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CES 2020: Rise of cloud gaming and death of the video game console

Google Stadia, Microsoft Project xCloud and more want to move video games to the cloud.

Google Stadia

Look, ma! No game console!

Sarah Tew/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Gamers who've been around since the days of Atari may find it hard to believe that games today are of the same stock: games that started with a few beeps and bouncing lights have evolved into complex narratives with graphics so sharp you can see a character's every eyelash. 

While developers continue to improve games' graphics, the hardware is naturally getting better, too. But what if the new trend is high-quality games without hardware? 

In the next few years, it's becoming less likely that you'll need a console at all to play video games -- a trend we expect to see highlighted at CES 2020 in Las Vegas next week. The year 2019 saw a huge shift toward cloud gaming platforms, which let users play games online across various devices through a host gaming server.  

Google, Microsoft and Apple over the last year all launched gaming services that don't require consoles, and it's quite likely that we'll see other tech and gaming titans tossing their hats into the cloud gaming ring in 2020. (That said, consoles will be getting a new lease on life later in 2020 with the expected arrival of Sony's PlayStation 5.)

Technically not a cloud gaming service, Apple Arcade launched in September. With a $4.99 (£4.99, AU$7.99) monthly subscription, users get access to over 100 games that are playable on iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Apple TV. Some games have started rolling out for Mac as well. 

Apple Arcade makes casual play easy wherever you are and doesn't require an expensive console purchase. Instead, subscribers download games from the App Store.

Google's cloud gaming service, Google Stadia, launched in November, offering console gamers a serious gaming option, minus the console. Though Stadia still has some kinks to work out, CNET's Scott Stein's review of Stadia says the service works over TVs, laptops and Pixel phones, the controller is comfortable to hold and it's easy to resume saved games when swapping devices -- delivering on some of the promise of cloud gaming. 

The early-edition Founder's pack costs $120. The pack includes a Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra, a short USB-C-to-C cable, a Destiny 2 game download and three months of a $10-per-month Stadia Pro subscription service, which is needed to access of all of Stadia's online features. A more affordable version of Stadia, along with some major game titles, is due out in 2020.

Read more: Google Stadia vs. Microsoft xCloud: The battle for cloud gaming

Microsoft's Project xCloud gaming service could give Stadia some hot competition -- CNET's Oscar Gonzalez calls it "the cloud gaming service to watch." Though xCloud is still in preview, Microsoft plans to release more features in 2020. The service is meant to be an extension of Microsoft's consoles, and the company said it would be integral to its next console, the Xbox Series X. Project xCloud's unlimited storage space means that players can access Xbox games without having to download them -- a major benefit.

New platforms on display at CES 2020 will likely give us a closer look at this trend. For example, iiRcade says it's the first standup arcade game with a built-in online game store platform for downloading a library of new and classic titles. While it's not full cloud gaming, iiRcade demonstrates one of the ways that cloud gaming can be tweaked for multiple gaming mediums. 

Gaming isn't a one-size-fits-all experience, but few people would turn their nose up at a more convenient or accessible experience. Cloud gaming opens more possibilities and audiences -- whether the console is removed from the equation or serves as an extension of the playing experience. While it's unlikely that we'll see consoles disappear completely, cloud gaming is already shaking up the industry.

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