Cloud gaming is all the rage today. Consumers eagerly await things like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a gamer, but what does any of this mean? Is cloud gaming some kind of black magic? Let’s discuss in some detail what cloud gaming is really about.
Understanding the Cloud
The cloud seems to be a mysterious thing. What is it, where is it, how does it work? These are all common questions from the average person. Most people are surprised to find out that the cloud doesn’t sit in the sky but that it sits in unmarked buildings in office parks. These same people are also shocked to find out that the cloud is made up of a bunch of computers. The true shock really sets in when they find out that the cloud functions very similarly to a regular computer, no black magic involved.
That’s all an oversimplification, of course. A server works differently than a computer, a virtual server is slightly different than a physical server, and this conversation does not have time for containers. Alas, that’s not all that important to understand. For the purpose of this discussion, just know this: cloud computing relies on a network of remote systems hosted on the internet to store, manage, and process data.
Pretty simple: you access a computer from your computer, and it does all of the work so your system doesn’t have to. We all interact with cloud computing regularly. Check your email? Likely a cloud application. Binged the latest season of Stranger Things? Absolutely just used cloud computing. Played World of Warcraft until 2am again? That was a good use of cloud computing.
It should be pretty easy to figure out that the tech world loves to lean on buzzwords. Heck, it was difficult to not use jargon and buzzwords to explain what the cloud is and how it functions. “Cloud Gaming” is just another buzzword to work through.
Much like watching Netflix, cloud gaming is just the act of projecting onto your screen what is being stored and processed elsewhere. The only difference with cloud gaming is that the user is effectively playing the game over the internet on some machine somewhere else. Essentially, a command is sent to some remote system, the remote system receives and executes that command, and all of that is streamed back to you with some level of latency (more on latency later).
The absolute easiest way to think about cloud gaming is if Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was played the whole way through with a controller. It’s not just playing a movie somewhere else that you view on your screen. Cloud gaming is about consistently providing inputs and feedback to a system that has to stream the outcomes of those actions back to you in real-time. You may have access to an entire system with something like Shadow, or you may be restricted to the games themselves in something like PlayStation Now (in streaming mode). Regardless of the level of control, cloud gaming requires that the technology offers almost no delay between your controller input and what you see on screen. If you have ever played Super Mario World on a modern television, you may have some level of understanding as to why this is a core issue for cloud gaming.
The 1’s and 0’s
There was no way to get through this entire explanation without getting down to bits and bytes. If you’re worried about grasping onto and understanding technical concepts, no worries. This section will be understandable to the layperson while losing none of the technical edge required to really explore the topics at hand.
Let’s revisit the concept of a server. Earlier, it was eluded to that a server is different than a standard computer, and that is true. A server has one primary job: to serve content. At least its job is right in the name.
Let’s continue to use Netflix as the primary example. You log in to your account, which checks with an authentication server somewhere in Netflix’s data center. Once authenticated, you are served a list of options to watch. When you select the film or show to watch, again that information is processed on a Netflix server. Finally, the server starts to play the movie, and using some fancy video encoding methodologies, it streams to your device.
If Netflix began serving content in this way in 2007, why are things like Google Stadia just hitting the market now? It’s because gaming brings a few extra layers of complexity to the fold. When you watch a movie or a show, you don’t care how long it takes from when data is processed to when it’s delivered, which in the industry is referred to as latency. That movie you’re watching would likely be anywhere from a few milliseconds to a few seconds ahead on the server in the datacenter. Speaking of latency…
When a game is played over the internet on another server, you naturally introduce more latency. Every input has to travel from your controller to a server in the datacenter where the command must be processed, and the result is then sent back to you. Now do that playing something as fast paced and twitchy as Call of Duty and you will definitely notice the effect. If you still aren’t sure what latency is, chances are you’ve rage quit because of it before.
To dive even further, cloud resources are not normally dedicated. That means you are not necessarily accessing one server specifically built for you and your gaming. These are often beefy machines with tons of CPU, RAM, and storage. That’s because as more and more players access the server, those resources get balanced between the users.
The server capacity is only one half of the equation, to boot; think about the network capacity as well. Have you ever had a bunch of people using your home wifi at once? Did things become unbearably slow? That’s because your home network capacity, or bandwidth, was being used up.
You may have experienced latency, bandwidth issues, and server-side resource constraint in the modern gaming landscape. If you have played any amount of online games, the odds are high that you have experienced all three at once at some point. For example, sitting in a game lobby waiting forever to start because someone’s system or network connection was slower than everyone else’s.
It’s hard to discuss latency and bandwidth without touching on ping. If you have ever played an online game like Rainbow 6 Siege, or League of Legends, you can often view player ping in lobbies while waiting to load into games. Ping is an indicator of how long it takes for data to make a round trip to the server. If you have a low ping, there is less time between the server getting your input, and the outcome being displayed. All things equal, you want your data processed at the server first. Proximity to a server is one of several ways to achieve low ping.
That’s a fair amount to absorb, so let’s recap latency. Server resources are shared, and this is an important consideration because all processing happens on remote servers. The more people using the resources, potentially the slower the processing occurs. A game better have appropriate capacity and provisioning if this issue is to be solved. Next, the time it takes your inputs to make the round trip needs to be handled. We discussed that server proximity is a key to low ping, so cloud gaming needs a geographically distributed architecture. Finally, clogged bandwidth can really put a damper on players’ days. This means that appropriate provisioning of network resources have to be considered.
Cloud Gaming Limitations
This article is not aimed at being negative but rather educational. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the possibilities of cloud computing in gaming, which will be discussed below, but first we need to discuss the limitations in today’s market.
The first concern is that there is no purpose-built cloud for gaming. There are tons of cloud providers, but they tend to be general purpose. There are services such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, and Google Cloud that cater to everyone. Everyone means literally anyone with a credit card. If you want to spin up a small server to save files on, that’s doable. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a Fortune 100 company looking to migrate your in-house datacenter to the cloud, you can do that, too. Actually, the Fortune 100 datacenter may now sit directly next to the personal file storage server.
The other side of the coin is the consumer. Even if the cloud gaming provider can provide next-generation servers, geographically dispersed infrastructure, and beyond-fiber-optic networking, you as the gamer could be the limiting factor. If your internet provider is slow, your router limits your bandwidth, or you have high ping due to your location, the whole system might break.
This is the concern we are seeing with new offerings like Google Stadia. In order to get the minimum performance out of Stadia, you need a 10 mbps in-home network speed. According to the FCC, there are seventeen million US homes with less than 3 mbs internet speeds. That’s a substantial chunk of people in one relatively large country that don’t come anywhere near being able to jump into cloud gaming.
Reasons to be Excited
To this point, it probably feels like cloud gaming is doomed. It’s not. Initially, cloud computing seemed doomed, but it’s now the standard. No one thought Netflix would work. Now you have to buy a new streaming service every week. The point is is that we’ve lived through the evolution of other cloud technologies, and now we get to enjoy the birth of cloud gaming.
For every reason that was discussed as being a concern, there is a potential point of excitement. Sure, resources on systems must be shared across multiple gamers, but with cloud computing, those shared resources have the potential to be exponentially more powerful than any one in-home system. Imagine having three or more times the computing power at your fingertips for exponentially less cost. Can you imagine what kinds of games could be made when system resources are a thing of the past? What happens when a developer gets to write the rule-book when it comes to the system their game runs on?
If that’s not exciting enough, there is incredible potential for integration. The folks over at Google are already talking about how their Stadia exclusives will change gaming forever. Sure, they discuss the power of having infinite compute resources, but they also talk about integration with their other services.
A topic that isn’t covered enough when discussing cloud gaming is networking. Imagine that a cloud gaming provider can provide you a game server that is in geographic proximity to your house. That proximity will help alleviate latency for you. Now, imagine they can offer the same server proximity to someone you are playing against. It seems counter-intuitive. Someone needs to have more latency, right? That’s not necessarily true, because what if those two servers talked to each other on a super fast private network? That would at least ensure we never relive the days of artificially throttling everybody’s latency to the slowest connection in the lobby.
There’s so many exciting possibilities, but the most exciting is the ability to game anywhere on anything. When the day comes that any person anywhere can play any game on anything with a screen, we will look back at the beginning of cloud gaming and say “happy we stuck through it.” If Stadia can deliver on just a percentage of what Google promises, the entire videogaming ecosystem will be changed within years. A scrying orb isn’t necessary; just look at how the home console giants have reacted to Google’s entrance in the marketplace.
Closing Thoughts on Cloud Gaming
Cloud gaming has not remotely reached its potential, but there are plenty of exciting offerings releasing in the not-so-distant future. If you look at Playstation Now, or a service like Shadow, the technology is serviceable. It’s easy to see where the market is shifting, and it’s only a matter of time before cloud gaming hits its stride. Stadia this year and the cloud gaming offers from Sony and Microsoft in the years to come will be very telling for the future of cloud gaming.
Right now, cloud gaming is for the early adopter. It is not yet accessible to all. Consoles and gaming PCs are safe, for now. What do you think? Is the market on the verge of being disrupted? Will you hop into cloud gaming as soon as it is available or wait for some stability? Let us know in the comments below.