Cloud gaming, according to the many companies entering the field, is the future of gaming. Although that’s pushing it a little far — local gaming will dominant for many decades to come — cloud gaming could be a serious alternative a few years down the line. Some services, such as Shadow and PlayStation Now, showcase that.
The technology that cloud gaming uses has been around for many years, so it’s not a lack of tech that has kept cloud gaming from reaching the mainstream. Infrastructure, network capacity and remote input technology play a big role in how smooth your gaming experience is, not just your internet speed.
In this guide, we’re going to cover how cloud-based gaming works so you can understand if it’s a suitable solution for you. Additionally, we’re going to talk about some of the issues that come along with it, as well as the limitations of the tech in its current state. Along the way, we’ll bring in some options from our best cloud gaming guide to illustrate our points.
What is Cloud Gaming?
Before getting into how cloud gaming works, you have to understand what it is. Although “cloud gaming” is the buzz phrase thrown around, it could also be labeled as “remote computing.” Essentially, a cloud gaming platform allows you to access a computer remotely, either offering a full desktop experience or limiting it to only a games launcher.
Essentially, you’re sending commands to the remote machine by, say, moving your cursor or typing your password. The remote machine receives that command and executes it like any normal computer would. What’s happening on that remote computer is then streamed to you, and, with a small amount of latency, it can feel like real-time.
As is the case with streaming platforms like Netflix, cloud gaming services have adopted different video encoding methods. That allows platforms like Shadow or Vortex to adapt the video stream based on your internet speed. If your connection dips, the video will show more compression artifacts.
In short, cloud gaming is a video stream that you can control. For some platforms, that means you can control a full desktop experience, while in others, it’s restricted to the game itself. That’s a basic overview, but it gets a little more complex than that. Let’s talk more specifically about how cloud gaming works and the limitations that come with it.
How Does Cloud Gaming Work?
Cloud gaming is pretty simple if you understand how streaming platforms like Netflix work. When connecting to Netflix, you’re sending a request to a server that houses the content you want to stream. Once that request is sent, Netflix begins feeding you the content that’s stored on the server in a stream, hence the name.
You can do the same thing with gaming, you just have to do it many times over. When playing a video game, you’re constantly inputting commands, and the game is responding to that. For example, on a PC, pressing the “W” key would tell your character to move forward and pressing the “A” button on an Xbox may tell your character to jump.
When playing a game on the cloud, you’re still inputting commands, but you’re doing it over a network. A remote computer is running an instance of the game you’re playing, and the display is being streamed to you. Your inputs are sent over the network, the remote machine responds with whatever command is being sent and the stream you’re seeing is updated.
All of this happens in a matter of milliseconds, which you can sometimes notice (more on that in the next section). Although all cloud gaming works in the manner described above in some capacity, not all platforms deliver content in the same way.
For example, Shadow allows you full access to a remote Windows machine (read our Shadow review), whereas Vortex restricts your access to the DRM platform the game is using (read our Vortex review). Both platforms deliver a stream over your network but allow different access to that remote machine.
The machines you connect to are usually servers inside of a data center. In the case of PlayStation Now, what you connect to is likely a few servers located in the data centers that run the PlayStation Network (read our PlayStation Now review). In the case of Blacknut, it’s likely rented server space from an existing cloud network like AWS (read our Blacknut review).
The location of the data center is important — we’ll talk about that in the next section — but so is the infrastructure. Many cloud gaming services use shared servers. That means the server is outfitted with tons of horsepower in the CPU and graphics departments, but users need to share those resources.
Because the resources are limited, factors such as the number of users accessing the server cause slowdowns. That could come in the form of stuttering, decreased picture quality and lag. Although it’s easy to attribute these issues to a slow internet connection, the problem usually lies in how the servers and the users are maintained.
However, some cloud gaming services, such as Shadow, use dedicated resources. There could be, say, 10 GTX 1080 graphics cards and CPUs to accompany them in a single server, but the resources of the server are segmented and dedicated to a single user.
In the case of Shadow, you’re getting dedicated storage, RAM and graphics, and, unsurprisingly, the quality beats the competition even on a modest connection.
Dealing with Latency and Bandwidth
The two factors to consider when talking about cloud gaming are latency and bandwidth. Gamers are likely familiar with latency or, as it’s often referred to, “ping.” Your ping is how long it takes — usually in milliseconds — for an input to be sent across a network in a round trip. It was the key factor we looked at in our best VPN for gaming guide.
Latency is used to measure how good your connection is when gaming online because the requests you’re sending are all that matters. If you and a friend are playing a game online, there are two local sessions of that game, one for each of you.
Because of that, no game data needs to be transferred over the network. You each have access to the same textures, music and animations. The only data that needs to be transferred over the network are inputs.
For example, if you’re playing a round of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive with a ping of 85 milliseconds, and you shoot your friend in the game, that means it takes a total of 85 milliseconds for that input to be sent to your friend and return to you.
Latency is mainly a factor of how far a server is from your physical location. The closer you are to the server you’re connecting to, the lower your latency, in most cases.
In the case of online gaming, bandwidth — the maximum amount of data that can be transferred — doesn’t matter, as you’re only transporting small bits of data. For cloud gaming, though, bandwidth is a key metric.
Like playing games online, your latency is important in determining how long it takes for your inputs to register. However, unlike playing online, a lot of data needs to be transferred over the network.
The rendering for the game is happening at the remote server, meaning the resources there are actually making the image occur. Then, a video stream of that rendering is sent to your machine. That stream updates based on your inputs.
That’s why cloud gaming platforms don’t require high download speeds. Shadow demands the most at 15 Mbps, but we’ve seen as little as 5 Mbps. For a point of comparison, Netflix recommends a 25 Mbps download speed for streaming 4K video. Much more important are your bandwidth and latency.
Overcrowded networks that have too little bandwidth will cause issues, as the responsiveness of your inputs is key when gaming over a network.
Comparing it again to streaming video, bandwidth isn’t too big of a concern. A limited amount of bandwidth can still produce a reasonable result, as you’re not sending any inputs to the video stream. It doesn’t need to respond, so you won’t notice a difference.
Due to the constantly changing nature of gaming, though, that responsiveness can make or break the experience. You need a solid internet connection and close data centers for cloud gaming, there’s no arguing that. However, how quickly the remote computer can respond to your requests is equally as important.
Limitations of Cloud Gaming
The greatest limitation with cloud gaming is infrastructure. At the moment, many cloud gaming services are either using existing data centers or renting space from a large cloud to run their platform, which is hard to control. Furthermore, there has been a surge in cloud gaming in recent years, which has caused many companies to bring products to market too quickly.
A quick look at search terms backs this up. Although the term “cloud gaming” only has a search volume of 34,000 per month, according to Ahrefs, popular platforms like Stadia are far higher. For example, “stadia” has a global search volume of 233,000 per month and “geforce now” has a search volume of 237,000 per month (read our GeForce Now review).
Because of the rush in popularity, a fully featured cloud-gaming service has yet to be realized. Shadow gets close with its limited availability and dedicated hardware, but even platforms like PlayStation Now that have been around for a few years struggle to deliver a consistent experience. Services like Loudplay clearly showcase a half-baked mentality.
There have been a few steps in the right direction, though. The availability of fiber-optic internet in the States has ensured there’s plenty of bandwidth to go around, and the rise of dual- or tri-band routers can ensure that you’re sending data over a frequency that isn’t overloaded with traffic.
The largest limitation, it seems, are the remote machines. Sharing server resources and lackluster network capacity lead to a poor gaming experience, which is, rightfully so, associated with cloud gaming at this time. However, with options like Stadia, GeForce Now and Shadow around, a “go anywhere, do anything” cloud gaming experience may be right around the corner.
Though cloud gaming hasn’t been fully realized, it’s a lot better than it was a few years ago. PlayStation Now offers an impressive experience for Sony fans, while Shadow showcases near-zero-latency gaming on PCs. The other options, such as Vortex and Blacknut, are fine, but nowhere near the top dogs.
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The full experience is still a few years off, but there are now options that get close. If you’re interested in being an early adopter, pay special attention to our top picks in our cloud gaming reviews.
What do you think about cloud gaming? Are there still questions you have? Let us know about them in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.