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Computers

Stadia, xCloud and more: Where cloud gaming stands now

Now that the E3 gaming show is over, we know a little more about these upcoming platforms designed to let you play high-powered games on phones, tablets and ultraportable laptops.

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Microsoft's Project xCloud at E3 2019.

James Martin/CNET

The future landscape of gaming platforms is starting to coalesce, and we're getting a more solid vision of it from announcements made around the annual E3 gaming show. Google offered more of the details for its much-anticipated Stadia service in its pre-E3 press event -- pricing, availability, speed requirements and launch games -- while Microsoft gave us a glimpse of its forthcoming Project xCloud service without any specifics.

These are the emerging cloud-centralized platforms where a lot of the lines bounding the feature sets are nebulous compared to more concrete solutions: consoles like 2020's Xbox and PlayStation  coming Microsoft and Sony, Netflix-like mobile gaming subscriptions locked to platforms or carriers such as Apple Arcade and Hatch for Samsung (Hatch also partners with Sprint and NTT Docomo), sling-desktop-games-to-mobile solutions like Steam Link Anywhere and playing your own games hosted in the cloud, such as GeForce Now or Blade Shadow


What's cloud gaming?

What do we mean when we talk about cloud gaming or game streaming? In cloud gaming, processing occurs on a remote server that "streams" the rendered frames to your local device, which sends back commands based on your in-game activity. 

And if there's an all-you-can-play subscription or streaming component, there are inevitable superficial analogies to Netflix or just slightly more accurately, Apple Arcade. More more apt comparisons are to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. That's because essential gaming features  -- cloud saves, in-game communication and play capture, to name a few -- make it fundamentally different from most traditional streaming services.

As does the need for persistence; when your favorite movie is pulled from Netflix (or other movie-streaming service) because copyright-based monetization strategies demand it, you can shrug. If a game you're playing disappears from "the vault" and the platforms aren't smart, you can lose progress, power-ups, important customizations like keybindings and so on.

People have taken to calling playing games via these services "game streaming," but to me that's a far too passive term to describe  it, and introduces confusion with Twitch-like streaming; that's why I prefer "cloud gaming." 

That term also helps differentiate it from in-home streaming -- served up by the original Steam Link,  HP's Omen Game Stream, AMD Link mobile and a lot of others -- where you run games off a local system to play on less powerful devices but those devices are still on the same network. They're also different from online multiplayer games such as Fortnite, which run entirely in the cloud but still perform most of the processing on your device.

Many of the problems from a couple of years ago remain. Here are the current players and where they stand.


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Project xCloud running Forza Horizon 4 on a phone.

Claudia Cruz/CNET

Microsoft Project xCloud and Xbox Game Pass for PC

At E3 2019, Microsoft divulged some high-level details about its forthcoming, Xbox-based cloud-gaming service, slated to go into a public preview launch in October. The goal of Project xCloud is to get Xbox games -- including its own exclusives -- running on more devices, and Microsoft has a three-pronged strategy to make that happen: via an app, xCloud will let you run games hosted on that great Xbox in the sky on your mobile device or to do the same thing for games hosted on your own local Xbox console. 

Microsoft has also introduced a new vault subscription plan, Xbox Game Pass PC, to let you run a select group of Xbox games on a Windows PC, analogous to its Xbox Game Pass for the console. Game Pass PC's in beta now at a limited price of $1 for the first month, after which it rises to its normal beta price of $5 per month.  One it officially launches, the price will increase to the normal $10 per month. Other perks for Game Pass PC is access to new Microsoft games on launch and discounts on other games.

We still don't know how much Microsoft will charge for xCloud, if or how it will be tied to either of the aforementioned services and next-generation console, requirements for streaming, quality levels...really much of anything.


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Doom Eternal running on Stadia at E3.

James Martin/CNET

Google Stadia

The company's gaming ambitions extend into every aspect of game play, game development and game streaming (via YouTube) across every device. But its launch plans as revealed in its most recent E3 announcement, are far less ambitious from a gamer's standpoint and more lucrative from Google's.

But there was little about the unique features that could make it stand out, save its ability to run games on just a few select phones (Pixel 3 series, natch) in its initial incarnation.  At the company's official announcement at GDC, the breadth of Stadia's capabilities and Google's vision for it seemed like it encompassed every aspect of gaming, and added important novelties like game buying from videos, indexed walkthroughs and playable scenarios in YouTube. Now it seems so much smaller.    

Those plans include a two-tier system debuting in 2020 -- free access for any game you buy from Google and $9.99 monthly Stadia Pro tier, which gives you access to the whole game catalog --  plus a $129 limited Founder's Edition early access bundle that launches in November 2019. Top play quality is 4K/60fps HDR. It will initially be available in 14 countries with a bunch of nonexclusive titles. As you'd expect, the service is tied to your Google, and there's no sharing until family sharing arrives in some future update.

However, Google's also offering hosting plans to publishers. For instance, Ubisoft's new Uplay Plus subscription will offer cloud-based gaming via Stadia beginning in 2020. It's not clear if Ubisoft's exorbitant $15 per month price will include a Stadia Pro subscription or simply access to Ubisoft's own games. 

Publisher partnerships aside, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Google provided a rough outline of bandwidth requirements, but those are insufficient to figure out if your internet connection will be able to play well at any particular quality level. 

Now playing: Watch this: Google Stadia: Everything you need to know
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Then there are the complete unknowns. That fancy YouTube integration wasn't mentioned. How do you buy games, and how much will they cost? 

Can you play games you already own if there's a Stadia equivalent or will you have to repurchase them?  If you buy a game on Stadia can you get a version that can run locally? Games need to be coded specifically for the platform. Google's using the popular Unity engine, so at least games already using that have the least friction for porting; Epic has also pushed out the necessary tools for its Unreal Engine. Between the two, that covers a ton of games. 

Google mentioned that you could "transfer" your character from other platforms to Destiny 2 (Destiny 2 will offer cross saves), but that's a bit vague. Plus, how will non-Google controllers work with it?

On one hand, Google has several distinct advantages over any competitor, except maybe Microsoft. It owns a huge network of data centers and the fiber that connects them; the software layers and programming expertise it needs to run; the video-streaming infrastructure streamer base on YouTube to popularize it; a client (Chrome) with a a ready-made installed base; the deep pockets to capitalize it and to create its own games; and the industry clout across mobile and desktops to persuade a critical mass of publishers to develop for it.

Its partnership with AMD for the graphics processors powering the service adds a new wrinkle as well. During the GDC presentation, Google emphasized the powerful physics acceleration of the AMD-based platform; that's a stark contrast to Nvidia's concentration on its RTX ray-tracing-optimized GPUs which will be driving GeForce Now and its need for network scalability highlighted in its keynote.


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Blade Shadow Ghost is a minimally smart box that connects your TV or monitor to your Shadow VM.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Blade Shadow

The most advanced cloud gaming option -- and by that I mean a good balance of features and performance -- comes from the smallest company. Blade uses cloud-based virtual machines called Shadows. Once you're logged in, most of the time you can't really tell you're not using a local desktop. 

That means it can run any Windows game from anyone, with any launcher -- it's not limited to specific partners.  And Blade's ahead of almost all its competitors when it comes to device support. It offers a small $140 box (Shadow Ghost) with Bluetooth and USB ports for keyboards, mice and controllers, and hooks up a TV or monitor to your Shadow; it also has Android, MacOS and Linux apps, while iOS is in beta. It recently rolled out Hive, a community chat and co-op interface lets you view and control other gamers' screens as well as your own.

Unlike all the other platforms, Shadow can run at 4K and 60fps. There's no guarantee your games will run that fast, though. Last time I tested it, the performance was roughly equivalent to an Intel Core i7/GTX GeForce 1070 system -- which isn't nearly powerful enough to run a lot of games at 4K.  

The downside is it's not for people who don't want to manage their own computers -- who just want to get in, play, and get out or deal with device connection and latency issues. And at $35 a month it's expensive if all you want to do is play a few games.


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The HP Omen X Emperium 65 has Nvidia Shield built in, which means native access to GeForce Now and Android games.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nvidia Shield and GeForce Now

Nvidia's GeForce Now is probably the slickest and least troublesome cloud-gaming option I've used, in part because it's been around for a while in different forms and in part because it's somewhat limited. The Shield, Nvidia's box for handling connections to peripherals, can connect to a TV or monitor for a console-like gaming experience. The Shield lets you play Android games on the big screen or cloud games via Nvidia's GeForce Now service. GFN lets you play games you own from the cloud.

The notable development for GFN is the ability to play on a Mac or PC. Nvidia's client for doing so has been in free beta for over a year and it works quite well, provided your network lives up to its requirements from minute to minute: Greater than 25Mbps bandwidth, less than 2 percent frame loss and less than 80ms latency. 

And on the plus side, Nividia announced its new RTX-based, more highly scalable blade servers at GDC 2019, which it intends to use for upgrading GeForce Now.

But full support is limited to games in your Steam library, on Battle.net or on Uplay, and not all games on those platforms. GFN also runs as a VM, but a locked-down one that launches when choose to run a game (or run the Steam client) and evaporates when you exit. 

Plus, it shows no signs of actually turning into a real service. Though the beta is public, it's still invitation-only. We haven't had any hints of iOS or Android support. Nvidia has yet to say when it will go into public release or reveal any pricing.


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PlayStation Now

Screenshot by Joseph Kaminski/CNET

Sony PlayStation Now and PS4 Remote Play

If there's an oldtimer in cloud gaming, it's probably the 5-year-old PSN. The service, which is fundamentally an all-you-can-eat subscription (charging $20 per month to $100 per year) for PlayStation owners, has lets you stream PS games to a PC for the last three years. 

While it's robust with a big library of games, those games rotate so you're not always guaranteed to be able to play the ones you're looking forward to. Also, Windows is the only platform it supports for cloud gaming, it's only designed to work with a DualShock controller and it (unsurprisingly) doesn't support keyboard and mouse.

With the PS4, Sony introduced a feature called "Remote Play," which lets your PS4 stream games to a PC, Mac, Android, and as of March 2019, iOS. Like Stream Link Anywhere, Remote Play uses the console as a host that you can access via other devices without having to be on the same network.

Sony's alluded to some of internals for its upcoming console as well as Sony's intent to allow for "cross generation" play (no mention of cross-platform play yet). And it's possible that with the next rev the company will introduce the ability to stream games you own -- and to more devices -- directly via the PSN infrastructure. So you wouldn't need a console but you'd be able to access hot new exclusives.


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Steam Link running on Android with the touch controls enabled rather than a paired controller.

Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Steam Link Anywhere

Steam Link started out as a box (like the Shield) which connects to a TV or monitor via Steam's in-home streaming service. So there's still a powerful system running the game, but you didn't have to be in front of it. Parent company Valve discontinued the Steam Link and replaced it with an app to let you stream to your Android device, which is still in beta. There was initially an iOS app but after some problems with Apple's App Store it just disappeared and we haven't heard anything since. 

Steam announced an update, Steam Link Anywhere, just prior to GDC 2019. The update untethers Steam Link from having to be on the same network as the computer hosting the stream. It's still new and a little rough. For instance, when I try to connect from home, it asks me to enter a PIN on the host computer at the office. And when I try to leave the host on Wi-Fi instead of Ethernet, it's always offline when I try to connect from home. Then I get to the office and find Steam has logged me out.

Steam Link Anywhere is very much a work in progress. It's free, which is a plus. But you need a pretty meaty system to serve as the host, with a fast, robust and preferably wired network connection.