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What is Cloud Gaming?

You've probably heard quite a bit about cloud gaming of late. With Xbox Cloud Gaming becoming available on iOS and PC, as well as the 'thing' that is Google Stadia, interest in cloud gaming is at an all-time high. But, what exactly is it? Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about cloud gaming...


Contents


Defining cloud gaming

In short, cloud gaming is a service where games are run in a data centre, with the audio and video streamed to the user.

Generally, the only requirement to use cloud gaming is to use an app (or, in some cases, a web browser) and a decent internet connection. This isn’t to be confused with local game streaming, which is similar in principle, however the ‘data centre’ is the computer you have in your house.

Now that we’ve defined what cloud gaming is, we’ll provide you with a brief history of cloud gaming before looking at the state of cloud gaming today.

As always, any mentions of prices and features are correct at the time of writing - however, we do hope to keep this article up to date.


The early days of cloud gaming

In the beginning there were two.

Two cloud gaming services that is; OnLive and GaiKai. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

OnLive

OnLive was founded in 2009 and launched its cloud gaming service back in March 2010. I remember the idea being really cool. All you needed was a microconsole, similar to an Amazon Firestick, which would connect to your TV and router and everything would be available to you.

However, the internet infrastructure at the time wasn’t able to support the large amount of data coming back to the microconsole. This, combined with a lack of publisher support, caused OnLive to go into liquidation. Following this, OnLive was sold to Sony in 2015 (Sony will come up again later in this article).

GaiKai

Founded a year earlier than OnLive was GaiKai, in 2008.

GaiKai’s original model was to create embedded websites using Adobe Flash or Java as a front end. Originally, it appears that their business model centred on allowing publishers to load their games on GaiKai’s servers so that potential customers could try them out.

GaiKai was the first cloud gaming service to be bought by Sony, as it was acquired in 2012.


What is cloud gaming like today?

All of this happened by 2015. Today, new services have arisen, internet infrastructure has improved, and with the popularity of Netflix and Amazon Prime more popular than ever, the cloud gaming wars are beginning again.

PlayStation Now

So, as we have seen, the two small initial cloud gaming platforms were acquired and absorbed by Sony.

Sony is still a big player in the cloud gaming space with its PlayStation Now service, with its cloud tech integrated into Sony’s Share Play and Remote Play technologies, meaning that people can play couch co-op over the internet or just stream their PlayStation 4 to their PlayStation Vita.

PlayStation Now began as a way of playing PlayStation 3 games on the PlayStation 4. Since then the service has expanded to cover 800 PlayStation games from the PS2 to the PS4. All of these games can be downloaded to your PlayStation and played locally. Prices currently range from £8.99 per month up to £49.99 per year.

GeForce NOW

Probably one of the most interesting contenders in modern cloud gaming is GeForce NOW from NVIDIA.

Starting life as GRID in 2013, GeForce NOW was in beta for 7 years before being officially launched in 2020.

The unique aspect of GeForce NOW is that it relies on your existing game library. Theoretically, you can play any game you own on GeForce NOW, however in practice a few game publishers such as Activision Blizzard, Bethesda and 2K have pulled out of the service due to ‘licensing issues’ (however, it’s believed that Bethesda’s withdrawal from GeForce NOW is related to their recent acquisition by Microsoft).

In terms of pricing, there is a free tier of GeForce NOW where your session duration is limited to one hour, after which you have to join a queue to rejoin. The Priority tier allows users to jump to the front of the queue, benefit from extended session length and enjoy RTX features, all for a monthly fee of £8.99 or a yearly fee of £89.99.

Additionally, GeForce NOW was the first streaming service, to my knowledge, to bypass the Apple App Store by allowing access to the service using the Safari browser.

Xbox Cloud Gaming

Next up, we have Xbox Cloud Gaming. Just like PlayStation Now, Xbox Cloud gets across game library issues by offering plenty of games from Xbox Game Studios such as Doom 2016, as well as third-party developers such as Control.

One caveat to be aware of is that Xbox Cloud Gaming only runs the console version of each game. As a result, games such as Age of Empires are not available on the service.

At the moment, Xbox Cloud Gaming is only included with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (if you want to know what Game Pass is, see this article), which at the time of writing is £10.99 per month.

There’s no word yet if Xbox Cloud Gaming is going to be a standalone service or not, but I think it works better as an integrated part of Game Pass anyway. As an aside, Xbox Cloud Gaming is the second service (to the best of my knowledge) to bypass the Apple App Store by using the Safari browser.

Shadow

Another player in the cloud gaming space is Shadow. Their model appears to be based on renting out a high-end gaming system via streaming.

It looks like each of the systems uses a 4-core Xeon processor and a P5000 GPU, 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, with up to 2TB additional storage being available to purchase.

At £29.99 a month, this might not be the best option, especially if you’re only after gaming (plus, you still need a device of your own to connect to your high-end cloud-based Shadow machine). The service also doesn’t include any games and relies on your own games library.

However, if you need a powerful computer for professional workloads, such as video or photo editing, then Shadow’s monthly cost might be better value than spending however much it is for these kinds of specifications in your home/office.

Google Stadia

One of the world’s largest companies has gotten into the cloud gaming ring in the form of Google Stadia.

Google Stadia was launched in November 2019, with an initial 25 games as part of the Stadia Pro subscription (£8.99 per month). Further games are available to purchase, whilst others can be accessed if you have an Ubisoft+ subscription.

Whilst you don’t need a Stadia Pro subscription to play games that you already own, many gamers are concerned that Google Stadia is actually Google Graveyard (Google it), because of the closure of its in-house studio in early 2021. As such, I wouldn’t really hold my breath on Stadia’s long-term survival.


Honourable mentions

There are other cloud gaming services which didn’t quite make it into our main list, but nevertheless deserve a mention. Let’s take a look…

Amazon Luna

The first honourable mention has to be the upcoming Amazon Luna.

There isn’t much to say about Luna at the moment, but like Google, Amazon probably has the web-infrastructure to make the concept work. Although they have limited experience with video games.

At present they are offering early access pricing at $5.99 per month and/or the Ubisoft+ beta pricing of $14.99 with access to the Ubisoft game library.

Another touted feature of Amazon Luna is an integration with Twitch (Amazon acquired Twitch in 2014).


The outliers

Finally, we have the outliers. These aren’t exactly cloud solutions but use streaming tech to enhance your experience.

Parsec

Firstly there is Parsec, which touts itself as a virtual arcade or couch co-op system.

From my understanding and brief experience of it, Parsec users can decide to open up their computers for other players to join.

Parsec also offers an API so that developers can better utilise Parsec’s tech. Games to make use of it so far include Cuphead, Enter the Gungeon and Dragon Ball Fighter Z.

The service is free, however there are little extra features that can be added for $9.99 per month, or $99.99 for a year’s subscription. These features include 4:4:4 colour mode to remove chroma subsampling, and touch screen support. Parsec also advertises its services for remote access for work including things like encrypted tunnels. These sorts of services don’t really matter for gaming, but are probably useful for work applications.

Sony Share Play

Sony Share Play offers virtual local multiplayer games. With Share Play you can pass the controller to a visitor and let them try the game or have your big brother beat that difficult boss (yes, that was one of their selling points!).

However, Share Play requires both the host and the visitor to have compatible PlayStation hardware such as a PS4 or PS5. Additionally, the host must have Playstation Plus.

Valve Remote Play

Valve Remote Play is very similar to Sony Share Play. It also offers you the ability to play virtual local multiplayer games.

Share Play can run within a web browser and doesn’t require any subscriptions, however to the best of my knowledge, you can’t pass the ‘controller’ to the visitor.


So, there you have it. That was CCL’s whistlestop guide to cloud gaming. What are your views on cloud gaming? Is it the future or a passing fad? Let us know in the comments below!