What is cloud gaming?

Cloud gaming is a sub-category of cloud computing. Much like movies and series, games can be streamed to the user's device to play back the content. Learn more about cloud gaming, its technical background, advantages and disadvantages, and the best cloud gaming providers on the market.

This article was last updated in September 2021.

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Cloud gaming – a simple explanation

You’ve probably heard the phrase “storing something in the cloud” before. It typically refers to data that’s stored outside of one's computer or home network on an online storage device. The same is the case for cloud gaming. Here, games are streamed directly from a data center of the cloud gaming provider.

Performance-intensive games are run on external data center servers, so that players do not require their own powerful hardware. Audio and video signals are streamed via the Internet. The inputs made by the player via mouse, keyboard, gamepad, or other peripherals take the reverse route via the broadband line.

Cloud gaming is still a comparatively young technology for gaming on PC or consoles, and not yet a fully-fledged alternative for video gamers. Until now, video gamers purchased games either physically or digitally, installed or downloaded them, and in that way gained permanent access –subject to registration via an online account such as Steam, Origin, or Ubisoft Connect. This has the advantage that single-player content can be played offline, which is usually not possible when streaming games via the cloud.

Overview of the most important cloud gaming providers

Requirements for cloud gaming

The most important prerequisite for a smooth gaming experience via cloud gaming is a stable Internet connection with a high bandwidth. The average data throughput required depends on the requirements of the individual games. As a rough guideline, it’s best to choose a rate that is above a bandwidth of 75 Mbps.

In addition to technical requirements, cloud gaming requires the appropriate hardware. This can be a PC or a laptop. But also a game console, such as the PlayStation 4, which is suitable for Sony's streaming service PS Now. Android devices such as smartphones or tablets are also suitable for remote gaming. Cloud gaming providers will usually specify the end devices they support.

Advantages of cloud gaming

No sophisticated hardware required

With cloud gaming you do not require a high-end gaming PC or a modern gaming console to display games in their full graphic glory. This is a major advantage of streaming games via the Internet and eliminates the often troublesome retrofitting of system components or having to purchase a new computer. Cloud computing saves money in that way.

Although consoles are generally long-lasting because of the long lifespan of individual generations (for example: PlayStation 4: 2013-2020), eventually the hardware tends to be updated. As long as you have a good Internet connection, you won’t need to worry about system requirements, driver updates, compatibility issues and updates with cloud gaming. The provider usually takes care of these aspects.

Another advantage is that your hardware is less strained and devices tend not to run as hot and require less cooling. Not only does this protect the technology, but also the human ear.

Storage made easy

Cloud gaming proves to be a storage paradise.

For one, you won’t need to worry about your available hard disk(s) space. There’s no need to check if your hardware storage is adequate or even uninstall a game to free up space for new ones. No matter how high the storage requirements are, when it comes to cloud gaming, storage is up to the provider.

Secondly, players can store games and profiles directly with a provider which helps avoid loss of saved files. In addition, game progress status can be viewed on any device as soon as you log in with your account.

Location-independent gaming

Moreover, gamers are no longer tied to a single location when using cloud gaming. Assuming a stable Internet connection, you can play games whenever, wherever without having to take your PC or console along.

Time savings

Another advantage of cloud gaming is the time saved. Because games are installed and updated by the provider, you won’t have to spend any time downloading files or installing and updating them. Cloud gaming offers the classic “plug & play” experience. This advantage is particularly noticeable with larger games.

What are the disadvantages of streaming games?

Dependence on the Internet connection

The biggest disadvantage of cloud gaming compared to conventional gaming is its dependence on an Internet connection. As long as your connection is stable, you can experience cloud gaming to the max. Problems may arise on slow connections, because slow data transfer rates can result in stutters, lower resolution, and heavily offset rendered inputs.

No availability guarantee for games

Another major disadvantage of cloud gaming is that games aren’t bought for long-term use, but are licensed for a limited period of time. Providers tend to expand and change their offering regularly. As such, there is no guarantee that individual games will remain part of their catalog. If the service provider wants to remove a game from their catalog or does not want to renew its license, players have to contend with that fact.

Service differs widely

Another disadvantage concerns the offering, which can vary greatly from one provider to another:

  • Microsoft's Game Pass contains a large number of current games and it promises to include upcoming highlights at or shortly after release. However, this is the exception.
  • Sony's offer, for example, is still relatively small. However, it includes a series of older exclusive titles.
  • Google Stadia or NVIDIA-owned streaming service GeForce Now fails to impress – neither through the number of available games nor updates.

Considering that both Microsoft and Sony cover the financing of their consoles by selling games, mostly exclusive titles, one may be able to roughly forecast the extent to which new releases will be available directly via cloud gaming sites at a monthly dumping price in the future.

Limitations in the gaming experience

What makes for an uncomplicated gaming experience for one user is a major disadvantage for the tech-savvy gamer. Those who like to tweak settings, install modifications and game using top spec graphics might not enjoy cloud gaming.

The quality of the graphics output is limited by the streaming service provider. All major cloud gaming providers currently offer 1080p, which is Full HD. If your monitor or TV supports a higher picture quality, the resolution is usually downscaled. Google Stadia is an exception: the cloud gaming service also supports a 4K resolution with up to 60 frames per second for some titles – but only with the Stadia Pro plan.

However, graphic settings aren’t the only restrictions. PC gamers may miss certain freedoms when cloud gaming. For example, it is not possible to set up your own servers and liberally define the rules for competitive or cooperative interaction. Players will not be able to create, manage, and moderate a Minecraft server. This is only possible via the classic PC version, which is installed and launched on the player's system.

Subscribers may not have access to all games

All in all, the “Netflix for games” is fairly undeveloped right now. Depending on the provider, games may need to be purchased individually. Some services enable game downloads while others do not. In addition, interfaces to other platforms, such as Steam, are often only partially implemented, which can lead to errors – and in the worst case, to purchasing the same game twice.

Cloud gaming and latency

Latency, also called reaction time, is an important factor when considering multiplayer games. It marks the period between an event happening in-game and the occurrence of the perceptible reaction to it. The latency is often referred to as “ping” in Internet jargon and is either indicated with a three-digit number in the unit milliseconds or displayed by green, yellow, or red bars (analogous to cell phone or WLAN reception).

The ping needs to be low for a smooth multiplayer gaming experience. The ping is affected by several factors, for example when several devices in the same household use the same Internet connection and transfer large data packets, the ping may be low. Latency is worst if the entire game content is first transferred to a gamer’s computer and inputs need to be processed by the server as well. This inevitably affects the performance and thus the latency.

Generally, cloud gaming providers can guarantee low latency. However, actual results depend on the bandwidth of a user’s broadband connection and the load of other devices in the network. When it comes to latency, most gamers seem to be satisfied. Latency may be more noticeable in games that demand an increased response speed, such as competitive online shooting games, and this can impact the gaming experience. Games that require normal speeds can be played well via cloud gaming.

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