The advent of cloud gaming as an imminent industry disruptor and a game changer (sorry for the bad pun) has been taking place and romanticized for a decade now. Whether you are an avid gamer, a professional game developer, or perhaps merely an outside observer and a fan of this type of technology, chances are you are quite familiar with the idea of cloud-based game streaming services. These platforms are capable of bringing the latest AAA games in their finest quality to your household, regardless of the hardware power your computer happens to be packing at the moment.
Much like the streaming wars that are now happening within the entertainment industry with Netflix, AT&T’s HBO Max, Disney+, Apple TV+, Comcast’s Peacock, and others battling for their share of the market abundant in content-hungry consumers, the cloud gaming environment is slowly but surely following suit.
You may remember the rise and fall of OnLive, but more recently, we have been witnessing the launches of Microsoft’s xCloud, Amazon’s Luna service, PlayStation Now, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, and with Google Stadia now being well in its second year of existence, it does seem like cloud gaming services are finally entering mainstream waters, right?
Well, sort of.
The rise of cloud gaming services is yet to reach its peak. And although this technology is capable of providing a cornucopia of various benefits to both game developers and end-users, many industry experts are skeptical about when exactly the industry is to fully level-up to the cloud.
But before we dive deeper into major bottlenecks, let us first cover the main benefits of cloud gaming platforms.
Note: We won’t be delving into the technical framework of this technology, so those who seek that type of information can find it here.
How Cloud Gaming Services Are Reshaping the Industry
Pretty much every cloud-based or cloud-native system regardless of the industry, when compared to its legacy predecessor, proves far superior. This superiority typically ensues from the improved scalability, high-accessibility, and better-optimized costs that these systems provide.
This is also true within the video gaming industry where cloud gaming services (promise to) offer the following:
- a solution wherein the gamer is finally untethered from the physical hardware that is often far too expensive and tends to become outmoded every 3 years, which substantially decreases the cost of CAPEX for the end-user.
- a model that allows a gamer to access their account(s) regardless of their location and play the same game from any capable device with a screen: smartphone, laptop, tablet, smart TV, etc.
- an environment wherein the gamer gets to leverage the computing power coming from the provider’s servers that are always optimized and up-to-date with new components, without the subscription price going up every time there’s an infrastructure update and/or improvement.
- the ability to launch games with minimal loading times and from a simple web browser, obviating the need for manual downloads or updates (which is something that more than three-quarters of players are frustrated with). The downloads and updates are happening in real-time and automatically in the background.
These benefits that cloud gaming services are capable of providing can bring forth a level playing field where more consumers, including those with lower incomes, would be able to participate, thus widening the user-base and increasing the overall number of players. Without the need for high-end consoles and PCs, the time between interest and conversion would significantly shorten as those who are merely spectators within the AAA gaming arena would be able to convert to p(l)aying customers in a matter of minutes.
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The accessibility and scalability of the cloud gaming model allow for an environment in which recommendation engines have better insights into what type of content a player prefers (in terms of game genres and play styles) and therefore enhance the new-game discovery experience.
Another key benefit is obviating the limitations of a user’s device as well as their own infrastructure so a video game is allowed to be as complex and large as its cloud servers can handle. This is especially beneficial for multiplayer games as they could expand their player ecosystem and potentially scale up the number of players from hundreds to thousands.
Major Challenges Cloud Gaming is Facing
We know that OnLive flopped, most likely because they kind of jumped the gun as the technology of 10 years ago wasn’t capable of providing adequate infrastructure to underpin their model. But what about now, when that cloud-based gaming technology has evolved immensely over the last decade?
Well, the transition process is still ongoing.
Although the cloud gaming service war has already begun and the ultimate model is currently not too far beyond the horizon, the optimal environment and the ultimate vision of viable cloud gaming still haven’t been reached. At least not in the global, mass-market context.
That said, let’s go over some of the most common challenges the cloud gaming industry is currently facing.
Internet Connection Speed, Responsiveness & Latency
In order to leverage the full power of this technology, there needs to be a stable and fast internet connection. When the connection is subpar, the responsiveness is not adequate and latency ensues, which is a huge problem for one’s gaming experience. The interactive nature of gaming requires instant responsiveness which means that the time it takes for your commands to reach the remote server that subsequently reacts to your input and sends the signal back – must feel instantaneous.
This issue is still a major bottleneck for both single-player and multiplayer games. The problem with latency is that responsiveness depends on several variables (including the speed of a user’s internet connection) and with this type of process, a certain amount of input lag is inevitable.
Even the leading cloud gaming platforms average the controller input around 30 milliseconds which sounds quite short but is enough to ruin one’s gaming experience. This is especially true for online competitive games where the difference between winning and losing is quite often measured in tenths or hundredths of a second.
A few Stadia users have recently been reporting single-digit millisecond lags and full 4K graphics, but they boast the latest fiber internet connections which is not yet the norm across the globe.
5G to the Rescue
The advent of 5G broadband networks could bridge this latency gap as it brings internet speeds that could prove sufficient to make cloud gaming a viable option. Currently, 5G and high-speed internet are used by a relatively high number of users. However, they are still far from widespread even across the most developed markets like the US.
The Business Model Issues
As there are numerous variables to be optimized within the cloud gaming ecosystem, the providers are yet to establish a truly viable business model and come up with adequate pricing plans that would work for all parties involved.
There’s an entire spectrum of factors, from the cost of running the cloud servers, to the purchase/rent price of games, it appears that there’s currently no cloud gaming business model that successfully tackles this multifaceted issue so all the participants are genuinely satisfied.
Ownership of Game Copies
Much like it is the case with the music industry fandom wherein people often prefer actually owning a hard copy of a content piece, certain avid gamers also like to own their copy of a game instead of merely streaming it. This is an aspect of cloud gaming that also needs to be addressed and optimized across the worldwide user-base.
The Quality of Graphics
As we already mentioned above, a full 4K definition is something that is often promised but not entirely delivered by the platforms as they need to compress images during the streaming process, which is why their 4K is still not a real 4K definition. This is one of the major challenges to overcome, as most players have pretty high standards in terms of graphics.
Cloud Gaming requires much more data to be processed and consumed than video streaming. Movies and shows are typically streamed at 30 FPS, whereas video games are streamed at 60 FPS (which is a bare minimum by modern standards, since most modern monitors and smartphone screens have refresh rates of 100+ Hz).
This significantly increases your data consumption and is why bandwidth caps are an additional problem as cloud gaming services are somewhat of bandwidth hogs. For example, when Google Stadia was first rolled out, it was using up approximately 4.5 GB to 20 GB of data per one hour of gameplay (depending on whether a user was streaming at 1080p or 4K).
As the COVID-19 pandemic has substantially increased the interest in cloud gaming platforms and services, the market is definitely in a dire need of bridging all the technical gaps and coming up with an optimized and viable cloud gaming model. Although some industry experts predict a future similar to failed niches like 3D TVs or Google smart glasses, it is highly unlikely that cloud gaming would meet the same demise. Especially as major tech behemoths are en-masse entering the cloud gaming services arena and are creating their own version of streaming wars.
It’s hard to imagine giants like Amazon, Microsoft, or Google currently investing millions into an industry that doesn’t have a bright and clear future. Maybe not yet 4K-clear, but a clear one nonetheless.