Just as Netflix sidelined DVDs, streaming games over the internet could transform the gaming industry - as long as developers overcome several barriers first.
Debris, scarlet flame and wispy smoke cloud your vision as you barely avoid a pyrotechnical explosion. Sunshine shimmers on your car’s bonnet as it hurtles round a racetrack. The crowd’s thunderous roar of approval as your goal hits the back of the net.
Visceral experiences such as these are nothing new to gamers and games have never been more popular as they help many of us escape the greyness of the pandemic lockdown, if only for a few hours or minutes.
Cloud gaming is a potentially transformative technology that makes it cheaper and more convenient for people to play the latest games. And yet a recent survey found that most people have never even heard of it.
With cloud gaming, all you need is an internet connection and, depending on which cloud gaming service you’re using, a web browser on a computer, a smartphone, or a video streaming box along with a controller.
Cloud gaming’s key selling point is that it’s frictionless – the games are streamed to you over the internet from a remote data centre, just like a Netflix movie. And your control inputs as you play are pinged back to the server in milliseconds.
The advantage of this is that rather than spending hundreds of pounds on a dedicated games console or sometimes thousands of pounds on a high-spec gaming PC, you usually pay a low monthly subscription fee plus the cost of the individual games.
Whether you want to have an improbable duel with a pair of attacking helicopters in Far Cry 5…
And as everything is streamed to you, you no longer have to worry about having enough hard disk space for all your games. Plus, you can start playing a new game within seconds or minutes rather having to wait for a hefty download to finish or a disc to arrive in the post.
PC gamers will be used to keeping track of the latest hardware component upgrades and driver updates to get the best gaming experience; with cloud gaming there’s no need as all of this is taken care of behind the scenes at the data centre.
If your gaming has ever been cut short by another member of your household wanting to use the TV or PC, that is also a thing of the past with cloud gaming. Just pick up where you left off on your phone or a spare laptop, even if it’s a model with lowly specifications that wouldn’t otherwise be able to play games.
Supply and demand
Cloud gaming services, such as Google Stadia, Microsoft Xbox Game Pass (previously tested on Vodafone UK’s network under the name ‘xCloud’) or Amazon Luna, are clearly brimming with benefits.
But one reason why they haven’t proved as popular as some analysts expected in the UK to date is that broadband speeds haven’t been high enough in many places. And even where ‘superfast’ broadband services have been available, take-up has sometimes been slow, Ofcom has found.
…or leap from the top of a Victorian-era Nelson’s Column in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, cloud gaming allows you to do so far with less friction than on a PC or console
Another reason why cloud gaming hasn’t yet taken the world by storm is that “people are tribal and ‘hardcore’ gamers especially so”, says Seth Barton, Editor of games industry magazine MCV Develop.
“They’re very loyal to, and passionate about, their chosen gaming platforms. For example, they’ll take pride in spending huge sums on a flashy lump of a gaming PC or being among the few to have nabbed a next-gen console such as the PlayStation 5.
“But many of these passionate enthusiasts never see the advantages of something new until much later after everyone else, as it threatens a way of doing things that they’re so heavily invested in.”
For this cultural reason, cloud gaming’s frictionless convenience is likely to appeal more to casual gamers than to die-hard enthusiasts, Mr Barton believes.
But that poses a marketing challenge for cloud gaming service providers.
As enthusiasts have previously been key to persuading their non-enthusiast friends and family to adopt new tech products, without them “selling cloud gaming to the mass public was always going to be a long game”, says Mr Barton.
Katharine Castle, Hardware Editor at PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun, is surprised that while “cloud gaming services have had increasingly large presences at big UK gaming shows, such as EGX”, the industry hasn’t put that much marketing muscle behind the new technology yet”.
This strikes her as a missed opportunity given that the supply of new generation consoles and PC graphics cards has struggled to meet high demand during lockdown.
Player one, select your fighter
These are still early days for cloud gaming – while there are thousands of games available on Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, there are about 200 titles available (at time of writing) on Google Stadia and Xbox Game Pass.
A person familiar with the technical work needed to run games on cloud services, but who wished to remain anonymous, told Vodafone UK News that human resource issues at game publishing companies are one reason for the currently limited supply of games.
“It’s hard to generalise, but all other factors being equal, getting a game to run on cloud isn’t any more or less difficult than, say, Windows or one of the big consoles,” the expert said.
“The real issue, as I see it, is manpower and manhours. There aren’t enough devs and QA techs [developers and Quality Assurance testers] anyway to do all the work that already needs to be done, even before you take cloud into the mix.”
When Vodafone UK News put this to Seth Barton, he wasn’t surprised.
“Some cloud gaming services could be caught in a chicken-and-egg situation where some games companies won’t bring over their games to cloud until there are more customers. While some customers won’t sign up until there are more games,” he said.
Even so, Mr Barton is optimistic: “Cloud gaming doesn’t need a killer app, it just needs enough of the most popular games of the day – FIFA, Call of Duty, Fortnite – whatever they may be.”
Katharine Castle agrees.
“If people can play the games they are already familiar with, or games that they already own on other platforms without buying them again for cloud services, that would be a big plus,” she says.
Both experts believe cloud gaming service providers need to do more to make the process of switching to cloud gaming easier and the pricing more attractive.
“To play cloud games on Xbox Game Pass, you also need a Xbox controller which costs around £60,” Mr Barton explains. “If you want to play on your Android phone while on the go, then you need to find and buy a compatible clamp to attach your phone to your controller.
“That’s cheaper than a console, but still costly enough to give people pause. It’s convenient, but not convenient enough.”
Mr Barton believes “onboarding people with these services… should be as effortless as ticking a few boxes on an online store page to get all the bits you need when buying your next TV, streaming stick or smartphone”.
And the pricing for cloud gaming needs refinement, says Ms Castle, as no service has yet found the sweet spot that’s a hit with customers. With some services, “you need to pay full price for games, which can be hard to swallow when those games only ever exist in the cloud on a server somewhere you can’t see”.
For cloud gaming to take off and fulfil its potential, a gaming giant like Microsoft will have to give it its full support, Ms Castle believes.
And while it will probably be most popular in markets “where there’s demand to play the latest blockbuster games, but console and PC ownership is low”, says Mr Barton – places like South America, certain parts of central Europe, India and China – there is definitely untapped potential in “the console and PC-loving markets of Western Europe and North America.”
In the not-too-distant future, we may be watching a trailer or footage for a game on YouTube or Twitch, then after a few taps be playing a demo of it on our smartphone.
To reach that not-too-distant future, cloud gaming services will have to tackle the issues that Mr Barton and Ms Castle have identified, from marketing and game selection to customer onboarding and pricing.
None of these is insurmountable, as long as the cloud gaming services still hunger for success and can refine, invest in and rapidly improve their offerings.
If they manage to do this, then on-demand gaming is surely heading for the clouds.