Google Stadia may drastically change the cloud-gaming landscape – CNET

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The Stadia Controller, which is likely what Project Yeti was all about (rather than a console-like box) since Stadia will be able to run on an existing Chromecast.


James Martin/CNET

Playing your favorite game from anywhere and on any device is 2019’s holy grail of entertainment, and based on Google’s big Stadia reveal at the Game Developer’s Conference this week — that’s the platform which has emerged from its Project Stream and Project Yeti work — it’s possibly well on the way to winning the chalice. Or, at the very least, conceptualizing what it looks like.

What do we mean when we talk about cloud gaming or game streaming? In cloud gaming, processing occurs on a remote server that “streams” the rendered frames to your local device, which sends back commands based on your in-game activity. People have taken to calling it “game streaming.” 


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But gaming’s active, bidirectional nature makes it different from traditional movie and music streaming. It’s also different from Twitch-like game broadcasts, which is why I prefer “cloud gaming.” 

That term also differentiates it from in-home streaming — served up by the original Steam Link,  HP’s Omen Game Stream, AMD Link mobile and a lot of others — where you run games off a local system to play on less powerful devices but those devices are still on the same network. They’re also different from online multiplayer games such as Fortnite, which run entirely in the cloud but still perform most of the processing on your device.

Many of the problems from a couple of years ago remain. Here are the current players and where they stand.

Google Stadia

Google’s use of the plural of “stadium” for its new gaming platform hits the mark, even if its logo doesn’t quite resonate; the company’s ambitions extend into every aspect of game play, game development and game streaming (via YouTube) across every device. On its face, the scope subsumes almost every type of offering available or in development today, with one exception: Blade Shadow-like virtual machines for consumers. But if Google succeeds, that niche may shrink even smaller.

I won’t go into a lengthy description of what it encompasses — here’s the overview — but If anyone can pull it off, it’s Google. The company has several distinct advantages over any competitor, except maybe Microsoft. It owns a huge network of data centers and the fiber that connects them; the software layers and programming expertise it needs to run; the video-streaming infrastructure streamer base on YouTube to popularize it; a client (Chrome) with a a ready-made installed base; the deep pockets to capitalize it and to create its own games; and the industry clout across mobile and desktops to persuade a critical mass of publishers to develop for it.

Its partnership with AMD for the graphics processors powering the service adds a new wrinkle as well. During the presentation, Google emphasized the powerful physics acceleration of the AMD-based platform; that’s a stark contrast to Nvidia’s concentration on its RTX ray-tracing-optimized GPUs which will be driving GeForce Now and its need for network scalability highlighted in its keynote.

The biggest drawback is that games need to be coded specifically for the platform. Google’s using the popular Unity engine, so games already using that have the least friction for porting; Epic has also pushed out the necessary tools for its Unreal Engine. Between the two, that covers a ton of games.

There are still unanswered questions, such as how you buy games or transfer games you own into the platform (in the absence of that info, analogies to Netflix are misleading and inaccurate) and how everything will be priced, how well non-Google controllers work with it, network factors that are out of Google’s control, and more. Those may determine whether it will turn out to be a world-dominating Gmail or a quietly killed Google Plus.

Now that it’s public, more details should trickle out over time. Google said publicly that the next big information dump should be in August.

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Blade Shadow Ghost is a minimally smart box that connects your TV or monitor to your Shadow VM.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Blade Shadow

The most advanced cloud gaming option — and by that I mean a good balance of features and performance — comes from the smallest company. Blade uses cloud-based virtual machines called Shadows. Once you’re logged in, most of the time you can’t really tell you’re not using a local desktop. 

That means it can run any Windows game from anyone, with any launcher — it’s not limited to specific partners.  And Blade’s ahead of almost all its competitors when it comes to device support. It offers a small $140 box (Shadow Ghost) with Bluetooth and USB ports for keyboards, mice and controllers, and hooks up a TV or monitor to your Shadow; it also has Android, MacOS and Linux apps, while iOS is in beta. It recently rolled out Hive, a community chat and co-op interface lets you view and control other gamers’ screens as well as your own.

Unlike all the other platforms, Shadow can run at 4K and 60fps. There’s no guarantee your games will run that fast, though. Last time I tested it, the performance was roughly equivalent to an Intel Core i7/GTX GeForce 1070 system — which isn’t nearly powerful enough to run a lot of games at 4K.  

The downside is it’s not for people who don’t want to manage their own computers — who just want to get in, play, and get out or deal with device connection and latency issues. And at $35 a month it’s expensive if all you want to do is play a few games.

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The HP Omen X Emperium 65 has Nvidia Shield built in, which means native access to GeForce Now and Android games.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nvidia Shield and GeForce Now

Nvidia’s GeForce Now is probably the slickest and least troublesome cloud-gaming option I’ve used, in part because it’s been around for a while in different forms and in part because it’s somewhat limited. The Shield, Nvidia’s box for handling connections to peripherals, can connect to a TV or monitor for a console-like gaming experience. The Shield lets you play Android games on the big screen or cloud games via Nvidia’s GeForce Now (GFN) service. GFN lets you play games you own from the cloud.

The notable development for GFN is the ability to play on a Mac or PC. Nvidia’s client for doing so has been in free beta for over a year and it works quite well, provided your network lives up to its requirements from minute to minute: Greater than 25Mbps bandwidth, less than 2 percent frame loss and less than 80ms latency. 

And on the plus side, Nividia announced its new RTX-based, more highly scalable blade servers at GDC 2019, which it intends to use for upgrading GeForce Now.

But full support is limited to games in your Steam library, on Battle.net or on Uplay, and not all games on those platforms. GFN also runs as a VM, but a locked-down one that launches when choose to run a game (or run the Steam client) and evaporates when you exit. 

Though the beta is public, it’s still invitation only. We haven’t had any hints of iOS or Android support. Nvidia has yet to say when it will go into public release or reveal any pricing.

Sony PlayStation Now and PS4 Remote Play

If there’s an old timer in cloud gaming, it’s probably five-year-old PSN. The service, which is fundamentally an all-you-can-eat subscription (charging $20 per month to $100 per year) for PlayStation owners, has lets you stream PS games to a PC for the last three years. 

While it’s robust with a big library of games, those games rotate so you’re not always guaranteed to be able to play the ones you’re looking forward to. Also, Windows is the only platform it supports for cloud gaming, it’s only designed to work with a DualShock controller and it (unsurprisingly) doesn’t support keyboard and mouse.

With the PS4, Sony introduced a feature called “Remote Play,” which lets your PS4 stream games to a PC, Mac, Android, and as of March 2019, iOS. Like Stream Link Anywhere, Remote Play uses the console as a host that you can access via other devices without having to be on the same network.

Sony’s also rumored to have a new console in the works, and it’s possible that with the next rev the company will introduce the ability to stream games you own — and to more devices — directly via the PSN infrastructure. So you wouldn’t need a console but you’d be able to access hot new exclusives.

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Steam Link running on Android with the touch controls enabled rather than a paired controller.


Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Steam Link Anywhere

Steam Link started out as a box (like the Shield) which connects to a TV or monitor via Steam’s in-home streaming service. So there’s still a powerful system running the game, but you didn’t have to be in front of it. Parent company Valve discontinued the Steam Link and replaced it with an app to let you stream to your Android device, which is still in beta. There was initially an iOS app but after some problems with Apple’s App Store it just disappeared and we haven’t heard anything since. 

Steam announced an update, Steam Link Anywhere, just prior to GDC 2019. The update untethers Steam Link from having to be on the same network as the computer hosting the stream. It’s still new and a little rough. For instance, when I try to connect from home, it asks me to enter a PIN on the host computer at the office. And when I try to leave the host on Wi-Fi instead of Ethernet, it’s always offline when I try to connect from home. Then I get to the office and find Steam has logged me out.

Steam Link Anywhere is very much a work in progress. It’s free, which is a plus. But you need a pretty meaty system to serve as the host, with a fast, robust and preferably wired network connection.

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Xbox Live on your iPhone?


Microsoft

Microsoft Project xCloud

We also know that Microsoft’s working on its own Xbox-based cloud-gaming platform, currently called “Project xCloud.” The goal of xCloud is to get Xbox games — including its own exclusives — running on more devices. The company recently showed off a demo of Forza Horizon 4 running on a phone, and has said that it will go into wider testing later in 2019. But we know few details about what xCloud will look like, or how it fits in with the company’s console strategy.

Update, March 21, 4 a.m. PT: Added information on Google’s announcement at GDC.

Game Developers Conference

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