Picture this: a brand new gaming title has just been released and you get so excited that you receive your pre-ordered disc in the mail. But wait.
Before you play this game, you have to boot up your favorite console, slip the disc in, and install all of its gigabytes of data onto the hard drive. Only then can you finally access that fresh new gameplay.
Now imagine a world where that console no longer exists, you open up a nearly endless library of games online, and you start playing that same just-launched title within only a few seconds.
Guess what: that fantasy is no longer just imaginary…. it’s a reality. In fact, the proper name for this new tech wave is called “cloud gaming“, and you can get access to it today. But will cloud gaming kill consoles?
Cloud gaming is rapidly improving and can eventually kill consoles. But since the overall technology is still in its beta stage, while depending on the most current internet capabilities that are in place, cloud gaming is still not as reliable as console or PC gaming right now.
With the new launch of Google Stadia, parent company Alphabet is creating a serious contender in the cloud gaming space.
And sure enough, other companies are quickly coming from right behind to launch cloud gaming services of their own, including EA, Amazon, Microsoft, and Nvidia.
Cloud gaming platforms, like Google Stadia, have many advantages over console and PC experiences, but there are still a few slight disadvantages worth mentioning. I go in to more detail below highlighting the pros and cons of this trailblazing technology in the gaming world.
Pro: No More Need To Buy Powerful Gaming Consoles or PCs
Remember all that money you’ve spent constantly upgrading your console or PC gaming setup so that the newest games could always be played to spec?
Well, keep that money in your pocket, because cloud gaming no longer requires the speediest or most capable hardware in order to play.
Google Stadia provides us a first mainstream look into the many possibilities of cloud gameplay styles: from smartphones, to smart TVs with nothing but a Chromecast connected, and even just a google chrome browser on a simple Chromebook laptop.
I’m amazed to see console-level gameplay performance capability on a smartphone happen so fast, but thanks to cloud gaming, the technology has provided a platform to operate full-length games on virtually any device.
But how is this accomplished? Instead of relying on the components of a console or PC to run the titles, cloud gaming allows you to access remote computers as servers that are stored in data centers, and provides the platform that ultimately powers the games.
So as long as you own a device that meets the minimum spec requirements needed to log in to any cloud gaming server like Stadia, that device can play any game that they offer.
Pro: Put Down and Pick Up Your Game From Any Spot
As gamers I’m sure we’ve all been there at one point or another: we have just one more level to beat in a game and all of a sudden we need to ditch the game to go on a trip, to dinner, work, or school, and wait for that one last level until we finally return to our consoles. Darn, so close.
Thanks to the wireless freedom of cloud gaming, you no longer have to worry about pausing your current session.
Now, you can stop playing a game at any time and pick it up again on a totally different device from right where you left off without skipping a beat.
Another scary scenario with console and PC gaming is losing a save so that when you come back it leaves off from the same spot.
Cloud servers always keep track of what point in any game you are at and that means you have to manually save at any point. It’s trouncing an archaic concept that I’ve been happy to see gone sooner rather than later.
Pro: No More Physical Discs or Hard Drives
Since the servers that power games through the cloud are remotely accessed from your device, there is no more need to obtain a physical copy of the games.
Or even need space to install the information from that disc on a hard drive.
Now, when you play a game through Google Stadia, your device is essentially just the screen that produces the visual of the title that you are playing.
Everything else, including the bytes of information that the game contains, and the downloads needed to access any online play, are all included with the cloud platform.
This is a substantial relief, especially to smaller devices with less memory like smartphones. Even toned-down mobile games that are downloaded can take up several gigabytes of storage space. So cloud gaming will certainly free up a lot of extra room that otherwise would be taken up by installs.
Pro: No More Long Install Times
Another great feature that the cloud provides in the gaming space is the ability to boot up any game right away, even when it’s a brand new title.
With consoles and PCs, to create a smooth gaming experience you need to install some information off of the disc and on to the hard drive so that the two components help to power the game together.
No matter what game you choose to play, it is always preloaded in to the cloud before it hits your device.
So as soon as you decide to log in and play any new game, it will pop up right away with no need to wait for any install to finish.
Pro: Cloud Games Are Always Up To Date and Upgradeable
Have you recently tried to dust off a game that you haven’t played in a while just to find out that it won’t play without several updates being downloaded first? It’s a night killer, indeed.
When your console is powered off, so is its access to the internet. This is required to download any extra files that are pushed to the game after it has been powered down.
Since cloud games are always connected to the servers that are online, these servers always keep games up to date.
But it’s not just the glory of not having to wait for updates that makes “always on” cloud gaming so cool.
Any improvements that the developers push to a game are also implemented right away as well. This is a noticeable advantage in cloud gaming that we will notice as the technology upgrades.
Cloud games that may run at only 1080p and a slower frame rate can be totally overhauled to run at 4K and 60fps. This is something that can’t be changed once a console game is released.
Con: Game Performance Depends on Internet and Wifi Factors
It is nice that cloud gaming stores and powers your game while you are playing it, but the hard install and components of a console operate the game with less dependency on wireless internet and servers.
For a cloud game to run, a signal is sent from the server in the data center, through the wifi router, and over the air to your device. But that’s not all.
Once you push a button or flick a joystick on your controller, each of those actions are sent as a signal back through your wifi router and to the server in the data center to process once again.
This continuous looping of wireless signals all needs to be fast enough so that the game runs so smooth that the delay is not noticeable.
With all of these factors in mind, the only way a cloud game can operate smoothly on your device is if you are near a router with no clutter, the internet speed is fast enough, and the distance of the server is close enough to your router.
If any of these variables is thrown off in some way, it can break the chain and reduce the quality of the game entirely.
Con: Sensitivity to Stutter and Lag
When a console game is finally installed on a console, the information passes through a series of physical connections to produce a visual on your TV.
The only lag that could be introduced into a console game would be from any extra firepower from an online connection and the wireless signal between your controller and the console.
Cloud games are completely wireless from the device that is playing it, including visuals and performance. Therefore, the platform is extremely sensitive to any changes to the variables that impact any part of the wireless signal between the device and the end server.
Internet speeds that jump around or wifi routers that have multiple devices sharing its signal can interfere with cloud gaming, and the result is usually a stuttering picture or significant lag between the controller action and the result on-screen.
Con: Public Internet Connections Beware
If you are the only person, or one of only a few people, that is using the same signal on your home’s private wifi router, chances are your cloud gaming experience will be quite smooth.
However, one of the strongest advantages of cloud gaming is that you should be able to leave the house and pick up from where you left off without skipping a beat.
Since the overall performance of the game depends on the quality of the wifi connection, slow public areas will most likely disrupt the gameplay experience.
If you find yourself at a restaurant or coffee shop that has unreliable public wifi, the cloud game will have a harder time reaching your device wirelessly, thus resulting in stutter or input lag.
Con: Cloud Gaming Can Be an Internet Plan Drain
The amount of install space and time that’s required to store games on consoles seems to be increasing by the day. It is not uncommon to see new titles reaching 50GB and several hours to install before playing.
But once the game is installed, it doesn’t take that many gigabytes over the internet to keep playing. Especially if it is a one-person RPG story mode campaign or a racing game.
Cloud gaming is a different story. Once the game starts playing on your device, the additional signal that is required to keep it operating pulls from your internet allowance.
The average HD video that is streamed over the internet can require about 1GB every few hours.
Google Stadia, on the other hand, can require as much as 20GB of internet per hour.
Not only does this make using the internet harder for other devices that share the same network, but it will most likely force the average internet user to upgrade their plan to a faster speed.
And you will probably need to increase your internet data cap if you have one, which most mainstream internet providers now do.
Final Verdict: Cloud Gaming is Improving Very Fast
Believe it or not, cloud gaming as a technology has more or less been in development for over the past decade.
And you’d hardly ever hear of it. Because up until now, using the cloud as a platform for gaming was mostly reserved for either first movers or underground tech developers.
Google Stadia is the first true push to make cloud gaming attainable for the popular masses, and although at launch it might have had its quirks, it is improving rapidly to cover any of that lost ground.
A final quick note is to mention that the overall infrastructure of our internet still needs to improve, including wifi routers and public access points, before cloud gaming can perform more efficiently than a console.
At the time of this article Google does not let you access Stadia over a cellular connection, which is mostly due to cellular signal being variable in nature.
But I believe that as 5G infrastructure and technology advances, that clarity and speed of signal will more than power cloud games with ease.
Wireless routers are improving to allow multiple bands and faster signal optimization to reduce ping as much as possible. And the push to fiber optic internet will allow you to smoothly operate any cloud game at any distance away from its servers.
Cloud gaming can certainly kill consoles sooner than we think.