Why Cloud Gaming should be the pinnacle of gaming, but isn’t

Introduction

If you’ve been following the latest trends in the gaming industry over the past year, you’ve probably come across the term “cloud gaming”. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s essentially games provided in a Software as a Service format: whenever you want to play a game, the service will allocate you some space on a virtual machine customised with a powerful graphics card, CPU, and generous amounts of RAM, and will stream the contents of the game to you over the internet.

With the extremely limited stock of next-gen consoles due to the pandemic, cloud gaming has been able to scratch an itch for many gamers wanting to play the latest games in their most beautiful form (let’s not mention the RTX3080 or Cyberpunk fiascos) without needing to build their own triple-figure-cost gaming computers and without needing to try to bid on a massively overpriced scalped version of the latest console on eBay.

Many of the industry giants have shared a vested interest in the technology over the last twelve months, with many wanting to have their own piece of the cloud-shaped pie. Google, Amazon, Sony, Microsoft, and Nvidia all have created their own platforms for users to enjoy the experience of cloud gaming, along with some smaller companies such as Shadow offering their own take. With this in mind, it seems almost impossible that cloud gaming won’t see a major breakthrough in player numbers and overall performance over the coming decade - provided all goes to plan.

Assuming no negative factors, the idea behind cloud gaming is immensely empowering to gamers: no need to allocate storage space, no need to wait for the game to download and install, and no need to spend hundreds each year upgrading your hardware. If you’ve ever played Call of Duty’s Warzone, you’ll know just how irritating it was to have to find some way of clearing hard drive space for their monthly-up-to-250gb patches.

Another huge selling point of cloud gaming is the ability to play games anywhere, so long as you have a stable and fast-enough internet connection. Whether you want to play the latest AAA game on your decade-old laptop, mobile phone, incompatible-OS, or even your TV, that’s all possible: the game is still streamed from the cloud, so you can just ‘watch’ that stream anywhere — even so much as to switch screens in realtime during a game and seamlessly continue from there. If you remember the Xbox controversy from 2013, in which Microsoft wanted to ‘register’ your physical game copy to your console to prevent physical resales, cloud gaming seems to be essentially the opposite: head over to your friend’s house, whip out your laptop, and just have some socially-distanced fun.

Sadly, however, cloud gaming hasn’t yet reached this perfect utopia where everything works great without any flaws. As it stands, there are two key issues that are preventing widespread growth of cloud gaming: internet access, and developer participation.

Internet Access

Even though one can argue that we are getting closer than ever to a hyper fast future, with 5G speeds being made available to more and more people, the truth of the matter is that many people around the world don’t currently have internet which is capable of running cloud gaming without latency or issues.

One of the common misconceptions about cloud gaming is that you need super-fast, triple-digit internet speeds to have any kind of enjoyable experience. Whilst it is true that you will need a relatively decent connection, Google’s Stadia only requires a 10mbps connection for 720p quality, and a 35mbps connection for 4K — easily accessible by most. In reality, it’s the strength of said connection that is the most important factor. If your signal keeps dropping and packets keep getting lost, you’re going to have a very poor experience with cloud gaming; receiving pixelated screens and having extremely delayed controller inputs.

On top of this, some gamers are unfortunate enough to live in parts of the globe where ISPs will impose bandwidth caps, essentially limiting the amount of data that can be transferred over a given time period before charging massive amounts extra for exceeding the limit. I’m fortunate to not be restricted by this, so can’t comment with certainty on how restrictive this actually is, but I know that any hardcore gamers imposed by these restrictions will likely have a hard time fitting into the cloud gaming ecosystem if they’re restricted to only being allowed to play a certain number of hours per day.

And let’s not forget about the most common trait of the internet: it going down. Whether you’re using 5G or WiFi, it’s inevitable that your internet will drop out at some point, likely due to something out of your control. Maybe it’ll only be down for a few minutes, or maybe a few hours, but you physically cannot play any cloud games during that time - even if it’s a wholly offline experience - because you can’t connect to the machine that was running your game. Hopefully you saved just before the internet dropped out too, as you’ll probably lose any progress made, since the service will likely kick you for inactivity after a few minutes. And let’s also not forget that this could happen vice-versa. Earlier this week, Google saw an hour-long outage on almost all of its services (including Stadia). Of course it’s a much rarer occurrence than our common broadband going offline, but it’s still a certain risk to consider, and one that some gamers would much prefer to avoid.

Developer Participation

One of the most common reasons gamers tend to avoid cloud gaming is due many platforms requiring a sense of ‘brand loyalty’. In the same way that many PC gamers actively avoid using the Epic Games store because they’d need to re-purchase games they own on Steam (despite cheaper prices and fairer developer commission), the same can be said for cloud gaming too: why should we need to re-buy our already-overwhelmingly expensive games for a second or third time, just to play them elsewhere? It’s a valid question. Stadia, for example, has a very limited catalogue of games available - and all are sold at their full console retail price. Although Stadia Pro offers a collection of free games, and can also reduce the price of some of the more expensive games, it’s still not enough to convince current gamers that transitioning to a cloud-based future is worth it.

GeForce Now, on the other hand, works in the opposite manner: you can’t actually buy any games from them. Instead, Nvidia just provide the game servers for you to run your already-owned Steam, Epic, or GoG games on. On paper, it’s actually the fairest and most logical approach for consumers, since gamers can continue buying games as they normally would, but instead have the freedom to run them anywhere they’d like. This leads us into our second issue however: developer participation.

Whilst GeForce Now was in its early stages, all users accepted to participate in the program were given free access to what would later become its paid ‘Founders Edition’. After the global launch, many of the participating studios (Activision, 2K, Bethesda, and a plethora of others) opted out of the service with very little information being made public as to why. Many speculate it due to the fact that Nvida began profiting from GeForce Now (due to a paid tier now being available alongside a free tier) without giving any of the profit to the developers on the platform, even though Nvidia were only providing the servers and not the games themselves.

With many of the major studios pulling out of GeForce Now, the cloud gaming industry saw a massive setback; if developers don’t agree to being part of the service (which legally they can do, due to their distribution rights being with Steam, Epic, etc. and not Nvidia) then cloud gaming will slowly fall into oblivion. Whilst we are still seeing support from other studios, such as Ubisoft, cloud gaming will only truly be in its element if it can have support of all developers, big and small.

One potential hope for cloud gamers is the recent paradigm shift the gaming industry has been seeing with subscription-based play. With Ubisoft+, EA Play, and Xbox Game Pass, gamers can enjoy a plethora of mostly-new titles by the studios for a fixed monthly or annual subscription, rather than paying for each game individually. With Amazon Luna and Google Stadia both expecting Ubisoft’s subscription service to be part of their services globally next year, it could definitely be an interesting step in the right direction: if the speculation is true that publishers dropped out of GeForce Now due to a lack of monetary incentive, subscription-based service options could definitely be the incentive they are looking for. One of the things I am keeping a keen eye on is EA’s involvement in the cloud gaming industry; they’ve remained relatively quiet, though their recent re-addition of EA Play to Steam gives hope that they could be the next big studio to join the cloud gaming revolution.

Of course, it’s unlikely that this will be the case for all studios. One example I like to look at is Grand Theft Auto 5: a game that has had its life artificially extended to span over three console generations - making Rockstar (or rather Take2) a tonne of cash. Should the game have existed on cloud gaming back in 2013, it’s highly unlikely that they would have sold anywhere near as many copies of the game on the next two generations of console - since the whole benefit of cloud gaming is to have the hardware continuously upgraded on your behalf. For the consumer, this is fantastic: they can keep playing a game with the most beautiful graphics, all without needing to worry about upgrading their hardware. For the developer, however, it’s less than ideal; they’ll be losing out on those additional game sales. Whilst this likely doesn’t sound like a big deal for a studio as wealthy as Rockstar, the same logic also applies to small indie game studios as well - ones that completely rely on the game sales alone in order to make a profit and, well, survive. With cloud gaming, it’s extremely difficult to tell whether a developer’s game sales will increase (due to the game being more accessible), or just flat-out decrease because less people are buying the game on different platforms. It’s an extremely difficult balancing act that hopefully will have its leanings made clearer as time goes on.

Even with full game developer participation, there are still other stakeholders that need to agree to participate: the OS providers of the platforms cloud gaming will operate on. One of the biggest challenges faced by these services has been the extremely harsh regulation put in place by Apple, who have continuously refused requests by Facebook Gaming and Stadia to allow users to play games via their native apps - due to the App Store policies preventing game marketplaces from existing. Even though Stadia recently released a progressive web app, allowing Apple users to sign-in to the service on their phone’s Safari browser and save the shortcut to their Home Screen, I’m sure Apple will be watching with both eyes wide open.

Conclusion

All in all, cloud gaming is an extremely exciting concept that I’m really hoping is able to succeed. Despite having a moderately-powerful gaming computer myself, I love the idea of being able to play games anywhere in the house without needing to sit and wait hours for downloads, updates, and installations, and especially without needing to worry about constantly keeping my hardware up-to-date. Of course, there are times when I will need my gaming PC still - such as for games that aren’t supported on any cloud gaming platform, or if I wanted to play a very-very competitive game (such as Counter Strike) - but I’m not ashamed to admit that cloud gaming definitely seems to be my future. The question is, will it be ours?