Tech

To succeed, cloud gaming needs to disappear

Google Stadia, Amazon Luna, Nvidia GeForce Now, and more: none of these are cloud gaming’s final form. They had one spectacular window of opportunity to pitch themselves as the next generation of gaming ahead of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, but we’ve yet to see any sign that they’ve made a significant dent.

I think it’s because there’s too much friction.

Before you buy a $60 game for a cloud gaming platform or sign up for a recurring subscription, you might ask yourself:

  • Will cloud gaming even work for me?
  • What if my connection isn’t good enough?
  • What if my home networking gear isn’t good enough?
  • What if I live too far away from the servers?
  • Will this cloud service actually have the games I want to play?
  • Will there be enough of them to justify a monthly fee?
  • Will developers bother to port games over?
  • Will they run as well as they would if I just bought a console or PC?
  • Will I need a special controller or dongle to play on TV?
  • Will I go over my data cap?
  • Will I be able to play with my friends who aren’t on this particular cloud platform?
  • Will I lose access to my games entirely if they lose a distribution deal or shut down the servers?
  • Will I have to wait in line to play my games?
  • Can I access my existing save files?
  • What about outages?
  • Are they hiding how well these games will run?
  • What if this tech company suddenly decides it no longer wants to be a gaming company, or goes bankrupt?

That’s a lot of uncertainty! But it doesn’t need to be this way.

The reason these answers matter is because today’s companies are generally asking you to choose. Is this where I want to play my games? Should I invest my money in the cloud? It’s a little ridiculous, because the whole point of the cloud is that you can play anywhere at all. You don’t worry about where you’re going to watch your next Netflix movie or YouTube video, do you? You just tap and watch.

Someday, with the right business model, that may be how cloud gaming will work as well. You’ll be paying for the content, not the locale. You’ll simply sign up for a Netflix-like subscription filled with games that run on every platform under the sun, and their quality will dynamically adjust to the amount of horsepower you can access at any given moment — much like how the quality of your Netflix stream automatically adjusts when the rest of your household starts hogging the bandwidth.

Sure, games won’t feel quite as good on a phone as with the latest console or gaming PC, but you won’t have to think about whether “local” is better than “cloud.” You’ll get both, perhaps even simultaneously, once companies figure the economics out.

Games are already starting to work this way. Dynamic frame rates and resolution targets are common on major console and PC games, automatically adjusting a game’s graphics to keep the action smooth. Meanwhile, Microsoft is championing the idea that one copy of a game might be good enough to play across a console, PC, and cloud. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription and its Xbox Play Anywhere and Smart Delivery initiatives give you digital copies of the latest Microsoft-exclusive games for your Xbox, Windows PC, and cloud for one monthly subscription, often bringing your saves along for the ride.

When you launch that next game on your Microsoft Xbox One, you might only get the limited power of that last-gen game console — but switch to an Xbox Series X and you’ll see sharper graphics and higher frame rates (assuming its developers have issued a next-gen patch). You can get even more with a powerful Windows gaming rig. Games scale to different hardware, just like they have across multiple generations of PC graphics cards for the past two decades.

Cloud gaming can scale, too. Microsoft has announced that older Xboxes like the Xbox One, Xbox One S, and Xbox One X will get xCloud as well, letting those boxes tap into an Xbox Series X-grade server to play next-gen games like Microsoft Flight Simulator. It’s a little like sticking a more powerful GPU into your machine. And Microsoft is also now pursuing native cloud games that could theoretically harness the power of multiple Xboxes simultaneously, unlocking experiences that might be impossible without.

But cloud gaming could let games scale to your situation as well, a little like that auto-adjusting Netflix quality I mentioned earlier.

You might find this amusing: Apple’s App Store rules currently let you stream games from your own Xbox on your own local network to your iPhone with a dedicated iOS app — but it won’t let you do the exact same thing over the internet from Microsoft’s Xboxes sitting in server racks. Either way, you’re remotely controlling an Xbox over a Wi-Fi connection through the magic window of your phone, playing your games with your Microsoft account, yet Apple doesn’t treat them the same.

But Microsoft is quietly working on a single app that does both, and it makes a lot of sense. If your phone had the choice of connecting to an Xbox Series X sitting in a server rack, or an Xbox Series X sitting in your house, why wouldn’t that app automatically pick the most powerful and reliable computer to stream those games? Why not stream from your gaming PC as well? Microsoft has let us stream from Xboxes to Windows PCs for years, added local Xbox streaming to phones, and there’s technically a way to stream from Windows to Xbox, too, but they’re currently all separate ideas inside separate apps instead of one intelligent auto-switching whole.

That kind of dynamic switching could theoretically help the latency problem, too. Lag is a common reason some gamers reject cloud services, claiming they don’t feel as responsive as pressing a button on a console at home. (That’s often true.) But Amazon started figuring out a way to solve that problem seven years ago: hybrid cloud games.

In 2014, Amazon prototyped a tower defense game called The Unmaking that could generate gigantic Lord of the Rings-esque armies thanks to the cloud — while still letting you quickly and responsively aim a ballista using an Amazon Fire tablet’s local processing power.

Microsoft knows about hybrid games, too. The company’s Microsoft Flight Simulator can offer stunning photorealistic scenery as you fly around the globe, because much of that data doesn’t live on your PC at all; it takes up 2 petabytes of storage in the cloud. And importantly, you can still play the game without that data; it just doesn’t look as good.

When I fire up a future Halo on my phone, I expect it’ll be a full copy of Halo, one that looks and plays like Halo but at drastically reduced quality — until I’m within reach of my Xbox, my Windows computer, or a fast and reliable connection to the cloud. Then, it’ll continue to play like Halo but with a seamless upgrade to next-gen graphics and the ability to pick up and play on another screen right where I left off. (That last bit is something Google Stadia already does quite well.)

I predict that the company which eventually sells me on cloud gaming won’t be selling me on cloud gaming at all. It’ll just be selling me the games I would have bought anyhow, with the added ability to play them wherever I want and with all of my friends, assuming Sony plays ball. The trick is making sure you have those games on board, and that’s where big platform holders like Microsoft have an advantage — they can bake those streaming rights into the agreements developers sign to appear on console. That’s something Microsoft was planning to do and may have already started doing, and something we may have spotted Valve doing a couple years ago.

Microsoft has apparently been requiring xCloud support, according to documents unearthed during the Epic v. Apple trial.

It’s not the only path forward for cloud gaming, though. Another way to sell gamers cloud gaming (without trying to sell them on cloud gaming) is the way Sony-owned Gaikai originally did: you use the cloud to provide free game demos you can instantly play in your browser the moment you click an ad, with an option to buy the game or pay for more time when you’re done. Microsoft has teased “try before you download” as a feature of xCloud as well.

I also wonder if someday, some daring developer will release a cloud game without telling anyone it’s actually running on the cloud, later to reveal you’ve been playing on servers all along. It’s not currently feasible in the United States due to the tyranny of illegitimate internet data caps, but perhaps somewhere else. It’d be a PR stunt for the ages, and perhaps it could convince the world once and for all that this tech actually works.

The day someone can pull that off, you’ll know cloud gaming’s time has truly come.


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