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.
Lori GruninSenior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
ExpertisePhotography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Watch this: Google Stadia: Everything you need to know
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.
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.
Nvidia Shield and GeForce Now
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
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.
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.
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
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.