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Why Cloud Gaming’s One Killer Feature Sold Me On the Future

An Xbox surrounded by green clouds
Miguel Lagoa/Shutterstock.com

I’ve been gaming for a long time. I remember when my parents bought an NES along with Super Mario, and I even recall playing Radar Rat Race on my dad’s Commodore 64. But over 30 years later, I think consoles don’t matter anymore. The future is cloud gaming. And of all things, the Xbox convinced me.

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think consoles are going away entirely, nor do I believe the current trend spells the end of the Xbox and Playstation wars. But I think cloud gaming will change how the “console wars” are fought, and we already see that to some extent on the Nintendo Switch. Ultimately, I think cloud gaming at the heart of games is the future we should all embrace, though, and it will make gaming better.

What Is Cloud Gaming?

Amazon Luna on Fire Tablet
Amazon

Before we get into why I think cloud gaming is the future, it might be helpful to discuss what cloud gaming even is. For the history of modern video games, they’ve all worked essentially the same way. You stand in front of a machine with controls, a screen, and internal hardware that contains everything needed to run the game, including the game itself.

In the beginning, that entailed large machines we now tend to think of as “arcade cabinets.” The wood housing contained a TV, joysticks or spinners, buttons, and a weak computer barely capable of completing basic tasks. But it was enough to make Pong and Pac-Man happen, and that’s all that matters. With home consoles, things began to change.

The original Atari and Nintendo Entertainment System have a lot in common with modern consoles. Rather than a large, cumbersome all-in-one unit that included a TV and played a limited set of games (or just one game!), you got a much smaller box: no display and no actual game in the machine. You provided the TV, and you purchased games separately.

For better or worse, that’s essentially how most consoles work now. With the exception of portable consoles, like the Nintendo Switch, you still generally provide the TV. And it’s still up to you to pick and choose the games you want to play the purchase them separately. But what you can play depends very much on the power of the console you decide to buy.

A Nintendo Switch has no hope of playing a bombastic AAA game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Star Wars: Squadrons. It doesn’t have the power or the hard drive space. Eventually, the PS4 and Xbox One will be in the same boat, even as powerful as they are. And that’s where cloud gaming comes in. It takes the hardware in your home out of the equation and moves it elsewhere: the cloud.

With cloud gaming, you reach out to a server farm and connect to a dedicated computer (or, in the case of Microsoft, a dedicated Xbox), and that does all the hard work of running your game. You don’t need a disc for the game, powerful hardware, or even a console at all. While you can use a console, you could just as well use a smartphone or a streaming stick. What cloud gaming does for traditional gaming is similar to what Netflix did to your DVD player. It removes the hardware and possibly even the software (the DVD) from the equation. Instead, you stream all of that to your display.

And much like you don’t need to buy expensive Blu-ray players to watch high-quality movies in your home anymore, someday, cloud gaming could reduce (or remove altogether) the need to purchase costly consoles and gaming PCs to play the latest and greatest games. We’re seeing that play out already, albeit with some growing pains.

The Downside to Cloud Gaming

The Stadia controller and Chromecast with Google TV
Google

It’s worth pointing out that cloud gaming comes with some notable drawbacks currently. In a lot of ways, history is repeating itself. When streaming services like Netflix first launched, you couldn’t stream very much content. The first few years I subscribed to Netflix, I had the company mail me more DVDs than I actually streamed tv shows or movies. At the time, Netflix had a larger DVD collection than a digital collection.

But that wasn’t the only issue: at the time, I had slow internet. It wasn’t dial-up, but it sure felt close at just 10 Mbps down. Anytime I wanted to stream a movie, I went in knowing I’d have to put up with buffering. Netflix did whatever it could to make my internet connection work, which typically meant downgrading the quality to almost unwatchable potato levels. And even then, the movie paused for buffering so often it felt like commercial breaks.

The same problem applies to cloud gaming, but on a much more complicated scale. With movies, it’s a one-way street: you download the data for the film and watch it. But games are a two-way street. You download the data, yes, but you also interact with the game. Every button press and tilt of the joystick needs to go back to the game server, where it reacts and sends back new data. That might not be a big deal for some games, but if you’re playing something that demands low latency, such as a shooter like Halo or a fast-paced multiplayer like Rocket League, that delay is undesirable.

The slower your internet, the worse your lag will be, and the delay can cost you the win. And if your internet is very slow, the game may not be playable at all. Even with fast internet, you’ll likely have to settle for lower resolution and FPS (frames per second) than a powerful console or gaming PC can provide. Companies are working on this, whether that be through speeding up the internet or more novel solutions like predicting your game choices before you make them. But for the foreseeable future, cloud gaming isn’t as smooth in many cases as local gaming.

Why Cloud Gaming Is the Future

A laptop running an Xbox game
Josh Hendrickson

So we know what cloud gaming is and that it has downsides. So why do I think it’s the future? Because I already love it right now. And that’s thanks to, of all things, my Xbox. I am a gamer, after all, so I own a Switch, a PS4, an Xbox One X, a PS5, and an Xbox Series X. I game the most on my Xboxes, and that’s partly because I subscribe to Game Pass. It’s the best deal in gaming and grants me access to hundreds of games without having to buy them all.

But there’s a problem with modern games: the better they look and sound, the larger the game file. It’s not uncommon for a game to take up 80 GBs of space at this point! And in some cases, games take up 100 GBs, and even 150 GBs of space, and that’s before you download optional content. Buying a game in disc form doesn’t help, as modern consoles download a copy of the game to speed things up. The disc acts as proof of ownership.

I have ridiculously fast internet (750 Mbps down, 500 up), but it takes a long time to download these large games even with all that speed. I can start a download, cook and eat dinner, come back, and still see a progress bar. And those giant games will fill up your hard drive quickly, even with the standard 1TB storage the PS5 and Xbox Series X use. I currently have 10GBs of space left on my Xbox with 37 games installed. That sounds a lot, but 8 of those games take up 500GBs of space—the rest are old Xbox 360 games. My PlayStation is in a similar boat, with just 60 gigs left after installing ten games.

I often encounter new and interesting games I’d like to try with Game Pass. Before I can even think about it, though, I’d have to determine which existing game I want to uninstall to make room for a new game. I don’t have the space for any more downloads. It’s daunting because I could go through all the effort of uninstalling one or more games and waiting an hour or more to download and install a new game only to find out I don’t like it. Or it would be daunting, but the Xbox Game Pass Cloud streaming feature bypasses all of that.

If you subscribe to Game Pass, Xbox offers over 100 games under its Cloud Gaming banner. If I see a game I think I might like; I don’t download and install it. Instead, I stream it to my Xbox. By streaming it, I don’t have to wait for the long download time, I don’t have to uninstall anything to make room for the new game, and I don’t have to worry about investing effort into a game I might not like. I just get to start playing right away.

Cloud gaming at the moment, even with my faster speeds, isn’t as good using a downloaded copy of the game yet. I still deal with a bit of buffering, and latency is a real issue with some games. But for most games that are “cloud ready,” it’s good enough to play. I’ll play a cloud ready game for a few hours and get a feel of whether I even like the game. If I decide I want to keep playing, that’s when I go through the effort of uninstalling something and downloading the game. Cloud Gaming is the best “trial mode” of the modern age.

With Cloud Gaming, You Don’t Even Need a Console

An Xbox controller connected to an iPhone
Microsoft

My use case comes with other benefits too. Sure, I own an Xbox Series X, but I don’t always have access to it. My son likes to play games too, and this particular Xbox is connected to my gaming TV. When I stream a game, though, I don’t usually get the full FPS available to a game, so I lose some of the benefits of the gaming TV. That’s ok; I can switch to my Xbox One on my big projector.

Since it’s last generation, the Xbox One versions of games are usually scaled back compared to the Xbox Series X, whether that be in resolution, FPS, or on-screen elements. And in one case, Flight Simulator, the Xbox One can’t run the game at all. Eventually, there will be more Xbox Series X games that won’t run on Xbox One. But if it’s a “cloud ready” game, I get something close to the Xbox Series X experience on my Xbox One. Microsoft even announced the Flight Simulator will join the cloud gaming lineup, and you’ll be able to play it on an Xbox One.

But it doesn’t stop at Xbox: you could also play those games on your budget PC, your tablet, or even your smartphone (though Apple still makes this somewhat difficult for its devices). Cloud gaming means you don’t need to own expensive hardware anymore to get the latest and greatest games. And while I’ve focused on Xbox, it’s not the only game in town. You can get into cloud gaming with NVIDIA’s GeForce Now, Google’s Stadia, Amazon’s Luna service, even Netflix wants in on the trend. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but it’s a sector of gaming that companies want to support.

And by removing one of the most significant barriers to gaming, expensive hardware, more people benefit and can get into gaming. Even the Nintendo Switch is getting in on the action. It’s not powerful enough to run high-end games from even the last generation, like Control. But thanks to cloud gaming, you can now play Control and other AAA games on the Switch.

Eventually, cloud gaming could transform our approach to the PC and smartphone. But that’s a long way off and will likely be a hard-fought war between Apple, Google, and Microsoft. The “cloud computer wars,” if you will. For now, the benefits are clear—cloud gaming can enhance your console experience today. At least for Xbox. We’ll see if Sony follows Microsoft’s lead on the PlayStation side.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek and is responsible for the site's content direction. He has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smart home enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »