Sebastian Sykes02 Jul 2019 AT 09:29 AM

What you need to know about cloud gaming

A storm is brewing in the gaming world, but is cloud-based gaming worth all the battle cries from Google, Microsoft and beyond? Or will it leave them with scars? Let’s investigate the battlefield…
Sebastian Sykes02 Jul 2019 AT 09:29 AM
What you need to know about cloud gaming

Ponder over this for a second: a little over a decade ago, we didn’t believe we would be able to fully access the internet on our mobile phones (thanks Steve Jobs). Then, at the beginning of 2010, we could enter the wonders of virtual reality in our own homes thanks to the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR. Some might say we entered the early stages of The Matrix, while others will say “VR? Who has that?”

The difference between these two technological revelations is simple: one has fit so seamlessly into society it’s now something we can’t live without, while the other, although it may sound harsh, is a gimmick. Look, being able to explore a virtual world in your living room is a phenomenal feat, and there’s no doubt how much fun gamers can have with it. Does it beat the simple act of playing a quick game of Fortnite online on your phone? Strangely, no chance.

Now, how about starting up a ‘Triple A’ title like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey that you would normally play on current-gen consoles on your phone? Now we’re talking. That’s cloud gaming for you, the next stage of gaming technology that’s just around the corner, and everyone from Google to Microsoft are fighting for the attention of gamers over it. With the biggest tech companies in the world squabbling over who can do it best, surely it’s worth our attention… right? There are plenty of factors involved which effect the state of play, and that certainly includes Dubai. In the end, the power is in the gamer’s hands to decide if cloud gaming is truly next-gen or just another fad.

What is cloud gaming?
The term doesn’t exactly say much, does it? It can sound like there’s a list of technical layers to unpack, but really, the only thing we need to know is that it’s the gaming world’s version of Netflix. Just like any streaming service, players can take your pick from a library of games and jump right into the action. Easy breezy, but the real kicker is these games can stream on any device. That means no powerful graphics cards and no way-too-expensive consoles or hardware – just a screen and controller (or keyboard and mouse, if you’re a WASD fan). The cloud gaming server does all the heavy work, while the device you’re playing on just receives streaming video and audio simultaneously, and sends input commands. It’s the dream, especially for those who don’t have the funds or can’t be bothered to keep upgrading their system just to play the sequel to their favourite games. Well, that’s not all you need, as the biggest factor to cloud gaming properly is none other than the internet. Latency, bandwidth, always-on DRM and the general speed of people’s connection all come into play, and if players are lacking in any of these then, eesh, no gameplay for them.

You’d think the big bosses at Microsoft, Google, Nvidia and the rest would have sorted that out by now, and you’d be thinking right for the most part. As an example, the Google Stadia (more details later on) will only need 35Mbps to stream 4K resolution, 60 frames per second (FPS) and 5.1 surround sound, which is what current-gen consoles like the PS4 Pro and Xbox One are only peaking at. Those with internet speeds of 10Mbps will even get 720p resolution with 60FPS, which is still enough to enjoy games known for their impressive graphics power. Again, this is instant gameplay on any device with no loading times or waiting for eons for a patch to download. Is anyone else fittingly on cloud nine? Well if you are, you may want a more grounded look first. Surprisingly, cloud gaming has been around well before the hype it gained this year, with one of the most notable services being OnLive. It was (yes, was) a Californian-based provider that let gamers rent or demo games on either their phones, computers or smart TVs back in the early 2010s. You never heard of it because it wasn’t a success thanks to poor latency, which is the slight delay in data transfer following an input demand, basically meaning your character wouldn’t jump for five seconds or so after you press X. We can safely assume there is not a person on Earth who would have fun with that.

But that’s in the past, as latency, bandwidth and all that technological jargon have greatly been improved upon over the last five years, especially in Dubai with Etisalat’s mega upgrade to a 5G network providing higher speeds up to 1Gbps and lower latency down to 1ms (millisecond). Thing is, none of that matters if the masses don’t have these stupendous speeds to start streaming anywhere. It begs the question...

Who is it for?
Cloud gaming is due to hit the world before long, and with the UAE, and even more specifically Dubai, becoming more enveloped in the gaming market (even having a stadium just for eSports in the works), gamers can be sure it’s going to affect the city in a big way, whether they use it or not. With that in mind, who better to talk about cloud gaming’s target audience than the first Arab-language video game commentator, influencer and YouTube star Ahmed Al Nasheet (aka DVLZGame)?

He starts off by asking ShortList a question: “Do you think it will work for this region?”

“That’s the thing I’m not sure about,” he answers himself. “They still don’t know what sector they’re promoting it for. It’s not for the hardcore gamers, because they are all in for the new PlayStation 5 or new Xbox. For those who want it for the 4K, they’re just going to go for PC. It’s a weird thing, and right now, I think it’s just an experiment to see who will go and grab it. With markets like Amazon and Apple even trying to jump into it, the market will shift to streaming, but I don’t know if the market is ready right now.”

“A lot of people don’t trust streaming, especially with all the problems with Google, Facebook and Snapchat we’ve previously faced. If something happens to servers, which we know can happen, we won’t be able to play.”

“Although, with an affordable price tag, I can see it working. A lot of TV’s right now come with Chromecast because it’s built-in, so we don’t need to worry about buying new equipment or connecting new hardware, it’s just your TV. People are interested, but there are a lot of things they may not be aware of.”

There’s still a bit of time before the big hitters like Google Stadia and Xbox’s new Project xCloud come out, with the Stadia slated to officially launch by November this year. However, it may still not be enough time for cloud gaming to truly take off.

“I think it might work in the next four years, especially for this region. Think about it. It took how many years for people to shift from watching regular shows on their TVs to actually streaming them on Netflix. Content needed to change for that.

“For a content creator like me, do I need 35Mbps? Would I need 50Mbps? It’s up to Etisalat and du. I have fiber optics in my home, but when I’m downloading a game, streaming and uploading it to my account, it still struggles. Cloud gaming has a lot of potential, but they need to understand who their target audience is”

He isn’t the only one to think this, as operations manager at ITP Gaming, Megan Kemp has this to say: “Cloud gaming is in it’s infancy, although the same way streaming has dominated the entertainment industries – both music and movies -  it’s only a matter of time before it takes over gaming. However with lack of servers, latency issues, it’s going to be a while before it starts trending in the Middle East.”

So, with all these big tech companies battling it out and even giants like Sony and Microsoft partnering up to “explore joint development of future cloud solutions”, if cloud gaming does go somewhere, who would come out on top?

“I think the collage between the two giants, Sony and Microsoft, looks like the winning team, but look at Google. They own YouTube and YouTube Gaming gave us the first taste of playing Assassin’s Creed on a Google Chrome browser, and are an internet service provider in the US. On paper, the Stadia is going to be the winner. But with games and exclusives? It’s all about Sony’s PlayStation 5. This market is all about loyalty, so for those who haven’t played God of War or The Last of Us, they’ll probably pick up the Stadia. But everyone wants to play the new Hideo Kojima game, Death Stranding, or the God of War sequel, and you probably won’t get that on the Stadia.”

Cloud gaming will still be up against the traditional way of playing games, which is buying a disc or downloading a game, and playing it. Simple as. But Ahmed makes an interesting final point that will turn the tide of battle to cloud gaming’s favour.

“Recently Bungie made a deal with PlayStation so gamers who play Destiny 2 could use their account on any platform, making it completely cross-platform on any console, and it’s all for the Stadia. It means you can play Destiny 2 anywhere now without having to start from the very beginning. I think that’s going to happen for a lot of games, and that alone could make or break cloud streaming services. If Google is smart, and it works with Sony and Microsoft so you can take your account in your favourite game anywhere, people will get the Stadia.”

But how about the rest?

The Competitors
Google Stadia
There had already been rumours of Google working on a cloud gaming service last year, but it was officially announced at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in March, 2019. That’s when all the buzz around cloud gaming really came to fruition, and with good reason, as Google placed all its (impressive-looking) cards on the table. Like most of its competitors, the Stadia works on basically any screen you can think of, meaning gamers will be able to play their games via a remote server instead of their local machine. The main difference though? Stadia’s sole focus is just cloud gaming, and unlike other companies on this list, it can’t fall back on the traditional way of playing games. So of course it’s going all out.

While Stadia will be free to use, meaning all you need is a controller that can connect to the screen of your choice and buy and play a game, it’s also launching a subscription service. For $129 (AED473) and $9.99 a month (AED36) after, The Founder’s Edition will let gamers get up to 4K resolution, 60 FPS and 5.1 surround sound, along with free additional games released regularly such as Destiny 2: The Collection, and access to exclusive titles such as the hugely anticipated Baldur’s Gate 3. Clearly, it’s trying to hold its own against the dominators of the gaming world.

The Founder’s Edition also boasting it’s very own swanky pure white controller that features a USB-C port on top, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom, and dedicated buttons to trigger Google Assistant-powered voice features and capture video of your gameplay. Nothing ground-breaking, but needed to easily access games on any screen.

While there’s still no exact date, Google Stadia is due to launch sometime in November 2019. The internet is its biggest enemy, along with it only be available in a handful of regions at launch. Still though, we can’t wait to see how it handles when it’s set free in the wild.

Nvidia GeForce Now 
‘Finally, your Mac can play too.’ That’s literally the starting tagline for the Nvidia GeForce Now, and to be honest, it’s quite the strong selling point. But there’s a few more things to it than that. For one, it’s completely free to use, and all gamers need to do is already own a game from its service to play it on a Mac, laptop, TV screen and more. However, and this was a bit of a scare, Nvidia once said back in 2018 that it will charge this service on an hourly basis. Shock and horror. That’s been scrapped for now though (phew), but with the company’s cloud server basically giving gamers GTX 1080 Ti graphic equivalents which is something PC Gamers pay a hefty sum for, we’re sure Nvidia will somehow have to monetize their service. But for now, you won’t have to pay a dirham for it, and gamers can sign up to try out its beta access right now. Currently, it allows owners of Nvidia’s SHIELD to stream various PC games that support GeForce Now, as long as they have a low-latency connection. But we all know now that’s a huge factor in all cloud gaming services.

Regardless, there are over 400 supported games that already support the GeForce Now, like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, and more from Steam, Uplay, and other popular digital stores – all to be played on nearly any device anywhere you go. Also, for those who own a SHIELD, they’ll get to play Tomb Raider, Sonic Racing and more completely for free. Nvidia is a strong contender on the cloud gaming front, especially appealing for PC Gamers on the go, but does it have any exclusives? Nope, and that could cost its winning seat.

Microsoft Project xCloud
Project Scarlett, Microsoft Azure, Project xCloud – Microsoft sure like being mysterious. As impressive at its next-generation console Project Scarlett is, which we’re sure will eventually play a part in Microsoft’s cloud gaming scheme, the only two worth caring about is Microsoft Azure and Project xCloud. The former being the cloud sever while the latter being the service gamers play on.

Kareem Choudhry, head of cloud gaming at Xbox, gave us a full viewing of xCloud in the works earlier in 2019 – showing us a gamer playing Forza Horizon 4 (which demands high graphics) being played on an Android using an Xbox controller. “We love the games and content we already have, and we want people to play them in more situations”, said Kareem. And that’s basically what it’s giving us – a way to play all of Xbox’s games and exclusives, from the first console all the way to Xbox One, on any screen. That’s over 3,500 games that include Halo and Gears of War. That’s impressive.

The project even claims the service will not only work on current 4G cellular networks when it goes live, but also the upcoming 5G networks, just like Etisalat’s recent upgrade. The problem is, Microsoft are all “hush-hush” about everything else, meaning we don’t know when it will launch, if it will cost anything and whether it will launch in specific locations or everywhere. It better put the pedal to the floor, as Stadia is coming up fast, and that’s a race it doesn’t want to lose.

Dubai - eLife TV Gaming
Gaming in Dubai is on the rise, although we all know playing our favourite games can come at a fairly heavy cost. But why bother spending your hard earned dirhams on a console when you can play triple A titles right on your TV? Thanks to Etisalat’s brand-new cloud-based gaming service, you won’t need a console anymore. eLife TV Gaming lets gamers stream high-definition (1080p) games right onto their TV, and it comes at an affordable price for cloud gaming.

Users can sign up for a monthly subscription with unlimited access to popular games – we’re talking Tomb Raider, Just Cause 2, Lords of the Fallen, Furi, LEGO Star Wars and many more. The library of games will be constantly updated, with titles from Square Enix, Disney, THQ Nordic, Capcom and Codemasters. Fingers crossed for Final Fantasy (please).

The cloud-based service comes from the eLife box, so Etisalat eLife users will only need to subscribe to eLife TV Gaming to get signed up. Done? You’re ready to play. The basic package is AED30 a month with unlimited access to play 20 games, while the the premium pass is priced at AED50 a month and delivers over 40 games. But how about all the latest gaming releases? Well later on in the year, single hit titles will also be made available to rent, including the latest titles for AED15 to AED20 for 48 hours. To play them all, you’re going to need a controller, but Etisalat has that covered, too. A list of compatible controllers are available, priced at AED120.

“Cloud gaming on eLife TV provides us with the opportunity to address the largely untapped casual gaming market that wants to play on the big screen and not just on their mobile,” said Chief Consumer Officer of Etisalat, Khaled Elkhouly. “We believe that eSports and gaming will only continue to grow and that Etisalat will be the champion for this segment in the UAE.” The service aims to help introduce non-gamers to the world of gaming, giving them classic titles and high-definition games.

If you are new: Hello newcomers, welcome to all the fun.