It seems an age ago now, but once upon a time Cloud Gaming was said to be an imminent reality - in 2010 it was hot news, with excitable talk about a revolution in how we play games. The concept has always been simple in theory - utilise remote processing power delivered by the platform providers to play games on a variety of modest devices, all using the power of the internet. The delivery has never been easy, however.
When people talk about Cloud Gaming, they sometimes make an erroneous comparison to TV and music streaming, two areas that are now massive business. In fact, it's not exaggerating to say that streaming TV and so on is starting to become the modern norm, with conventional broadcasters struggling to maintain audiences that are perfectly happy to binge-watch shows and videos on the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube. Likewise in music, where revenues from streaming continues to grow and the idea of buying a CD becomes less mainstream with each passing year. Modern acts rely on streams and touring to make a living, moreso than physical media; even downloading music is gradually becoming out-of-date.
Yet the comparison with those booming streaming industries and cloud gaming are almost meaningless. The reason is simple - you don't dictate the actions of a TV show, film or song, you're a passive consumer. With games you're active, controlling the action, and the reason consoles and PCs work so hard when we play games is that they process all of those actions in real time. When you put the hardware thousands of miles away and rely on an internet connection to communicate your inputs with those remote processors, you often get lag and below-par performance.
That was the tale of OnLive, in particular, a high-profile failure that stumbled along until 2015, disappearing when Sony bought out its patents. Sony had bought out OnLive rival Gaikai before that, using the company's expertise and resources to begin building PlayStation Now, the service currently on PS4 and PC that, frankly, may pass a lot of the console's owners by.
PlayStation Now is focused, at present, on streaming PS3 games - in return for a monthly fee you can play as many of the hundreds of games as you want, for as long as you want; some consider it a workaround option for backward compatibility. There are a handful of PS4 games that can be streamed, too, mainly of the Indie variety. It's relatively affordable, and when we tried it out on our PS4 it worked pretty well - albeit we have a lightning quick internet connection at our disposal. Controller input and display is rather acceptable (in our short tests) for something like Red Dead Redemption, but seems below-standard for fast-reaction games like Mega Man 10.
In any case, our friends at Push Square have looked at it in detail when reviewing it last year.
In truth, PlayStation Now still feels like an afterthought among the broader base of gamers; it's not exactly a hot topic that we're aware of. As Push Square pointed out in its review, it's really a long-term concept.
It's just not there yet. In fact, despite being called PlayStation Now, it doesn't feel like a product truly for the present – it works relatively well, as mentioned, but hasn't taken off. With constant iteration and investment, though, this service will gradually get more and more attractive.
Yet tech companies continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars (as Sony did acquiring Gaikai, for example) to pursue the technology. Most recently, and the trigger for this article, NVIDIA unveiled a relaunch of sorts for its long running streaming service, GeForce Now, in connection with an upgraded Shield TV system. As you can see it promises a land of milk and honey, utilising the company's latest technology through the cloud to stream bleeding-edge visuals to our screens.
When the 'new' Shield was unveiled, with a flashy focus on 4K and HDR capabilities, there was much surprise when a price of just $199.99 was confirmed; it only has 16GB of memory, though, while a 'Pro' version at $299.99 has 500GB of memory. That's still incredibly affordable, though, and we wondered what the catch was. Well, that's simple, as NVIDIA makes clear it's really a streaming box, as its innards are modest. A look at the tech-specs shows it's still rocking the Tegra X1 chip, which is now relatively old hat in the rapidly shifting world of GPU capabilities, especially in the context of 4K. In fact, our resident Shield enthusiast Damien McFerran has pointed out that the older models supported 4K media streaming too - the only 'new' headline feature from this perspective is HDR (high dynamic range) support.
So what are people buying in this upgrade? A user interface overhaul, for one thing, along with support for Google Assistant and NVIDIA's own take on AI-driven devices to do your every whim. Better apps are key, but as an upgrade the appeal may ultimately be limited for those already in the Shield camp. As for GeForce Now, it's clearing a hurdle that held it back for some time.
It's still a service with a modest monthly fee and a list of about 50 games accessed as part of that cost, like a rather disappointing PC spin-off from the PlayStation Now service. What's new, though, is that NVIDIA's service can now synchronise with a Steam account, for example, gather together your save data and then stream those games. In theory someone with a load of games in their Steam account can play them on a laptop with limited capabilities, for example - that's the big cloud pitch. For PC gamers that travel or perhaps have an ageing build that struggles with the latest games, it's a tempting idea.
The price for the updated streaming service, though, is an immediate turn-off. $25 for 20 hours of gameplay is streaming from the lower-spec hardware option, too, with less hours per dollar if you want the fastest performance. It's not just about your internet connection being fast enough, it's about how much you pay for the hardware at the other end. It's OnLive, but tiered, though naturally performance (such as input lag) will be expected to be less troublesome.
Cutting through all of that, what we're seeing with pitches like this is that technology is still getting better, and companies still believe the market is there for streamed games.
The pros, for a company like Nintendo, is that services like this - when running perfectly - can bypass the technological arms race, something the company's stayed out of for a number of weeks. When a user has a fast connection and the streaming technology is top-of-class, it's perceivably possible to have beautiful visuals, a high framerate and solid input response. As consoles are so often compromised to deliver a good price, skipping past those limitations is a fantastical idea.
That's the ideal scenario, of course, but the reality is still different. Even when the player has an amazing connection there are still challenges for streaming to overcome, and then there's the simple fact that many don't have a super-fast broadband connection. The infrastructure and services in many countries aren't universal in strength, and there's also the fact that some can't afford the monthly cost for quick broadband in their area. Governments in countries like the UK make noises about improving access and affordability, but parliamentary promises and the reality are very different things.
In summary, while streaming is improving, with technology that can deliver stronger performance than that seen in the OnLive days, it's not ready for mass-market yet. The technology needs to be further streamlined to support as wide a range of internet speeds as possible, and we still need high-speed connections to be more common. These are some of the reasons why companies like Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are afraid of going all-in on the technology, while past failures will also serve as a warning.
A world where on-board chipsets are replaced by streaming is rather utopian for gamers with fast broadband - cheap machines running amazing games that look and run at their peak. It's worth being excited about, but it's surely not part of the imminent future.
Nintendo, though, could be well placed when the time comes. Its patents include a 'supplemental computing device' that utilises the cloud, and with the Switch it's in partnership with NVIDIA, a true technological powerhouse that - as indicated above - is keen to push forward with the technology.
It's something to watch closely.