The world of video gaming has introduced cool terms and cool technology for decades. Terms like 4K 60fps, platformer, and respawn, and technologies like augmented reality, motion control, and procedural generation. There is a term/technology gaining popularity as of late. It is Cloud Gaming. What is Cloud Gaming? Cloud Gaming is actually a term that is hard to explain because it can mean a lot of different things to some. The simple method of storing game saves on a cloud server that you can access from multiple devices is already a form of Cloud Gaming but this isn’t what I’m here to discuss today. The Cloud Gaming I’m here to talk about is also referred to as Game Streaming or Remote Play. Not to get wrapped up and confused with which term to use, the technology revolves around using a computer machine from a remote distance to play the most graphical games at the highest settings. A concrete example of this is playing the latest Triple A PC or console title like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on your phone or tablet. The reason for this is not everyone has the hardware to run the latest and most demanding video games, and not everyone has the budget to purchase the latest PC or console these games are on.
HOW DOES CLOUD GAMING WORK?
Let’s start with the basics of how this technology works. At its core, Cloud Gaming works like any other streaming service. Think Netflix, Hulu, or Crunchyroll only instead of movies, shows, and anime, you get video games. You pay a monthly subscription which grants you access to a virtual machine running somewhere on a server and you then use that virtual machine to play games. A service may opt for a per game purchase approach instead of a monthly subscription. Services can differ in game selections but you get the gist of it. The best thing about this is the server does all of the heavy lifting so all you basically need is a device with a display that is compatible with this technology. Using smartphones and tablets to play video games is convenient, but you may not have access to the latest and greatest console and PC titles. These mobile devices tend to run real hot and use up too much battery power with video games but Cloud Gaming circumvents both these issues. Once again, all the hardware demanding stuff is handled by the server. Your device just runs the streaming software and displays the video. I used phones and tablets as an example but you could just as well use Cloud Gaming to game on a five-year old PC or laptop. It doesn’t have to be a mobile device or some unconventional hardware. You can just fire it up and play the latest games. No muss, no fuss. Just pure state-of-the-art gameplay. Now while Cloud Gaming differs in terms of game selection and monetisation, they all follow the same rudimentary procedures. Your device registers your input and sends it to the server. The server then does its thing and flings the processed data back to you. In theory, this means you could run games in 4K at 60 frames per second with no problem as long as the server you’re using is capable of rendering that many frames in that resolution. But unfortunately, a theory doesn’t always translate into practice.
PROBLEMS WITH CLOUD GAMING
As I’ve mentioned earlier, data has to go all the way to the server and then back before it can produce any visible results. No matter how fast and efficient your Internet connection is, this process will result in a healthy dose of input lag. Input lag is a delay in output on your screen after you pressed a key or button. The closer to the data center you are, the less noticeable the lag will be but it will never beat out a native/local experience. Now, this isn’t as horrible as it might sound. Game streaming companies are constantly developing new ways to mitigate input lag. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Nvidia are the big names that are investing in this venture. As things stand, the technology is good enough to offer an enjoyable single-player experience but as far as casual or competitive multiplayer is concerned, it’s hard to imagine Cloud Gaming ever being viable to replace the good old PC and console for gaming.
There’s also the problem of video compression with Cloud Gaming. Video compression comes pretty much from the same place as the input lag. You send your input to the server, the server renders the frames and sends it back to you. But the only way this can be achieved in a relatively quick manner is by resorting to video compression. Video compression is the process of reducing the bit quality of a video. The lower the bit, the lower the quality of the video. It should be noted that most of the current Cloud Gaming companies use only the best video compression available. This allows them to retain the highest quality image possible while sacrificing very little in terms of speed. Unfortunately, even the best video encoding technology at the moment pales in comparison to uncompressed video. The end result is such that playing a game through one of these streaming services can feel more like you’re watching a live stream on Twitch. Unlike experiencing the game for yourself on your local device, you can expect a decent dose of compression artifacts, color distortion, and motion blur, especially with fast-paced games with lots of camera movement. A top-of-the-line monitor or TV can minimize these effects to a certain extent but seeing as how the whole appeal of Cloud Gaming is to avoid spending large amounts of cash on gaming equipment, this doesn’t seem like a relevant solution.
Another problem with Cloud Gaming at the moment is the service uses server grade hardware. The problem with server grade hardware is that it’s optimized for the needs of a server. The needs of a server are different from the needs of a gaming PC or Playstation 5. For example, a virtual machine running on a server may use an Intel Xeon 2620 CPU while a gaming PC with an AMD Ryzen 7 2700x will run games better. Keep in mind, Xeon CPUs are high-end chips and are very expensive but since they are designed for server loads, they all have relatively low clock speeds. This is perfect for servers where multitasking is key but this is rather less optimal where a single core performance is paramount for gaming. The Xeon 2620 is clocked at 2.1 GHz, whereas the Ryzen 7 2700x is at 3.7 GHz. The GPU side of things is no different. Google Stadia uses a custom, server based AMD Vega GPU which is an equivalent to an Nvidia GTX 1070 TI or a GTX 1080 as far as specs are concerned. The Vega GPU is expensive too and it has plenty memory bandwidth for multitasking, but it just doesn’t perform as well as more recent gaming PC GPUs like the GTX 2080 or the AMD RX 5700xt when it comes to 4K resolution for triple A games. Well, not to get too deep into computer parts talk, let’s move on to the final problem with Cloud Gaming which is internet requirement.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, hold on, the very thing I need for Cloud Gaming may be a problem? Yes, gamers need a fast and good internet connection to use such service. I’m not kidding when I say fast. I’m talking ludicrously fast for some parts of the world and very stable – preferably wired although 5 GHz Wi-Fi can get the job done if you’re close to the router. Even then, it may not be ideal if the rest of your household is using this connection for their own personal leisure. Speeds like 1 Gbps which is plenty for Cloud Gaming may be very expensive in some parts of the world. Even here in America. Also, Cloud Gaming eats plenty of internet bandwidth. Playing a game for more than one hour may use more than 25 GB. This can quickly add up and if your internet provider has caps on your usage like 500 GB or 1 TB, you will likely go over this limit if you are a heavy gamer. And since Cloud Gaming relies on internet connection, you can’t play offline and if these services were to shut down, your games and saves will be gone for good.
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Despite these shortcomings, if you want to give Cloud Gaming a real shot, I recommend to experience it for yourself for your personal final verdict. As a fair warning, don’t expect to game at 120 FPS and in Ultra HD. Companies like to advertise such specs but they fall rather short of this promise. Personally, single-player games with Cloud Gaming are quite playable but for multiplayer games, it isn’t a viable substitute for your PC or Xbox. As for whether or not Cloud Gaming is the future of gaming, I can say it somewhat is. Will it ever overcome the hurdles I mentioned earlier, I will have to say no. In the meantime, enjoy the games every which way you play them.