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Cloud gaming is not your enemy

Historically, gaming fans are resistant to change — and sometimes for good reason. Through its long history, the video game industry has experimented with ideas that tend to pit the best interests of players against those of corporations. Everything from invasive microtransactions, to the Xbox One’s failed always-online plan, to the current NFT craze have prompted a vocal pushback from skeptical players.

With gamers currently on high alert due to a new wave of buzzy industry concepts, cloud gaming is seemingly under more scrutiny than ever. The more companies experiment with the tech, the more it’s treated as an existential threat to the industry. When Kingdom Hearts came to Nintendo Switch via cloud ports, fans dragged it through the mud. Sony’s recent revelation that PS Plus will feature cloud versions of PS3 games triggered similar blowback from fans who demanded native ports.

The skepticism is understandable as cloud proponents have yet to earn players’ trust. Cloud gaming continues to be a tricky technology as it relies on a user having a good internet connection — something that isn’t always possible in most of the U.S. However, outright opposition to the tech can feel misplaced. Unlike other recent tech innovations, cloud gaming could actually solve problems. In fact, we’re already seeing just how positive it can be as an option.

Mounting skepticism

The negative response to cloud gaming’s continued growth is complicated. While players have plenty of legitimate issues with the tech, part of the response stems from its initial implementation. When Google launched its cloud platform Stadia in 2019, there was no real road map for how the cloud should integrate into video games. Google packaged its service into a pricey subscription model that prioritized the tech itself over the actual games that supported it. With a small launch lineup and a lack of features at launch, Stadia immediately struggled to find its footing.

That start to the revolution may have poisoned the well for some. For a time, cloud gaming became synonymous with subscription services. It didn’t help that Amazon jumped on Google’s bandwagon with Luna shortly after, reinforcing that perception. Disgust for the tech seemed inseparable from rational fears that video games were moving into a subscription era.

A gamer plays Destiny 2 on a phone via Google Stadia.
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

While that might have exacerbated the skepticism, it’s far from the sole reason gamers still turn their nose up at the tech. The always-online nature of cloud gaming presents a bevy of problems for gamers who don’t live in a major city that has access to fast internet. Lag and image quality dips can put a damper on experiences like Destiny 2. With no way to play games offline, there’s no guarantee that players will get a fully stable experience playing over Wi-Fi.

Other issues are more complex. Ownership becomes an especially slippery concept with the cloud, and that’s something players have long been prickly about. If someone buys a game on Google Stadia and Google shutters the service, subscribers simply won’t have access to it anymore. That bleeds over into concerns over game preservation, as some fear that a move to the cloud would eventually make some titles disappear into thin air one day.

These are all valid concerns, but they’re ones born out of a scenario in which cloud gaming outright replaces the way we play now. That’s simply not the reality of the tech.

Best-case scenarios

The cloud’s role in the modern gaming landscape is mostly a supplemental one. It’s part of a wider industry philosophy that aims to make gaming more flexible — the same idea that birthed the Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck. For dedicated console and PC players, it means that it’s now possible to play something like Halo Infinite on vacation without lugging a pricey machine around. The aim is to give us more options, not less.

The tech is a potential problem solver and we’re starting to see its utility unfold in unexpected ways. Its most obvious benefit is financial. For those who don’t want to spend $500 buying a new console or much more on a capable PC, cloud gaming lowers the barrier for entry by putting high-end games on the devices they already own. It widens access and that’s fundamentally a net positive outcome.

Someone playing Fortnite on a phone.
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

But perhaps the best example of the cloud as a force for good came last week when Microsoft made a cloud version of Fortnite free to all players, no Game Pass subscription required. The move had a monumental side effect: It stealthily brought the game back onto iOS devices. Fortnite hasn’t been available on the App Store since 2020, a decision that led to a high-profile legal battle between Apple and Epic Games. At the time, Apple banned the title as punishment for Epic trying to skirt around Apple taking a cut of its in-app sales. It was a show of force that highlighted how much power the company has over developers.

Microsoft’s Fortnite move took that power away from Apple. Now, players can once again enjoy the battle royale on iOS devices, and there’s not much the company can do about it.

When used as a tool, the cloud can solve problems like that. Sony’s decision to make PS3 games available via the cloud may be frustrating, but it’s a clever way to get around the complicated architecture that’s made it historically difficult to port titles like Metal Gear Solid 4 to modern devices. Given the state of the Nintendo Switch and its aging tech, the cloud gives players a way to experience modern titles like Control that simply wouldn’t run on the console otherwise.

Team Sonic Racing being played on a variety of devices that support Amazon Luna.

In all of these scenarios, the alternative would be that these games simply wouldn’t exist on these platforms. Fortnite would continue to be unplayable on iOS due to corporate politics, PS3 games would remain lost to time, and Switch owners would have less options. While none of those may be optimal experiences for players with poor internet currently, their existence is purely additive.

As the tech currently stands, there’s not much sense in rooting against cloud gaming in the same way that players push back on microtransactions or NFTs. As long as it continues to supplement traditional gaming experiences, it’s a powerful tool that stands to help more than hurt. You don’t have to buy in, but it’s not our enemy.

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