Game streaming: Can Xbox and Google be the saviours of cloud gaming?

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There was a time when many thought cloud gaming would be the death of the conventional console. But the concept of playing triple-A games on a TV without the need for a separate box has so far proved to be better in theory than practice.

We've seen several cloud gaming services come and go - OnLive anybody? In the meantime, Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo have gone from strength to strength with traditional console formats.

So is game streaming done and dusted or is there still a chance the "Netflix of games" will succeed?

Here we look at the existing and future options to find out.

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But, while it was first available on Sony and Samsung smart TVs, PS3, PS Vita, and certain Sony Blu-ray players, it was withdrawn from them all in 2017.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 only 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'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 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 had in making 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 have plans for their own cloud gaming platforms so can they make more of an impact?

Microsoft hinted at its own cloud gaming platform during E3 2018 in June and now we know that there are plans to launch a beta version in 2019.

Currently, plans are 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 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, and won't until next year.

It is promising though that the Xbox plans are greater than rivals in that it wants to extend use to all connected devices, not just consoles. 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.

Google's cloud gaming plans are similar to Microsoft's, but it is one step ahead of its direct rival in that the beta version is available for US beta testers to experience now.

It is also browser based - working through Google's Chrome browser - and is currently offering Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Odyssey to play in 1080p at 60fps over a devent online connection.

The tech requires at least a 25Mbps broadband connection and is more of a test bed for now. But, like Microsoft, Google believes it is close to cracking the latency issues and we could one day see a full streaming solution come from the brand.

It is too early to say for now, nor do we know much more about the kind of service it might become, but having Google involved is surely a positive step in bringing idea to a bigger market. And, also like Microsoft, Google has its own cloud servers around the world to run it from.

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.

If they can crack this, there is no doubt that cloud gaming is attractive. They 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 been a passing fad.

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