The video game industry is drastically different from what it was just a few years ago. Discs have long-since replaced cartridges on the majority of systems, and every single console currently in production can be played with a lineup of all-digital games. Digital downloads aren’t the end, however, as several companies have announced their own cloud gaming services, which offer convenience and speed at the cost of traditional ownership. But just what is cloud gaming, and is it the best option for you? Below, we’ve examined cloud gaming’s origins, how it works, and where it’s headed in the future to help you make that decision.
What is cloud gaming?
Cloud gaming is a method of playing video games that is done using remote hardware, typically taking the form of servers owned by a separate company. Rather than downloading a game onto your system or installing it via physical media and playing it locally, cloud gaming relies on internet streaming to deliver games on your device of choice. This means that your console, television, mobile phone, or computer is not relying on its own internal hardware to power the games – as a result, games incapable of running locally on a system can easily run via cloud gaming.
Cloud gaming requires a persistent internet connection in order to operate, as none of the information, including save data, is stored on the system you’re using, but is instead stored remotely. This makes it less-than-ideal for areas with spotty connections, but it is already picking up speed in smaller and highly-developed countries, including Japan.
How does cloud gaming work?
Cloud gaming – in most cases – requires a subscription paid on a monthly or yearly basis in order to access content, and with certain services, games must be purchased on top of that fee. In the case of GeForce Now, the games you purchase come from other stores like Steam or Battle.net, meaning you can use them locally if you eventually purchase the necessary hardware.
Subscribers are able to open an app for their cloud gaming service on their device of choice and select a game they wish to play. Rather than download updates or additional content, they can begin playing the game immediately because it is being run on remote servers. These servers are comprised of high-end PC components, allowing for games to be played at very high settings, but they can vary in structure depending on the service you choose. In the case of Shadow, for instance, you are essentially renting a remote PC. With Microsoft’s Project xCloud, there will be numerous “blades” containing these components in data centers, and you won’t be accessing a standard PC.
Cloud gaming services typically upgrade their hardware on a continuous basis, removing the worry that your setup won’t be able to run the latest title. Your saved game data is also stored in the cloud rather than on your machine. Not only does this mean you can stop worrying about it getting erased, but it means you can switch from your console to a PC or phone and immediately have access to the same files.
Despite many upcoming cloud gaming services being compatible with mobile phones, they can also function with traditional game controllers. In the case of Google Stadia, this is done via a Wi-Fi connection, while Microsoft’s Project xCloud will allow you to connect directly to your device via Bluetooth.
How long has cloud gaming been around?
Cloud gaming has been experimented with since the early 21st century, but the technology and internet speeds were not optimized for its implantation until several years later.
The first major cloud gaming service was OnLive, which launched in 2010. It made use of a small game streaming console and a special controller, and was capable of running several games that were available for consoles at the time, including the original Borderlands and Darksiders. These games ran with similar visual quality to traditional systems, though the technology was still in its infancy and led to latency issues that prevented it from offering a truly comparable gaming experience. As you might imagine, it didn’t survive.
Gaikai followed shortly thereafter with its own game streaming service, and was shortly thereafter acquired by Sony Computer Entertainment. The technology was subsequently reworked into PlayStation Now, which is Sony’s first-party game-streaming service. The first game-streaming service available from a console manufacturer, PlayStation Now allows players to stream games from PlayStation 2 through PlayStation 4 to their PlayStation 4 or PC.
Why is cloud gaming becoming popular now?
There are several reasons why cloud gaming is becoming so popular, even as new console generations approach and we have so many options for playing games the traditional way. The first, and perhaps most important, is that technology now allows us to do so. With the development of Google Stadia over the last several years as well as Microsoft’s Project xCloud, companies are promising the ability to stream games to your devices with virtually no latency. On top of that, the games will apparently reach quality benchmarks similar to what is possible on high-end systems. Stadia in particularly will support 4K resolution at launch, with 8K resolution promised down the road.
These resolutions and a 60 frames-per-second framerate are going to be possible on fairly modest internet speeds, with most supporting 4K at around 30 or 35 Mbps. This brings us to the next major reason for cloud gaming becoming popular: convenience. As game file sizes continue to balloon above 100GB per title, those without serious fast download speeds are left waiting hours before they can enjoy their new games. With game streaming, that waiting is completely eliminated. As soon as you start the game, you can play. The only major roadblock to its success, particularly in the United States, will be data caps from internet service providers. With a 1TB data cap, you would go over your limit in just 65 hours of Google Stadia play at 4K resolution, and that’s if gaming is all you use your internet for.
Who are the front-runners of cloud gaming?
There are currently two major front-runners of cloud gaming, but we expect several others to offer stiff competition in the not-so-distant future.
Google Stadia aims to make cloud gaming the sole way you enjoy your favorite video games. It will do this by offering a “base” service that allows you to purchase games piecemeal without having to pay extra money to access them via streaming, as well as a premium subscription that includes access to games in a vault. Any device you own that can access Google Chrome is planned for support, though only Pixel phones will initially be available for mobile users. Alongside partnerships with publishers like Ubisoft, Bethesda, Square Enix, and THQ Nordic, Google has also invested in first-party exclusive games, with former EA and Ubisoft executive Jade Raymond leading an internal development team.
Microsoft is taking a slightly different approach with Project xCloud, and is currently promoting it as a technology rather than an individual service. There will be a service available for those interested in playing Xbox and PC games on their device of choice, and previews will be available later in 2019. Alongside this method of cloud streaming, Microsoft will also allow you to use your own Xbox system as a server for xCloud. Every single game you can play on your Xbox will be compatible with game streaming to your device of choice, and this can be done without a subscription.
Which cloud gaming service is the best option?
Your choice in cloud gaming service will largely come down to your preference for particular features or games, but there are a few factors that can help make your choice a little easier.
Console players: If you want to enjoy cloud gaming on your console, your options are either PlayStation Now on PS4 or – eventually – Project xCloud on Xbox One. Thus far, PlayStation Now has failed to light the world on fire, and with the ability to switch to your phone or tablet when traveling, we think Project xCloud will be the best choice for console players.
PC players: PC players have many different options, but Shadow emerges as our early winner because of its support for true game ownership. You can purchase games via existing online stores like Steam and then run them through the remote system. Any games you previously purchased via online stores are compatible, as well.
Cross-platform: Out of the three major console companies, Microsoft has shown the greatest commitment to cross-platform play. We expect this to continue with Project xCloud, as players on Xbox One and PC can currently enjoy certain games with Switch players and even PS4. As we approach the next-generation of systems, the options should only open up further.
What is the difference between a game subscription service and a game-streaming service?
Game subscription services and game-streaming services are not the same, despite their similar names. With a game-streaming service like those we have outlined above, you do not download the games you play, nor are you able to play them locally. On the flip-side, you don’t need to install updates or worry about file sizes.
With game subscription services such as Xbox Game Pass and the upcoming Apple Arcade, you pay for access to a vault of games from the provider. As long as you pay for a subscription, you have full access to those games, and you’re free to download them on your device of choice to run locally. However, you cannot always determine when games will leave game subscription services, and when they do, you must buy them if you wish to keep accessing your content.