The race to create a “Netflix for games” is heating up, but will cloud gaming ever become mainstream?

The dream of being able to stream games over the internet without having to buy expensive hardware is far from new. Almost two decades ago, the first-ever game streaming service, OnLive, was launched to much fanfare, offering consumers the latest games without the need for an expensive PC or games console. But the optimism of the early 2000s collided headfirst with the reality of modest advances in broadband internet access, leading OnLive’s demise in 2012, barely nine years after it had begun. As Sony began scavenging OnLive’s assets, the dream of mainstream cloud gaming seemed to have died.

Or had it?

As we move into 2019, a number of tech companies are once again vying to make cloud gaming a reality and the battle is heating up to create the “Netflix of video games”. So, who, if anyone, will emerge on top?

The problem with cloud gaming
Streaming works well for films and songs, as services can “buffer” content by pre-loading segments before they are required. Buffering guards against slow or problematic internet connections, and offers users near-uninterrupted viewing or listening experiences.

But video games don’t have that luxury. Connections must be rock solid and even the fastest connections have latency, known as “ping”, which makes games almost unplayable for those with the slowest connections.

Speaking with Jake Tucker of Trusted Review, NVidia CEO Jensen Huang noted that the fundamental problem facing cloud gaming is the speed of light. Games need response times of a few milliseconds to be playable, something that is only possible to those with the fastest fiber internet connections: “It’s just the law of physics,” noted Huang.

While no one has yet solved the problem of how to move information faster than the speed of light, a number of big tech and media firms are rapidly developing workarounds that they hope will give them the edge over their competition.

#1. PlayStation Now
Arguably, PlayStation has already created a “Netflix for games” service: PlayStation Now. Owners of the PlayStation console who are willing to stump up the $59.99 annual fee (in the U.S.) for PlayStation’s online service, PlayStation Plus, can pay an additional $19.99 per month (or $99.99 per year) to use PlayStation Now, or PS Now for short.

This innovative game streaming service lets users play up to 600 games-on-demand without having to own the game or the disc. There’s even a free PC app that lets anyone with a 5 Mbps internet connection play PlayStation-exclusive titles on their Windows PC or laptop. Having acquired important parts of OnLive in 2015, Sony is years ahead of the competition in terms of developing a Netflix-like cloud gaming experience.

#2. Amazon could launch a game streaming service by 2020
As awesome as PlayStation Now is, it doesn’t really solve one of the key requirements of cloud gaming: accessibility. To play PS Now, you still need a PlayStation console, or a Windows PC or laptop. The cloud gaming dream is to bring high-spec gaming to the masses by handling the processing work ‘in the cloud’ forgoing the need for people to buy expensive hardware.

This is where Amazon comes into its own. Amazon already owns its own cloud business and game studio making it well positioned to dominate cloud gaming if it ever takes off this time around. As early as 2014, Amazon released a demo of a ground-breaking hybrid cloud game called ‘The Unmaking’, a screenshot of which is shown below.

To create a lag-free experience, the crossbow was run locally on the Amazon Fire tablet while the armies in the background were generated on remote servers. This hybrid approach let players aim and fire without worrying about ping; an impressive solution for the time.

According to The Information, Amazon is currently looking to hire a “Lead Cross Platform Game Engineer” and a further two engineers to work on cloud gaming. The Verge suggests that Amazon is planning to release a game streaming service as early as 2020, potentially allowing anyone with a Fire TV Stick tap into the power of a modern game console.

#3. Google’s ‘Project Stream’
Last October, Google launched its own game streaming service Project Stream using a blockbuster game, ‘Assassin's Creed: Odyssey’. Following in Amazon’s footsteps, Google handles the heavy processing in its data centers, leaving users free to enjoy the game on moderately powerful laptops instead of the dedicated consoles or high-spec PCs that would typically be required.

CNET produced an interesting side-by-side comparison of ‘Assassin's Creed: Odyssey’ to see what, if anything, was sacrificed in the name of bandwidth. As the following image shows, playing the game on Project Stream via the Chrome browser is almost identical to playing it on an Xbox One.

As CNET’s trial showed, occasional internet connectivity problems caused the resolution and framerate to drop, but the Chrome experience was otherwise virtually identical to the console version. Project Stream seems to have solved the challenge of bringing console gaming to basic devices, making it available to Windows, macOS X, ChromeOS, and Linux machines. Google’s forthcoming Project Yeti will expand this concept by bringing games to devices such as the Chromecast, making cloud gaming even more accessible.

#4. Microsoft’s Project xCloud
According to Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, Project xCloud has already taken the crown as the “Netflix for games”. Similar to PlayStation’s PS Now service, Microsoft’s Xbox Play Anywhere program already allows PC and Xbox One players to play games together, giving it a substantial lead over its competition. Consumers expect content to be instantly available, portable and transferable between different devices, making Project xCloud highly appealing.

#5. The best of the rest
Startups Loudplay and Shadow already offer a PS Now-like service, while customers of the French internet service provider Orange, and the Italian ISP Telecom Italia can already enjoy cloud gaming services. NVidia is testing a streaming product of its own, as is Electronic Arts, one of the world’s largest games publishers.

Why the future of gaming lies on the cloud
One of the strongest arguments for the emergence of a “Netflix for games” is an economic one. Consoles such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are costly to develop and often sold at a loss. Companies recoup their investments through game sales and in-game purchases of digital goods such as skins and credits.

One of the most successful examples of this type of revenue model is Epic Games’ Fortnite, believed to have generated over $2.4 billion from in-app purchases through 2018. Fortnite is offered as a free download across multiple platforms and its revenue model rewards scale, which is something that cloud gaming can help deliver.

Final thoughts
At present, the best way to reduce ping and minimize latency is to put as much hardware as close to the consumer as possible, which is why streaming services such as PS Now rule the roost. Google’s Project Stream offers a tantalizing glimpse of the possibilities that lie ahead, as big tech firms utilize their sprawling data centers to complement their conventional business models.