As things stand, Cloud Gaming simply isn’t worth it as the current server infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired and many users would lack the requisite connection speed to get the most out of them anyway. Still, with such giants as Google and Microsoft entering the field, we’re excited to see what the future of game streaming holds.
Video gaming has never had a shortage of buzz-worthy innovations in store for it, and one such innovation looming on the horizon is Cloud Gaming.
Now Cloud Gaming can and does sound like an ambiguous term. For example, many consider the storing of save files on a cloud server that are then shared between multiple devices to already be Cloud Gaming, and we can’t argue with that. But the type Cloud Gaming we’d like to talk about today is a bit different and a lot more exciting.
You may also have heard about it as Game Streaming. This is again a confusing term that’s easily confused with what gamers already do on Twitch, but that’s not it either.
No, this type of Cloud Gaming/ Game Streaming carries with it the promise of being able to use any machine to play even the most demanding games at the highest settings.
So How Does It Work?
In essence, Cloud Gaming is supposed to work like any other streaming service (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Crunchyroll, etc.) but for video games.
The idea is that you pay a monthly subscription (in most cases), get access to a powerful virtual machine that’s running somewhere on a server, and then use that virtual machine to handle all the heavy lifting while you game away on, say, a five-year-old laptop. And the laptop wouldn’t even run hot when displaying the latest AAA title, because its hardware is only doing the bare necessities.
You just have to install a small app, run it, and a new window will open up showing you the display of your virtual machine. You’ll then have to install Steam – or whichever gaming platform you prefer – install your games, and simply click play.
This machine comes with its own GPU, CPU, RAM, and storage, which we encourage you to check in the Properties in File Explorer, just to make certain you’re getting what you paid for.
The amount of storage is usually nothing amazing, but more than enough if the idea is to only game on said virtual machine. Nevertheless, you’ll be getting loads of RAM, a server grade CPU and in most cases a pretty powerful GPU as well.
Once the app is running, it will register your input, transfer it to the server using the power of the Internet, where the server hardware will do all the data processing and then fling the video feed right back at you.
In theory, this means that you could run games in 4K resolutions at 60FPS on pretty much any device – an old laptop, a smartphone, a TV, probably even a smart fridge (that’s right, Todd Howard’s dream of letting gamers play Skyrim on their smart fridges is finally close to being a reality).
You could even install the app on a Mac, and the window that’ll open will be running in Windows 10, allowing you to switch between these two operating systems on the fly as if you were just switching between tabs. But as with everything else, it’s important to distinguish between theoretical potential and the hard cold truth.
And as cool as this whole idea sounds, it does suffer from four very critical problems: compression-grade video, high input lag, unoptimized hardware, and demanding requirements.
Since the games you’ll be playing won’t be running natively on your device, the data will have to go all the way to the serves and then back again before your input bears any fruit.
And the only way to do this in a remotely quick manner is to compress the video. Now, most of the current game streaming services use only the best video encoding available that retains the highest quality possible while still being incredibly fast, but…
… the end result is still an image that’s more akin to watching a gameplay video on YouTube than experiencing it for yourself natively.
All in all, you can expect some compression artifacts and color banding, and even nausea-inducing motion blurring if you’re playing something like an FPS. A great monitor can mitigate these effects to some extent, but seeing as one of the biggest appeals of Cloud Gaming is avoiding the need to buy a high-end PC in the first place, you’ll hardly want to go out of your way to buy a high-end monitor just to stream games.
And, of course, there’s input lag. Since the data has to travel all this way, the threat of high input lag becomes unavoidable. Living close to one of the data centers does help significantly, but the lag is still there. Now, this isn’t to say that the games are unplayable, not at all. Many of the companies that offer these streaming services are constantly developing new ways to mitigate input lag, and honestly, it’s not horrible even as things stand.
But that’s only if you’re playing single-player games. If you’re into competitive online multiplayer or even casual online multiplayer, then you’ll find that the lag is still more than a little vexing.
We should also remember that the virtual machine you’ll be using will be running on a server, and these servers (at least the ones currently available) use server-grade hardware. For example, Shadow advertises the GPUs it uses as ‘GTX 1080 equivalents’. And while this is technically true – the Nvidia Quadro P5000 is more or less or par with the GTX 1080 in many ways – that doesn’t mean it performs as well when it comes to gaming.
If you want to know more about why Nvidia Quadro cards aren’t the best for gaming, read this article, but the short of it is: They simply aren’t as optimized for rendering graphics as quickly as the GTX cards are.
And the same goes for the CPUs. A virtual machine running on Shadow’s server will be allotted 8 threads on an Intel Xeon 2620 CPU. This may sound like a bargain, but keep in mind that server CPUs like the Xeon are optimized for a server’s needs, which means they have lots of cores working at relatively low clock speeds and excel at multi-tasking.
And single-core performance is where it’s at as far as gaming is concerned. So not even the Xeon 2620 that Shadow uses is optimal for gaming, and the other game streaming services currently available all offer worse CPUs than these, most of them with clock speeds well below 3 GHz.
Now that last one may sound completely out of place, what with the main appeal of Cloud Gaming being the ability to run new games on outdated software, but the thing is you still have to meet a number of requirements before you can do so. Most notably, you’ll need a very fast Internet connection, preferably a wired one. 5 GHz Wi-Fi can do the job if you’re close to your router, but even that’s not ideal.
For example, Shadow requires a stable Internet connection of 50 Mbps, and that’s without any of that bandwidth going towards anything else. So you’d pretty much have to have a Fibre Optic connection in order to stream a game while still leaving some bandwidth for your parents/siblings/children/ etc. to use.
The Cloud Gaming of Christmas Past
If you’re just a casual gamer then there’s a good chance that Cloud Gaming will sound like something entirely new to you. With big companies such as Microsoft and Google only recently getting interested in this technology, it hasn’t ever garnered as much attention as it does today. But the concept is not new by any stretch of the imaginations.
Not only has it been discussed since the year 2000, but one such service – OnLive – actually went live in 2010. And the headlines foretelling the doom of gaming consoles at the hands of game streaming soon followed, with the Inquirer writing that this service will ‘render consoles obsolete’.
OnLive ceased functioning in 2012, a year before the next generation of consoles was released.
Still, Cloud Gaming lived on. PlayStation Now in one of the spiritual successors to OnLive, along with the likes of Shadow, Parsec, Vortex, and GeForce Now.
The Cloud Gaming of Christmas Present
So how do these new services stack up?
Parsec and Vortex aren’t the worst, but they’re still far from ideal, mostly due to the fact that the CPUs they use are subpar for gaming. They don’t handle input lag any worse than most of the other services, but their video quality still leaves a lot to be desired.
Shadow seems to be the best game streaming service currently available, with low input lag and the best image quality – courtesy of the 50 Mbps connection – but it feels a bit overpriced at the moment seeing how it fails to deliver on its own promises of streaming games at either 144 FPS FullHD or 60 FPS 4K.
GeForce Now could topple it, but seeing as it’s still in Beta we can’t really discuss it any further at the moment.
Is It Worth It?
So to answer the titular question: Is Cloud Gaming worth it? Is it the future of gaming?
Well, yes and no.
As things currently stand, we definitely can’t see Cloud Gaming as a viable substitute for PC or console gaming yet. The input lag is tolerable at best for playing single-player games, but it just isn’t good enough for online multiplayer.
But then again none of the Game Streaming Services so far had the backing of a company with infinite money, like Google or Microsoft. With their involvement in this business, we can definitely see how it has the potential to become a viable replacement for mainstreaming gaming. But as for whether it will become ‘the future of gaming’, that remains to be seen.
What we can certainly say at the moment, however, is that it won’t ever kill off PC gaming, as the input lag problem isn’t likely to get patched in the near future if nothing else.
As things stand, none of these services can even replace a mid-range gaming PC, let alone deliver on the promises of 4K60FPS gaming that the marketing likes to flaunt at you.
The reasons for this mostly boils down to the hardware that these cloud servers use. Most of the time, these are Xeon processors that feature high core counts but sub-optimal core speeds, and Quadro GPUs that may be comparable in power to their GTX counterparts, but were not tailor-made for gaming.
Now if you’re curious about what game streaming can feel like but are hesitant to try out any of the services, there is a different route you can take. One of the biggest appeals of game streaming is definitely being able to use underpowered laptops to run AAA games at max settings. But, if you already have an underpowered laptop and, say, a pretty decent desktop PC, you can use Steam’s in-home streaming to stream a game from your PC onto the laptop.
The lag will be significantly lower than if your input had to go all the way to a server, but it’s a cool way to test out the waters nonetheless.
Samuel is GamingScan’s editor-in-chief. He describes himself as a hardcore gamer & programmer and he enjoys getting more people into gaming and answering people’s questions. He closely follows the latest trends in the gaming industry in order to keep you all up-to-date with the latest news.