I’m following my two teammates closely; a cyborg/robot/zombie hitman and a bird fanatic. I’m like a shadow, listening to their pings and warnings; here’s an excellent attachment for a gun, there’s an enemy, let’s go here. At one point they zip up a line, over a mountain and out of sight. I try the same move. After a few attempts, I’m up the line. I immediately face plant the rock side, slide down steep terrain, and end up back where I started. I decide to change tactics and go old school, taking the shoelace express around the base of the impenetrable mountain. I. Am. Stealth.
I catch up with my buddies, who seem surprised to see me strolling up to them instead of flying around the map. The ballet of death this ain’t. We’re reminded that the storm we’re evading is closing in. Then a ping fires; there are enemies about. They’re close, too, making a run for the safety of a smaller circle on the map. We have the drop. I switch to my assault rifle with a decent scope. The plan is as follows; I’ll shoot them a couple of times to disorientate them, my team will capitalize on that confusion by flanking the enemy in a perfect scissor move, and I’ll mop up at the rear. We’d then grab the loot, seeking for the next encounter. Hurrah!
The execution went somewhat differently. As I popped the first shot, my link dropped. My okay-up-to-this-point resolution turned into what seemed like 4 pixels, and I lost control of my character for roughly ten seconds. Instead of stealthily confusing them, I fired an entire clip into the ground, shaking my head at the monitor while I got to watch the horror unfold. By the time I got control back, the resolution was still sketchy at best. When the game returned to normal – and I use that term loosely – I was dead. My teammates didn’t expressly say it, but I’m almost sure they blamed me.
Except it wasn’t me. It was GeForce NOW. Or at least it was cloud gaming.
You see, similar things have happened on Stadia too. On more than one occasion – when enough players could be found – I’ve had Destiny 2 stutter at crucial moments; swarms of enemies morphing into a sea of pixelated dangers during strikes, leaving me unable to do anything other than wait out beating I’m helpless to avoid. One of these moments in a Nightfall strike, and you may be looking at a hard reset.
A Bad Cloud Gamer Blames Their Tools
I know what you’re thinking; sounds like a you problem, Michael. And you’re kind of right, but isn’t it strange that while we hear about the buzz of cloud gaming offerings, we seldom discover what the reality of using cloud gaming is actually like. It’s either the next big frontier or a fad, depending on who you talk to. The truth is it’s underwhelming. Hindered by technical and infrastructure challenges which individuals are unable to change – you can’t lay new broadband cable to your property, no matter how much you may want to. This leaves cloud gaming with a whole lot of unrivaled negatives and very few unique positives to make the jump worthwhile.
And this is the purpose of this piece. I want to take a moment to explore the reality behind the promise of the future. And as an aside, I really want cloud gaming to work.
Now a bit of context before we start: I have relatively decent broadband in my home, with a minimum guaranteed download speed of 55Mbps and upload speeds up to 20Mbps. In the UK, that’s a superfast offering, and it puts me above average in terms of the internet offering. I run this through Google WiFi, and while I have some smart devices in the home, it’s not an excessive amount. When I’m gaming, there tends not to be any other streaming in my house. Yet issues persist. Which, taking my circumstances into account, I can only assume it is the norm for players in a similar position, i.e., nearly everyone in the UK.
Problems With The Future
Firstly, this isn’t a console replacement. A session using either Stadia or GeForce NOW is often inconsistent. While Stadia fares marginally better than NOW, it is, frankly, a shoddy play experience. The main gameplay issues boil down to two factors; resolution and stutter.
Resolution frequently drops on both services; the stream noticeably becomes muddy, pops to crisp graphics, before blurring again. It gives the experience that you’ve smeared Vaseline on your monitor. NOW, yet, is noticeably worse than Stadia, but it happens so regularly on Stadia that it is hardly a compliment to say it happens more on another service.
Stuttering is rarer than the troughs and peaks of graphical fidelity but happens enough to infuriate, and it’s the thing that will stop your gaming dead in its tracks. It’s particularly jarring if you play primarily on console or PC, where stuttering is almost non-existent. You’ll often find your game grind to a halt for at least a few seconds before giving back control.
And while it may seem I’m pointing out the obvious, these issues hit single-player games too. The very nature of cloud gaming posits an always-online experience. In an era where PlayStation Pro and Xbox One X are sold to offer unrivaled graphics and blistering performance, the cloud gaming contribution isn’t remotely good enough. It’s a brave or desperate player who chooses Stadia as their primary way to experience Cyberpunk 2077.
My second point is mainly aimed at Stadia and maybe more of an issue to me than others. The technology, when it does work, makes a promise for the future that Stadia then tries its best to undo immediately. The promise? You can play any game, anywhere, any time. But only if you own it.
It feels outdated and contrived. Worse, it’s a genuine barrier to cloud gaming achieving its promise. When you compare this with the Xbox Game Pass offering, it becomes harder to understand. Here we have the means to allow immediate access to – theoretically – any game you could ever want to play, and it’s locked behind a traditional pay per game setup. Game Pass – even Netflix – show that alternative methods exist.
And while GeForce NOW gives you access to multiple PC libraries and therefore games you already own, the problem is still there; it’s a new future grounded in archaic, defunct means of owning your games. And for those who value ownership, the current cloud offerings do not provide a solution to the problem of ownership; anyone venturing into cloud gaming has effectively forfeited their right to own their games truly.
Thirdly, it’s not cheap. A genuine argument in cloud gaming circles is that the consumer saves money by not purchasing original hardware. Stadia Pro costs $10 a month, a small price, sure. But that quickly adds up. If you bought a PlayStation 4 at launch and purchased an annual PlayStation Plus subscription every year based at $60, you’d be invested to the tune of $820 – not accounting for games. Stadia Pro, for the same time scale, puts you back $840. If you’re a Founder? Add $130 to that. You’ll also need a fairly robust internet package to boot. At best, it’s comparable, at worst it’s a whole lot more.
Things get more interesting when you add games into the mix. Stadia has a monopoly with its store. GeForce NOW allows access to other stores, each with their stranglehold of timed exclusivity and so forth. This means there is, generally, no direct competition and no way to gain new releases at anything other than full retail price. That means new releases will likely cost around $60 with no alternative purchasing options and, again, no real claims to ownership. Consoles, on the other hand, have various markets where new releases can be purchased physically.
I don’t want to come across like I have little hope for the future of gaming. Cloud gaming is obviously here to stay; Google, NVIDIA, and Microsoft Xcloud have invested billions to deliver the promise of tomorrow. So why, you ask, have I rambled so much about its problems?
Michael Pachter, a chap from Wedbush Securities, thinks Amazon will be throwing their hat into the relatively crowded cloud gaming ring in time for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Also, in the same article, Phil Spencer announced that Amazon and Google are now the real competition to Microsoft, no longer concerned with Sony due to a lack of server power to challenge Xcloud. But the service is laughably weak and inconsistent. There is little hope that Xcloud or Amazon’s offering – or any new and unseen gambit into cloud gaming – will improve matters.
This is because the issue doesn’t appear to be with the services. Remove gripes regarding ownership, business model, and accruing costs, and its obvious the problem is infrastructure. Something that Google, Microsoft, and Amazon megaliths are not going to resolve in my country. Or any country for that matter. The untold promise of 5G could present a solution, but what guarantee has been made that 5G will be remotely affordable – add to the fact that cloud gaming sees data caps the same way I see KFC. You’re quickly going to find that limitless cloud gaming is still but a dream.
There’s also a naive and disingenuous assumption peddled by tech giants – and some consumers – that the market will adapt and change due to the growing needs and demands of a public thirsty for better connectivity. To me, though, it seems more like a convenient excuse used by companies to pass the buck so they can be seen to be innovative and cutting edge while offering products that don’t work.
Finally, I’d like to make a bit of a conspiratorial jump, so please indulge me for a moment. Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon may appear to be on the side of the consumer, but their true loyalty lies with their shareholders. It’s therefore not too much of a stretch to assume that the surge of cloud gaming interest exists as a way to appease antsy shareholders concerned that a competitor could achieve a crucial section of the market unrivaled. Why else would companies pump billions into a technology that, at fundamental levels, is barely fit for purpose for the majority of the global gaming population? Share prices, after all, care not about whether a thing works, only whether the perception of a thing is good or bad.