We’ve all heard about the cloud, or cloud gaming. Even the most disconnected of tech users have become familiar with the metaphorical storage in the sky. It was such a concept at first but now has become relied upon for backups and transferring of information. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to have someone else’s servers hold your information. Gone is the worry of failing hard drives, computer malfunctions and forever lost family photos. However, the cloud has begun encroaching upon territory that doesn’t like the weather. When games and clouds mix, a storm begins to brew.
The cloud has gone from being a cool concept to something that has gotten people excited about the possibilities of what it might offer. Data is cheap, cheaper than a console or PC anyway. Renting a powerful PC to play games feels better than buying one outright. The promises of streaming 4K games to your living room TV for a tiny fraction of what it might cost to buy such hardware is tempting. However, talk, much like data, is cheap. Cloud gaming, more often than not, fails to live up to the hype that it generates.
Cloud Gaming: Smoke and Mirrors
Its failures, however, are minimized by the companies who flout the very real benefits of cloud gaming. Some are obvious, such as the cost savings and accessibility. Others are less so, such as cross-progression between devices that one has the app installed on. There is also the convenience of no loading times. Games that would normally be playable after hours or even a day of downloading are playable after about a minute of waiting. These perks are nice, don’t get me wrong. However, they are red herrings to distract players from the very real and, as of now, insurmountable challenges that plague cloud gaming. The truth is, the companies who offer cloud based games are capitalizing on the ignorance of casual players who cannot read the writing on the wall.
Cloud gaming is crafted specifically for the casual gamer. The player who gets on three or four times a week, plays a few games of Call of Duty or Fall Guys then goes back to his or her life. These players haven’t built a $3000 custom water-cooled PC, don’t look for input lag as the first priority on their TV they buy, and don’t swap out their console’s hard drive for a larger, faster solid state drive. They don’t stay up to date with game updates and meta. Don’t go to sleep wondering if tomorrow will finally be the day they beat their last speedrun. They don’t do any of these things, because cloud gaming cannot accomplish what the hardcore players want to do. That is, remove every obstacle in their way to perform their craft in the most flawless way possible. Cloud gaming removes the annoyances that hardcore gamers have accepted as necessary evils for the most elevated gaming experience.
Cloud gaming suffers notoriously from input lag. There is no getting around it. The very nature of cloud gaming requires that your input from your controller, which has input lag of its own, go through the vast network of the internet, tell a server playing your game what to do which could be hundreds of miles away, and then send that visual information back to your TV within a fraction of a second. Honestly, that technology is able to do this at all is fascinating. However, the ability to do something at all is not the ability to do something well.
The results do vary, latency for all cloud based gaming seems to be determined by a number of different factors. Internet speed, location relative to server, wireless connection vs. hardwired connection, and even the game itself all play a part in the time that it takes for your eyes to see what your fingers have commanded. It can be as low as 75 milliseconds to as high as 300 milliseconds. Regardless, hardware gaming will always be faster than cloud gaming.
Small but mighty milliseconds
It may seem petty, talking about milliseconds. And yes, a single millisecond is an imperceptibly small period of time. However, when you have hundreds of them, they become noticeable. You might not recognize one ant on your counter, but you sure would recognize two hundred of them. For gamers who desire the best, two hundreds milliseconds is akin to two hundred ants being seen by Gordon Ramsay in his kitchen. Unacceptable. To put it in perspective, some games in Google Stadia have been reported to take up 275 milliseconds of response time. That’s a quarter of a second.
There’s a great video here I found of a latency comparison. The sounds are spaced in milliseconds as far apart as you hear the beats. When is the first time you hear the dual drum beats? 250 milliseconds? 100 milliseconds? 40 milliseconds? The more you listen, the more you realize just how vital instantaneous action is for games – especially fast ones such as Mortal Kombat or Doom Eternal. Nobody wants their character on screen to move at even 70 milliseconds later than when they pressed the button. I have yet to see an example of any cloud gaming service receive less than a 70 millisecond response time.
Flip a coin
Consistency is something else. Many casual gamers might look at 70 milliseconds and think it’s acceptable. However, that is a best case scenario and most people won’t have that benefit. A more realistic number sits anywhere from 80-100 milliseconds and that can fluctuate mid-game. A person suddenly downloading something on your network, your phone having to switch from 5G to 2.4G Wifi, packet loss, or any other number of things can affect your game play. If you have lower latency when you started your game, it doesn’t mean it will remain that way when you end.
Also swept under the rug of cloud gaming advertisement is the obvious fact that you must be connected to the internet. We’ve all had to reset our routers, call our ISP, or even wait for a service tech to come out and see what’s wrong with our internet. In the good old days of pure hardware based gaming, you might not be able to play online. However, you could still fire up a single player game while you wait the monotonous hours until the internet switch is turned back on.
The exclusive reliance on your internet being present is yet another dangerous bottleneck for those who want to “game anywhere” as cloud gaming flouts. The slogan for cloud gaming should be instead, “game anywhere there is internet, also fast internet, also internet who’s firewalls allow gaming to happen.” Because if you want to game at work on your lunch break, on the city bus, or a coffee shop, it’s likely those businesses either don’t have the proper ports forwarded, or their firewalls don’t allow certain processes to pass. So you’ll be stuck draining your data from your LTE, which is no fun and definitely not the ideal way to play.
No more trades
Let’s not forget the importance of physical media. This would be in immediate danger of disappearing forever should cloud gaming become more widely accepted and more gamers compromise their standard of play for convenience. While I think that digital games might eventually overtake physical copies already, cloud gaming would help put an extra few nails in the coffin.
Ever since I had the money to buy games I sell old ones that I no longer wanted to roll a few bucks into the new one. It’s economical and helps players who want the game I have get it for cheaper than they could elsewhere. Second hand video game sales help both the purchaser and the seller. However, with cloud based gaming, there’s no copies to sell or buy. You can’t give your digital rights to a product away to someone else. It’s yours forever. Whether you want it or not. You’re welcome.
Where’d that game go?
Censorship is another thing that may be concerning to those who don’t actually own their copies. We live in a day and age where a product you love may not be there the next day because of PR reasons. Whether those reasons are founded or not doesn’t matter. What does matter is the game you used to have is not available anymore. There would be no way for you to gain access to it because it’s on someone else’s server. Sure, you might get a refund for it. But did you want a refund? Or did you want your game? If you bought a physical copy, or even a downloaded copy to your machine, you’d still have it and be able to play it. There’d be nothing they could do to stop you.
Companies love cloud based gaming because it is cheaper for them. They can massively mark up a streaming box more than a hardware console. They have more control over their titles and games. And they don’t have the threat of their customers selling their games to other customers. Cloud based gaming is a monopoly packaged in the guise of convenience to people who are mesmerized by the ability to play Halo on their phone. Those who cannot see what kind of damage accepting this as the new way to play video games creates doom the entire segment to degradation.
Cloud based gaming is cool. It’s a testament to our leaps in technology and how far we’ve come. However, it is still, and probably forever will be an inferior way to play games. We, as consumers, stand upon an interesting scale. If we accept that cloud gaming isn’t perfect but that it’s “good enough” to save a few bucks. We may be looking at a dangerous new standard of what is normal. Contrarily, if we continue to purchase hardware and prefer local over cloud gaming. We can hold our standard for the best a little longer.