Cloud gaming. It’s a concept that’s been around for a few years now but has yet to catch on with the majority of gamers. Not that this has deterred companies from trying to make it work. Far from it.
Now, with new services on the horizon promising to change things up, could this finally be the year that cloud-based gaming breaks through into the mainstream? Or is the concept fundamentally doomed to fail?
The Past and Present
Despite some early experiments, most agree that cloud gaming in its current guise came into being with OnLive. First launching in 2010 as a subscription-based gaming service, it underwent re-tooling later that same year, becoming ad-supported.
These changes would prove to be the first of many efforts to improve OnLive’s ailing fortunes, but it wasn’t to be enough. Just two years later, the company had laid off its entire workforce and was effectively dead in the water. What was left that was of any use — mainly patents — was sold for $4.8 million, a fraction of the 1.8 billion the company was once valued at.
The company to strip OnLive’s carcass clean was Sony. The Japanese giant, having absorbed all of OnLive’s remaining useful assets, had been readying its own cloud gaming venture. Playstation Now was launched in 2014.
On paper, it’s an easy sell. No updates or downloads, just a large catalog of games and some platforms to play them on (including PC — a more recent addition). But despite having the money and expertise of an industry leader behind it, Playstation Now still has yet to take off.
Well, at present, the selection of games available for streaming on the service is limited to PlayStation 3 titles only. Not only are PS4 games not offered, but also off-limits are titles from Sony’s huge back-catalog of PS2, Playstation, PSP and PS Vita consoles. This must surely be classed as a missed opportunity to court those interested in revisiting the many classics released for these consoles.
Another issue is latency. Because player input data needs to be constantly sent to a server, a decent connection is needed to avoid a noticeable delay between your button presses and the movement of the action on screen. The problem with this is there’s barely a country on the planet with internet speeds that are consistently good wherever you’re living, so as a result, there’s always some latency. Add to that the fact that Playstation Now has a noticeable degree of latency even with a fast connection, and the service starts to look much less attractive.
Price is also a sticking point for many. The current cost of $45 for three months does work out cheaper than handing over cash for brand new games, but only if you buy games regularly. Also, the games available on PlayStation Now are older titles that can usually be grabbed at a discount or even used at a much friendlier price.
So as a result of all this, PlayStation Now is still only really attractive to those who perhaps missed out on the many top-quality PS3 exclusives that were released during that console’s heyday.
This year’s CES technology show introduced us to two new contenders in the cloud gaming space, the first of which comes from a familiar name. NVIDIA used the show to announce GeForce Now for Mac and PC, a cloud-based gaming platform that does things a little differently.
If GeForce Now sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been around for a while on NVIDIA Shield devices. The difference with this offshoot is that, on PC and Mac, GeForce Now is a server rental scheme, which means rather than using a streaming app to select a game from NVIDIA’s catalog, gamers will purchase titles straight from their distributor of choice (Steam, EA Origin, UPlay), then run the game on NVIDIA’s GRID servers for an hourly fee. It’s a setup that equates to renting a high-end gaming PC.
On stage at CES, the system worked extremely well, with no discernable difference from playing games locally. But performance doesn’t come cheap. The cost for 20 hours of play has been announced at $25, and that doesn’t include the cost of the games. A few months of that, and you’d be wondering why you didn’t spend the money on your own gaming PC.
LiquidSky, the other cloud-based gaming service with a major presence at CES, attempts to outdo NVIDIA by allowing play not only on PC and Mac but also on Linux and Android-based systems (yes, including phones ad tablets). It also differentiates itself in a big way by offering users a completely free-to-play option, which is ad-supported in a manner similar to music-streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music.
It’s all based around ‘SkyCredits,’ a virtual currency awarded for watching commercial content. The more ads you watch, the more powerful your virtual PC will be, up to the highest ‘Elite’ level, which LiquidSky say is as capable as any top-end gaming setup, so should be good-to-go with any current release on Ultra graphical settings.
If you’re not fond of ads, paid packages start at $9.99 a month, which gives users up to 80 hours of the lowest-power PC equivalent, 40 hours of the mid-range Pro setup, or 20 hours of the Elite, which, compared with NVIDIA’s pricing for GeForce Now, is pretty attractive.
It all sounds promising, but will the quality of connection required be a deal-breaker? Well, LiquidSky say a consistent three-to-five MBps will be perfectly adequate to receive a 1080p HD stream that runs at 30fps, although to run the top-end setup, with the best frame rates and sharpest resolution, you’ll need a connection above 15mbps. The quality of your internet will also have an effect on latency, and to receive LiquidSky’s promised industry-low response times of 30ms, you’ll still need a decent connection.
So, with both these hot new offerings heading to market, it’s clear that companies are still of the opinion that there is money to be made from cloud gaming, despite the lack of concrete success in the sector so far. Each service is certainly bringing something new to the table to overcome some of cloud gaming’s weaknesses in the past. LiquidSky’s free-to-play model, in particular, could prove particularly attractive to gamers looking to make the jump to game streaming.
In the end, though, the problem may not lie with the companies striving to make cloud gaming work. The main obstacle has always been and continues to be, the quality of broadband internet connection, which in many areas still falls below the standard needed to allow these kinds of high-bandwidth services to work seamlessly. That fact means that although 2017 may be the year that cloud gaming finally becomes a viable option, at least for some, it’s likely to be some time yet before it truly enters the mainstream.