There is a lot of talk around cloud gaming right now. Not only are Sony and Nvidia continuing to improve and adapt their offerings - PlayStation Now and GeForce Now, respectively - but Google and Microsoft are soon to enter the fray. Others too.
Google has announced its Stadia platform and plans to introduce it later in 2019. While Microsoft is expected to fully unveil its Project xCloud at E3 in June.
So, we look at the various cloud gaming options, existing and on the horizon, to find out if we'll ever get a true "Netflix of games" or just another OnLive.
There are several cloud gaming services available, but really only two major ones that have had any kind of impact. Both are available now to those with the right hardware to support them.
Sony's PlayStation Now platform has been around for more than four years, but has largely failed to meet original expectations. And, in recent times, even adopted full game downloads to answer criticisms of cloud gaming latency issues.
The initial idea was sound; a cloud gaming service that provided a way to play PlayStation games on multiple devices. But, while it was first available on Sony and Samsung smart TVs, PS3, PS Vita, and certain Sony Blu-ray players, it was withdrawn from them all in 2017.
It is now only available on PS4 and Windows 10 PCs. It is also limited to 720p streaming.
The vast majority of its near 600 games on offer are still cloud based (all of them in the case of the Windows 10 app) but PS4 owners have complained about lag and latency issues in the past which has lead to PlayStation adding many game downloads to help drive the subscription fee. Some believe it will eventually ditch cloud gaming entirely, in order to offer a full game download service like Xbox Game Pass.
Nvidia GeForce Now
Nvidia's cloud gaming platform is available on its Shield TV boxes, PC and Mac. It has recently changed to encompass all devices as the previous version offered different services for different platforms.
For that reason, it is now back in beta testing across all devices. And is free to participate in, with plenty of games on Shield specifically being free-to-play at present.
Unlike the previous GeForce Now paid-for service, the new version is linked to users' Steam and UPlay accounts, so games bought through those can be played via the internet and your accounts linked. They run in up to 1080p and 120fps depending on the game and your internet connection, although there will still be some natural latency in comparison to playing them on a PC directly.
Where Nvidia hopes its service is superior to others is that it uses the very best graphics cards to run on remote PCs most don't have access to at home. And it is dynamic in that the specifications will improve when new cards and hardware are available.
But, it is telling that the new Nvidia GeForce Now beta represents around the third or fourth launch for the service, suggesting we gamers are far from embracing it as yet.
Considering neither of the main current cloud platforms have made much of a dent on conventional gaming, it might rely on a couple of new players in the field to find the solution. Both Xbox and Google plan to launch their own cloud gaming platforms in 2019 - can they make more of an impact? Even Apple is allegedly interested in providing the "Netflix of games", albeit in a different rumoured format.
Google announced its cloud gaming platform, Stadia, in a dedicated keynote address during GDC 2019. It will be available in the UK, US, Canada and Central Europe later in 2019 and runs on software (and hardware) similar to that tested for the beta version of what it called Project Stream at the tail end of 2018.
That was browser based, working through Google's Chrome browser. Stadia will too when it launches, plus on Chrome OS devices, Chromecast and Android devices. It is not yet known whether you will be able to access the platform through an iOS device.
As with Project Stream, Google has demoed Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Odyssey running on Stadia servers, at 1080p 30fps, although it claims that the system will be able to stream 4K HDR video at launch and at 120fps.
The Project Stream trials required a 25Mbps broadband connection minimum, but we don't know what Stadia speed options will be available as yet. It is likely that the video stream will be adaptive so your experience will differ depending on your home or mobile broadband speeds.
There is plenty we're yet to find out about Stadia, but it looks promising where latency and lag is concerned. As we explained above, PlayStation Now has been criticised for its latency issues, but Google has shown a couple of solutions to address that already.
- HP's new Omen gaming PCs explored: We tear down these gaming beasts to see what's under the hood (promo)
For starters, it will host games on a wide selection of dedicated servers around the globe, each with their own Linux-based custom hardware. The closer a server is, the greater potential for fewer latency issues.
In addition, Google will release its own, standalone Wi-Fi-enabled Stadia controller that doesn't connect to your TV, tablet or laptop, but directly to the internet and therefore the server. Usually, a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi controller has to connect to your smart device, which in turn connects to the internet. By cutting out the middle man, Google can potentially cut down on latency.
Xbox Project xCloud
Currently, plans are for Project xCloud (working title) to offer an enormous catalogue of old and new games available to play streamed over the internet, much like PlayStation Now and GeForce Now as above. However, Microsoft says that it will make much larger libraries of games from its Xbox consoles available from the beginning - including Xbox One.
It also claims that, like Google, it has made technological breakthroughs in tackling latency - the one major issue preventing cloud gaming from feeling like locally played alternatives.
The company will use its Azure cloud network to provide more server access points around the world than any rival platform, which could reduce latency to acceptable levels as, instead of signals travelling across continents, they could be coming from much closer to the end user.
We haven't seen it in practice yet, however. It might be something we get to see during Microsoft Build 2019 in May or the next E3 in June.
It is promising that the Xbox plans are ambitious and that it wants to extend use to all connected devices, not just consoles and potentially a wider selection than Google is targeting with Stadia.
You'll therefore be able to play Xbox games on your smartphone, tablet, smart TV or any other kit that has access to the internet. All for one monthly subscription fee.
Apple's subscription service
The latest big player rumoured to be interested in entering the games on demand sector is Apple. However, details are suitably sketchy for now, considering it is just speculation.
US website Cheddar claimed that it learned of Apple's plans to create a subscription service for games from "people familiar with the matter". The big difference to the others above, though, is that it's not thought to revolve around game streaming.
That might be on the cards, but it is more likely that iOS users will pay a flat fee for access to a large library of games to download, much like the previously mentioned Xbox Game Pass.
It is said that Apple could get developers to create exclusive games for the platform, but you would host them on your own device not stream them live from a remote server.
We might find out more at a dedicated Apple services press event on 25 March 2019, where it is also tipped to announce its own video streaming platform to rival the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
The biggest issue the existing platforms have faced - which is likely the reason they haven't registered as serious gaming platforms yet - is latency. That is the lag time between pressing a button on a controller and the responding action occurs on screen.
It should be nigh-on instant, as it is when a game is played directly on a console or PC itself. But as soon as you throw the internet into the mix, that's where things can get frustrating - especially with games that require faster response times.
At present, on PlayStation Now and the GeForce Now beta, you press a button, that command code is transferred to the device connected to the 'net (via Bluetooth in the Shield's case, adding even more latency in the process), then it is transmitted online to a server centre. The server recognises the command, tells the game the action to be performed, then sends the encoded video of the game back to your device. It then, in turn, sends the video information to your TV or monitor.
Every step of that introduces extra latency and as things stand it is not good enough for some.
There are things that can be done to reduce it, however, and some of these are proposed by Xbox and Google. Having more local servers is one, which at least reduces the amount of junctions and distance needed to send and receive signals.
Better wireless controller hardware is another, whether it be for mobile or home gaming.
By cracking this, they can both make cloud gaming a very attractive alternative to the traditional console/PC setup.
The ability to play the very best games of the past, present and future without actually needing to buy any new hardware is compelling. They just have to make it as good as what we have already, otherwise we'll stick to our consoles and computers for ever more and the "Netflix of games" will have once again been a passing fad.