Cloud gaming: will it ever catch on?

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With the launch of Google Stadia and Microsoft's xCloud on the horizon, is a Netflix-style gaming service the future for gamers?

Hours spent alone, trying to beat MDK2 on the Sega Dreamcast, sitting around a PC with friends after school making characters on The Sims snog each other, Pokemon on a GameBoy, Halo on the XBox. So many of our gaming memories are inextricably linked to the consoles on which we played them.

But a raft of companies are now hoping that – in some ways – these moments will change. They won’t lose any of their emotional resonance (or, at least, they’re not intended to). But instead of being linked to physical consoles, your games will be streamed, no discs or even downloads in the picture at all. Hundreds or even thousands of games will be available to subscribers at a monthly cost, and you’ll be able to play across devices, pick up on a desktop where you left off on a tablet, for example.

Dedicated gamers, many of who have sincere and prolonged loyalty to particular platforms, may balk at the idea of a console-free gaming experience. But perhaps, as Google’s Jade Raymond argued in an interview with Wired magazine earlier this month: People don’t choose a new platform because they love its technology. Playing games is fundamental to being human. People go [to a new platform] because their hearts are touched.”

Scepticism or not, cloud-based platforms are looking to change the way we game. Numerous companies have been rumoured to be developing such platforms – even Walmart has become part of the cloud gaming rumour mill. And two big companies, Google and Microsoft, are definitely throwing their hat into the ring.

Stadia is Google’s offering: a gaming platform powered by the cloud. Launching in November, Google has already announced the release of a £59 controller for the platform and we know that the subscription will cost around £10 per month. With that fee you’ll get access to hundreds of games – Borderlands 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 are just two of the big names that have already been confirmed, and many more will be on offer will be announced soon. There may still be extra costs, however: though the monthly subscription fee gets you basic access to titles, bigger games may also cost more.

At Microsoft, xCloud looks to do much the same thing. Tests for the service are already taking place, and it should allow subscribers to play scores of Xbox games on tablets, smartphones and desktops. No monthly subscription fee has yet been announced, but considering an Xbox Game Pass costs £10 a month and xCloud is, in simplified terms, an improved version of that feature, it’s likely to be closer to the £20 mark.

Recent focus may lead you to believe that cloud gaming is a new phenomenon. It’s not. Over the last fifteen years, numerous attempts have been made in the area: from the first demonstration of the tech at the E3 Expo in 2000, to a system dubbed OnLive” that launched in 2010. The launch of OnLive was accompanied by much press and consumer excitement, but it wasn’t to last – just five years later, in 2015, the company closed its doors.

Playing games is fundamental to being human. People go [to a new platform] because their hearts are touched.” — Jade Raymond

So with such a storied (but unsuccessful) history, why the boom in cloud computing now? The cloud computing infrastructure is only just becoming robust enough to cope,” Guardian games editor Keith Stuart explains. And consumer broadband speeds are only now becoming fast and stable enough as well.”

In the past, a lack of data centres and chugging broadband has scuppered the idea of streaming games services,” Stuart says, referring to the hugely hyped” but ultimately ill-fated OnLive service which died within two years”. With new technology, such a fate could be avoided.

Infrastructure is indeed a focus: a spokesperson for Stadia describes the need to not be hindered by legacy technology from the past”.

It’s designed to change and improve over time,” they explain. It allows us to respond quickly to the needs and desires of gamers today as well as tomorrow.”

One of the best parts is that Stadia will evolve behind the scenes, so that we will never need to ask gamers to buy an expensive next generation console’. Games on Stadia will look and play better and better over time on the very same screen players are using today.”

Stadia puts significant focus on multiplayer, which it says will be an improved experience on its platform: Gamers will be connected via Google’s proprietary network, with very high-bandwidth, stable, fibre-optic connections,” it says.

The success of Netflix-style services such as PlayStation Now and Xbox Game pass also suggest there’s big appetite for the concept,” Stuart says. And with Stadia due to launch soon with what Stuart describes as very robust infrastructure and huge games libraries”, along with reasonable subscription rates, he believes that not insignificant numbers of casual gamers may willingly drop out of the PC and console arms race to embrace streaming”.

This may not be the case for serious gamers, who may well prefer a dedicated machine and will be keen to get their hands on big name titles as soon as they’re released. But for those of us who aren’t so invested, it might be a good solution.

Does gaming work within the Netflix structure? The jury’s still out. The way people consume games is really different from TV or films so just because Netflix has been huge, it doesn’t mean Stadia will be,” Stuart says. Most of us get through dozens of films and TV shows a month so a subscription fee makes sense, but with games, you may spend a year playing one or two titles – I know people who basically play Fortnite and FIFA and that’s it. A subscription is going to make no sense to them at all.”

As Raymond argues, the most precious gaming moments are not necessarily anything to do with the console. Though different platforms do give unique gaming experiences, the best games connect not (just) to our nerdy, techy sensibilities but to our emotions. With cloud platforms about to make gaming a lot more accessible, many more of us will potentially have access to these moving experiences.

But with infrastructure untested on such large scales and uncertainty around both pricing options, whether cloud platforms will change gaming forever or sink into the ether is still up in the air.

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