvidia might not have any money to give unless it starts charging more, which means less people would use GeForce Now, which in turn means fewer people are buying PC games they intend to play solely on GeForce Now.
In fact, isn’t it really odd that developers are demanding for their games to not work on GeForce Now? Not just because gamers already bought it and can’t play it on GeForce Now without buying it, but also because they’re effectively reducing the size of their audience and playerbase, meaning they’re turning away potential customers. There has to be an economically significant amount of gamers who want to play on PC yet can’t because their hardware isn’t good enough for it, but is good enough for streaming. I don’t recall Activision demanding Dell to stop letting their gamers play Warcraft 3, and why would they? It’s a really stupid thing to do.
But since game streaming is sort of niche and hasn’t really taken off yet, I suppose these developers feel like it’s more profitable to mooch off of Nvidia instead of relying on GeForce Now to expand their playerbase. It’s really unfortunate that the pursuit of money (which Nvidia curiously seems to have abandoned for the time being) has complicated such a great idea. I strongly urge studios and indie developers to understand what exactly GeForce Now is before deciding on asking Nvidia to stop letting gamers play the games that they already paid for.