Streaming services have been around for years. When it comes to TV, movies, and music, they have become the primary way in which a lot of people consume content. The ability to have thousands upon thousands of hours of entertainment at your fingertips, for a low monthly price, has driven millions to subscribe to the biggest of these services (Netflix, Prime Video, Disney +, Spotify, to name but a few) which all have over 100 million subscribers each.
Video games are the latest form of entertainment to enter the streaming space. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Sony all offer cloud gaming with various subscription models available to consumers. Unlike video and music however, gaming on non-local hardware has the added challenge of keeping lag to a minimum (the time between pressing a button and the resulting action making it to the user’s screen).
I confess, I have been somewhat pessimistic when it comes to cloud gaming and have always dismissed it as an option, favouring the local hardware experience. That being said, I found myself intrigued as to what sort of experience it could offer and whether it could be a viable way to consume games.
Microsoft, in my opinion, offers the most attractive option at the moment as its subscription model allows games to be downloaded locally on either an Xbox console or a PC, as well as being streamed. I am of course referring to Xbox Gamepass Ultimate which, at the time of writing, offers game streaming on Android, Apple and Windows PC. The service is also expanding in the future to include apps on smart TVs that will presumably act as local hardware.
In my quest to understand how viable an option this is, I have tested a few games through the Xbox app on PC. My internet speed at the time of testing according to Google Chrome’s built-in speed test was 60.5mb down and 18.6mb up. The PC used to perform these tests was relatively low spec Dell OptiPlex 3060 (specs outlined below):
- Intel(R) Core (TM) i5-8500T CPU @ 2.10GHz
- Intel(R) UHD Graphics 630
- 4 GB RAM
I don’t have any specialist equipment to test lag, framerate, or resolution, so my testing will be based purely on how the games feel to play for the user. To cover a variety of game types, I have chosen to test the following titles:
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps
- Forza Horizon 4
- Halo MCC
- Gears 5
- Octopath Traveler
My initial plan was to test these games and outline my results for each game individually. However, upon spending some time with each of them, I have concluded that the experience is largely the same. That is, very good, and significantly better than I expected.
For a start, all games seemed to be running on Series X hardware as evidenced by the display options available and the games’ performance. All games ran at a very smooth 60fps, and on my LG 29-inch ultrawide monitor, the image quality was good. I did occasionally notice some visual artifacts when spinning the camera in Gears 5 for example, but this wasn’t obvious enough to detract me from the game.
So framerate is great, image quality is good. How about response time? This is the most important thing when it comes to streaming and can easily render a game unplayable if it is too high. Thankfully, this was also good and noticeably better than I had anticipated. It is, as expected, not as good as playing on local hardware and this is noticeable if you jump from one to the other.
The impact on gameplay does of course vary from game to game, with Halo MCC and Ori being where I felt latency the most, whereas a game Like Octopath Traveler was not impacted in the slightest. What I would add is that on those games where the lag was a bit more noticeable, I seemed to adapt and found myself able to play quite comfortably within a few minutes.
So, who is cloud streaming for? Why would you use it if you already have a console set up at home or a high-spec gaming PC? Is it going to become the primary way we consume games in the future? There are no clear-cut answer to these questions. The concept of game streaming as a viable solution is still in its infancy and the benefits will vary from person to person. For me, as someone who does very little traveling for work and has a Series X with a 4K TV, it won’t replace how I currently consume games any time soon, regardless of how impressed as I am with the tech. However, even though I am likely not the target audience for cloud streaming, I can see myself using it under certain circumstances. For example, if I’m traveling or the main TV in the house is in use and I want to complete a couple of challenges in a game or grind out an achievement.
Looking at the bigger picture, I can see now why Microsoft in particular, is investing in this technology so heavily. Its not necessarily about replacing the local hardware experience. It’s about complementing it and expanding beyond the existing console player base. As network infrastructure improves, and Gamepass get pushed out onto more devices, I can see it becoming an appealing choice for a lot of people, either as the primary way to consume games or as a secondary option for existing gamers. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see smart TVs in the near future being shipped with a single controller and a Gamepass trial to give instant access to the growing library of games out the box, with no need for expensive dedicated hardware.
As a consumer, the most compelling thing about Xbox Gamepass is the all-encompassing nature of the subscription. Not being limited to a particular device, and being able to download games to play natively if you have the appropriate hardware, is compelling, and why this article has focussed on Gamepass more so than other cloud gaming offerings. Add to this how aggressively Microsoft has been bolstering its studios, in-turn offering more unique content, and I fully expect the service to continue growing. And the Cloud gaming arm will play a big part in this.