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What is Cloud Gaming?

Google Stadia, Microsoft xCloud, Sony PlayStation Now  — these are just some of the cloud gaming services recently gaining traction. But just what is cloud gaming?

Imagine if your games console was actually in a datacentre hundreds of miles away: your controller would be attached to the console via a really long cable so you could feed it input, and another really long cable so you could display the video from the console on your TV. Now replace the cables with the internet, and you have cloud gaming.

Diagram illustrating how cloud gaming works. Described in detail below.
Input from the controller is sent via the internet to a powerful server, which renders the graphics and sends the video data back to the display device.

Unlike traditional consoles, cloud gaming renders the graphics on powerful servers in datacentres and then streams the video back to your TV — similar to Netflix.

Cloud gaming services promise what they see as the future of gaming:

  • No expensive console purchases — you already own a device which can be used for cloud gaming: a laptop, tablet or phone.
  • Cutting-edge graphics all the time — servers are constantly upgraded to provide cutting-edge technology for new games.
  • Instant gaming — no waiting for updates to install.

Cloud gaming is not a new concept, it has seen several incarnations over the years: OnLive was one notable attempt, Gaikai another. But why aren’t we all already playing games from the cloud? What’s so difficult? After all, it’s only sending data across the internet.

Cloud gaming requires three things to work well:

  1. Proximity to server (latency / lag / ping) — too far away, and there will be a noticeable pause between pressing a button and seeing the player move.
  2. Reliable connection (jitter / packet loss) — you can’t lose any data.
  3. Fast internet (bandwidth / speed) — 4K 60FPS needs lots of bandwidth!

The result of a poor internet connection will be all-too-familiar to gamers, and is a problem which has existed since before even the days of unfair deaths in Runescape’s Wilderness (“I swear I clicked on my special”).

Video streaming applications such as Netflix and YouTube solve this problem by buffering — making the user wait a few seconds while your device downloads the start of the video. Imagine having to wait a few seconds after moving the controller before seeing the screen update! Pausing to buffer, no matter how briefly, could be a matter of life and death. Needless to say, cloud gaming has very challenging requirements.

To solve these issues, cloud gaming services are taking a multi-pronged approach:

  • Building datacentres as close to gamers as possible to reduce latency,
  • Reducing the amount of data required to stream video, and,
  • Predicting when the player’s internet connection is going to be spotty, allowing an adjustment of the framerate accordingly to minimise lag.

Cloud gaming doesn’t just face technical challenges though, there is no decisive business model yet.

Services are testing the waters with an array of different business models: free and premium monthly subscriptions for service access, pay-per-game (Google Stadia), all-you-can-eat access to the entire catalogue (Sony PlayStation Now), bring-your-own-games (Nvidia Geforce Now) and even services offering a full PC-in-the-cloud (Blade Shadow).

Without a doubt, cloud gaming represents a paradigm shift in how the next generation of games will be developed and consumed. The recent explosion in the popularity of gaming is owed largely to the wholesale adoption of smartphones, but what role will cloud gaming play in reaching the next generation and the next billion gamers?

The Fragwire Blog is here to break-down and explain the business models and technology behind cloud gaming. Fragwire is working on solutions to accelerate cloud gaming development and optimise player Quality of Experience (QoE). Feel free to write to us at contact@fragwire.com, and we hope you enjoy future posts!