Which video game cloud service won 2020’s streaming war?

At the end of 2020, players are faced with numerous options when it comes to video game streaming, each with its own pros and cons. Over a year ago, the future looked somewhat bleak, as Google’s big play into gaming stumbled out of the gate. Since then, it has taken some steps to get to where it needs to be, and new players like Amazon have learned from Stadia’s mistakes.

Here are the streaming services you should consider investing time in, where they’re at today, and where they could go in the future.

Nvidia GeForce Now

It feels weird to say that GPU giant Nvidia is the underdog in the streaming wars, but compared to its competition, that certainly seems to be the case.

GeForce Now offers some unique attributes that a niche sector of gamers can take advantage of, but is also the service that comes with the most fine print and red tape.

The good news about the streaming service is that it’s actually free to use. Those wishing to try out GeForce Now are limited to one hour of play time and may have to wait in a queue for access to Nvidia’s servers, but once they’re playing, the only noticeable dip in quality would stem from a lack of RTX enhancements such as ray-traced lighting and shadows.

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GeForce Now’s paid membership, which currently requires you to sign up for six months at a time for $25, unlocks those enhancements, provides priority access, and allows for “extended gaming time.” No specifics on what that means, but I’ve played a couple of hours of Cyberpunk 2077 in a single session without it kicking me out.

GeForce Now is available via dedicated apps on PC, Mac, and Android devices, and via a web app on iPhone. The one glaring omission is streaming to a TV, which while it can be done with an Nvidia Shield, that’s a device unlikely to be in many households.

The best part of GeForce Now is that it utilizes your established PC gaming libraries, able to pair with Steam, GOG, Epic Games, and others, although not every game in those respective libraries is accessible. You also don’t need a gaming PC to use GeForce Now, as the titles run on Nvidia’s own servers, so it might be a good way for people interested in building their own rig one day to dip their toes into that world.

This great aspect of the service leads to its worst. Since each game is running via separate platforms, GeForce Now emulates those systems first before allowing you to play. For example, if the player boots up a game from their Steam library, GeForce Now will load Steam over the cloud and then load into the game. It’s a little clunky, which can also be said for the rest of GeForce Now’s experience, but if you can put up with these quirks, it offers some of the best quality streaming in the game.

Google Stadia

In terms of visual quality, Google Stadia often rivals GeForce Now, and for some titles, even exceeds it. While the service has certainly had a rocky start, implementing features promised at launch over a year later, there’s a few thing that Stadia does very well.

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Firstly, the seamlessness of its experience is above the competition. The app is just much more pleasant to use than any of the other offerings, and moving from one device to the other really does allow you to pick up where you left off more quickly.

The hardest pill to swallow is how isolated Stadia is. Unlike GeForce Now which utilizes your PC purchases and saves, Stadia purchases are only good to run on Stadia, and unless the game natively supports cross-save, additionally purchasing the game on dedicated hardware won’t allow you to transfer your progress over.

As such, Stadia is the platform that asks you to go all-in on streaming and make it your dedicated space for gaming, rather than an optional addition. To access games that have the visual parity of consoles, with 4K resolutions and high dynamic range, subscribers are required to pay $10, with some games unlocked by that subscription to sweeten the deal.

Fortunately, it does have a free membership and some free games like Destiny 2 New Light, and unlike GeForce Now, your game time is unlimited, with the only downside being resolution capped at 1080p and no HDR.

Stadia is supported via Chrome browsers on Mac and PC, an app on Android, and recently came to iOS via a web app. It also works via a Chromecast Ultra, an extremely popular streaming dongle, so players are more likely able to stream directly to their TV compared to GeForce Now.

Bafflingly, Stadia does not run on Google’s new Chromecast with Google TV, which has replaced the Ultra device on its store, meaning if you don’t have one you’ll need to get it from a third party, and currently they’re kind of hard to find. That is, unless you pick one up in a “Stadia Premium” bundle, which includes the Stadia controller.

Stadia’s own controller isn’t required to play Stadia games, but its ability to connect directly to Google’s servers for low input latency is appreciated, although it is only noticeable in specific scenarios in games that require precise timing. The controller is relatively comfortable, but fans of asymmetrical thumbsticks may be turned off by its resemblance to the layout of a PlayStation controller.

Xbox cloud gaming

The streaming service formerly known as Project xCloud has been more cautious and calculated than any of its competitors. In 2019, it launched as a beta on Android devices that was free to those that signed up and were chosen. This past year, it exited beta and was bundled into Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, a $15 subscription that includes perks such as multiplayer gaming, a vast library of first and third-party games, and access to other gaming libraries like EA Play.

While there’s unfortunately no way to test out Xbox cloud gaming for free anymore, it’s positioned much more as a service that works in conjunction with owning Xbox hardware, whether that be last generation’s Xbox One, or the latest Xbox Series X|S.

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Matt Smith/Digital Trends

The number of Game Pass Ultimate subscriptions have been growing at a tremendous rate, as many players that own an Xbox see the inherent value in the service simply for its games library alone. As such, cloud gaming is just the icing on the cake.

Because of this, Xbox cloud gaming is a little more limited than the other services. It currently only works via an app for Android devices, with no timetable on when it might be coming to iPhone via a web app, which these services are required to do as they violate Apple’s App Store policies.

Streaming quality is also limited to 720p, as the hardware being used at Microsoft’s servers is comparable to that of the Xbox One S. This allows Xbox cloud gaming to work at lower internet speeds than Stadia, and in testing, we have found it to connect and play games in instances where Stadia cannot. If a user has a minimum of 25 Mbps at their disposal, however, there is a notable visual difference between games on Xbox cloud gaming comparative to the other services.

Fortune

If you have an Xbox or desktop PC, all those games and their saves are available to you via the subscription to download and enjoy, so in that instance, the need for a way to stream to a TV or computer might not be necessary. If you wanted to hop on a Mac or play on another TV in the house, however, there’s currently no way to do so, despite the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, claiming there would be before the end of 2020. It seems the timeline for that has shifted to the spring of 2021. Hopefully, that is also when the visual capabilities of Xbox cloud gaming are also improved to bring 1080p and even 4K via streaming.

Amazon Luna

The last streaming horse to enter the race, Amazon stepped up to the plate in late 2020 to unveil its own service — Luna. Amazon Luna takes a few cues from the different services: It has its own dedicated controller like Stadia and you only access games via subscription like Xbox cloud gaming.

Speaking of that controller, while it offers the same low latency connectivity as Stadia’s, we found it much less comfortable to hold with its very angular design. The more grippy texture was appreciated, as were the asymmetrical thumbsticks akin to an Xbox controller, but its mushy triggers leave a lot to be desired.

Luna is the name for the platform, but unlike Xbox cloud gaming, it doesn’t house one subscription, but several known as channels. As of now, there are two on offer. The first is Luna+, and costs $7 a month. This is a mix of different games across a wide variety of genres, although none that are too recent or groundbreaking, giving it the least compelling library of all the services.

The other channel currently available is Ubisoft+, which is actually a separate subscription players obtain directly via Ubisoft and can be linked to their Luna account. Ubisoft+ provided access to the majority of the publisher’s library, including new releases like Watch Dogs: Legion and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. These titles are also downloadable to a PC, and your saves move between them.

We found ourselves spending the majority of our time with Luna playing these new Ubisoft titles, but since its launch, the Ubisoft+ subscription has also become available via Stadia, where the games run at a higher quality. Luna was also able to claim exclusivity to iPhone via web app when it launched, but nearly all its competitors have caught up in that regard too.

As of right now, unless there are a couple of games that attract someone to the Luna+ library, it is by far the least desirable streaming service to pick, unless they already own devices like an Amazon Fire TV.

And the winner is…

Looking at the services, and what they offer, there are two key factors we honed in on: Quality and access. How good do the games look and play, and which service has the best access, not only to a content library but when actually using the platform.

Against all odds, we’ve awarded the title of best streaming service to Google Stadia. While the platform has a bunch of issues, it is far and away the most polished, and the one closest to making dedicated video game streaming a reality.

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

GeForce Now provides great visual quality but is limited in the devices it is accessible on, and is the most rough around the edges in terms of usability.

Xbox cloud gaming is an excellent option, but only if you’re invested in the Xbox ecosystem and plan to use it as an extension of gaming on a console. While it offers a great selection of games via Game Pass Ultimate, it’s currently inaccessible on the most popular phone in the United States or other devices outside of Android, and it has the worst streaming quality of any of the services.

Finally, Amazon Luna has some interesting ideas with its multiple channels, but it doesn’t do anything better than any of the other services. Most of the games are accessible via the other platforms, it has a worse controller on Stadia, and its streaming quality doesn’t compete with GeForce Now. As mentioned earlier, the only reason to go with Luna is if you plan to stream a lot to a TV and already own an Amazon Fire TV. If Luna had retained its exclusivity on iPhone and Ubisoft+, it would have had an upper hand on its competitors, but it lost that in a matter of months.

Going forward, accessibility and quality are going to be the name of the game. If Xbox can improve the visual fidelity of its streaming and open up to more devices, it will have gained massive ground against Google. If Stadia can enhance its Pro subscription with better incentives, eventually release some impressive exclusives, and ultimately deliver on one day being able to stream games at 8K and 120fps, taking its crown might become difficult.

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