The future of gaming won’t require a powerful console sitting under your TV. In fact, it’s box less, wireless, and streaming from a magic server, miles and miles away.
And that is the vision that some of the biggest software giants in the market out there are spinning up. With Google set up to launch Stadia in coming November and Microsoft to launch xCloud, the fight today seems to be getting ever bigger.
The industry till now
If you think this all is new, it isn’t. The first time someone had the vision of Game streaming as a service, it was OnLive. Yes, there was a game streaming service in 2010 which even let you play Crysis (In fact that was their launch title). But sadly, due to mismanagement and poor marketing, the service was shut down by 2012.
But it paved a way for the industry leaders to work on the same vision and create something much more viable. Thus, came Sony with its PlayStation Now and Nvidia with its GeForce Now which is still in Beta.
But both of them have their own troubles, with Sony’s backend requiring a much faster internet connection than what an average consumer holds, while Nvidia still is at a beta stage due to the company managing to have servers only in North America.
So that’s how we now enter 2019. And now, the two biggest giants in the technology sector took over this vision and are launching their own services. People are still sceptic about the same due to previous failures by others, but my optimistic self finds this much more viable than what the other solutions were, and I’d later describe why.
One of the problems with early game streaming services was that they were, in essence, streaming video of a game directly from a powerful computer and nothing more. They relied on streaming technologies designed for one-way video streams of content to your machine — think Netflix, for example. But streaming video games requires a fast, two-way connection — the game needs to make its way from the server to your screen, and any inputs you make must then be communicated back to the server. Then it streams back the reaction to what you just did, and the cycle continues.
But since 2012, the Internet has come a long way. In fact, Google currently is using the WebRTC standards for their game streaming. Don’t worry if you don’t know about it, just the fact that this is the standard that has enabled good quality video calls over really low data speeds on apps like Google Duo and Facetime (which are both known for higher quality with way lesser data usage). How WebRTC work is that basically instead of the connection between two devices taking place via a centralized server in the middle, the devices are connected directly with one another. This reduces the latency by a much higher degree than what OnLive, PlayStation Now and GeForce Now faced.
Stadia is also emerging as the industry leader by using newer standards like BBR and QUIC , are known to further reduce the latency and connection congestion. With that, the video game stream and the controller commands run in parallel rather than being intricately linked together, and thus reduces the response time by a huge margin compared to previous services.
When your connection gets flaky — as even the best broadband definitely will sometimes — the stream will still feel responsive. Instead of glitching around the screen like in traditional multiplayer games — itself a major problem that can make games unplayable, as you miss your targets and those with better connections destroy you — the stream will simply drop video quality to compensate, becoming pixelated or distorted as when YouTube has buffering issues. Because the congestion is being managed by these new protocols and your controller commands are processed separately from the video stream, your character still responds, and as the connection recovers, the video quality ramps back up again.
The Cloud is everywhere
The problem that killed every streaming service before now was latency — the time between issuing a command like “move forward” and the remote game actually responding.
With OnLive, you might have been looking at the game on your screen, but it was rendered far away in a data centre. Actually, doing something involving the controller’s buttons meant sending a signal up to that remote server, which then needed to be processed and sent back your way. The process only took milliseconds, but the delay was perceivable as lag to the player.
Google and Microsoft don’t have this problem, because they’ve spent a decade building hundreds of data centres in every corner of the world for their cloud platforms. This infrastructure is what allows services like Google Drive to work.
Where is the industry moving towards?
The move to cloud gaming, to me, seems to be the next step in the evolution of gaming, which will make games accessible to millions of people for the first time without buying consoles — but it won’t replace hardware for a long time. They’ll co-exist for years to come. That’s where we see Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox Spartan in 2020 and Sony’s unannounced next generation PlayStation 5 would co-exist.