by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 14th January, 2019
The PC gaming market is rich in cloud gaming services allowing gamers to play their favorite games on any PC. All you need is a fast internet connection and some cash.
For years now cloud gaming is the buzzword used by many startup firms and as of late even big-name publishers and internet giants such as Google and Microsoft. The promise is to give gamers tools allowing them to play their favorite games in max details on any PC.
All they need is a fast and stable internet connection and some cash needed for paying a subscription. Instead of local hardware power, these services use server farms equipped with top of the line processors and graphics cards. Video games run on these remote machines and then they are streamed on any PC with the magic of game streaming. Back when the tech was just a proof of concept the whole idea didn't really work because of the huge input lag that made playing games via cloud practically impossible.
But in recent years new technologies along with the rise of cloud services (meaning that more and more companies own many server farms around the world) and the increase in average internet speeds across the world made the cloud gaming dream reality. The market is still evolving but right now you can play a large chunk of titles without major problems. Input latency is still there but aside from competitive shooters, fast-paced racing games, and titles where reflexes and timing are everything (games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls) you can play the majority of video games without experiencing noticeable issues.
Sure, the experience is inferior compared to playing those same games on a beefy gaming PC but for casual players and those who like single player experiences cloud gaming services can pretty much replace their gaming PC. Now you can turn on your five-year-old laptop, launch your favorite cloud gaming service and play Assassin's Creed Odyssey in max details by streaming the game instead of running it locally! But before you dive into the brave new cloud gaming world remember that cloud gaming experience comes with a couple of caveats.
Firstly, the input latency is much less noticeable than five years ago but it is still there. Streamed games travel from a server to your machine and the farther away the server is the more noticeable input lag will be. Modern technologies reduced input lag to amounts that make the majority of games playable but online shooters, sim racing games, and games like Dark Souls can be tricky to play because those ask for practically zero input lag, which can be achieved either by streaming a game from a server that's located right next from your home or by playing a game on a local hardware.
In the future, the problem might be solved (Microsoft and Google work hard to alleviate input latency and we believe they will solve this issue, eventually) but right most cloud gaming services come with noticeable input lag.
Next, do not expect superb image quality. When playing a streamed game you will notice lower image quality compared to playing the same game on local hardware along with occasional stream artifacts and short term quality drops. For instance, playing a streamed game at 1080p looks like playing the same game on local hardware in 900p because of compression that is the reality with streamed content. And finally, lots of services are quite expensive to use and/or support playing games that are already in your Steam library so be ready to pay extra for the ability to play any game you want for unlimited time (charging by the hour is normal with many cloud gaming services).
Now that you are aware of limitations and caveats of the cloud gaming, let's see all services that allow you to play streamed games.
The best cloud gaming service on PC at the moment is, surprisingly, the one owned by Sony. Sony bought one of the first cloud gaming services named Gaikai back in 2012 and it used the platform as the basis for its own cloud gaming service. PlayStation Now launched in the first half of 2015 for PS4 and PC and right now it is the best cloud gaming service when it comes to streaming quality, number of games offered on the platform, and pricing.
There are more than 600 games available on PlayStation Now and many of those are PlayStation exclusives like The Last of Us, Shadow of the Colossus, Bloodborne, most God of War games, Heavy Rain, Uncharted PS3 Trilogy and many others. The service comes with many popular multiplatform games and console exclusives like the original Red Dead Redemption. If you want to get into the world of cloud gaming we recommend getting PlayStation Now because it offers a bunch of PlayStation exclusives along with many other popular games and it all works surprisingly well, the app is easy to set up, and the input lag is almost unnoticeable. Some gamers can even play Bloodborne but it all comes down to subjective feel.
Quality of streaming is solid but not superb. Before you can start playing your favorite games you must download the PlayStation Now app and install it on your PC. Most games stream at 720p and 30 frames per second and the image quality is higher compared to YouTube content played at 720p. Sony recommends internet speed that's at least 5Mbits per second but our experience showed that you need at least 25Mbits per second in order to have stable streaming quality without noticeable drops in quality and without input lag spikes.
Also, in order to use PlayStation Now you need a DS4 controller (which can be used with a cable or wirelessly in case you have Bluetooth receiver on your PC). Xbox One and Xbox 360 controllers work with some games but PlayStation exclusives have to be played with a DualShock 4. Subscription price is set at $19.99 and while this seems a bit steep it isn't. Compared to other cloud gaming services PlayStation Now is actually pretty affordable.
PlayStation Now features a massive number of exclusive games, it comes with a huge library (which is regularly expanded), it features pretty solid streaming quality and in case you own a PS4 aside from a PC you can download most games offered on PlayStation Now instead of streaming them (similarly to how Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass works), and the price is just $20 per month. The best thing is that you can check out the service for free! All new subscribers can use the 7-day free trial which is more than enough to check if PlayStation Now is good enough for you.
Next, we have Vortex, which is a cloud gaming startup that offers games streaming inside any internet browser. Yep, no apps, no hassle with installation, it all works on any PC capable of running Chrome (yes, the service works only in Chrome at the moment).
Simply create an account, verify it, and start playing your favorite games! Of course, Vortex offers apps that can be installed on your machine and it comes with the support for Windows, Mac OS, Xbox One, and Android. Yes, this means that you can play games on your smartphone but since game streaming asks for fast and unlimited internet connection streaming won't work on a cellular connection (or it will work but will eat your entire monthly limit in a couple of minutes).
Anyway, Vortex promises seamless streaming on any supported device in case you have at least 15Mbits per second internet speed. Like with PlayStation Now, the speed needed for hassle-free experience is probably higher (we recommend at least 25Mbits per second because we found that PlayStation Now worked perfectly on that speed). In practice, streaming quality is inferior to PlayStation Now but it is solid enough for the price. And the price is $10 per month, which is cheaper than PlayStation Now but that low price comes with one major downside.
You see, Vortex comes with an extremely small games library. The number of titles is 100 in total but the large chunk of games cannot be played from the get-go. Free games like DOTA 2, Smite, Fortnite, or World of Tanks can be played as soon as you create an account but the majority of supported titles (like Far Cry 5, PUBG, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Fallout 4, or GTA V) ask a Steam license. In other words, to play these games, you need to own them on your Steam account, which is a huge deal breaker.
Next in line is a service called Shadow and it comes with promises of 4K 60fps streaming, which is much higher than any other service out there offers. The service asks for a stable internet connection that's at least 15Mb/s but we reckon that for 4K streaming you'll need a much higher speed (something like 50 or even 100Mb/s).
And instead subscribing to a service, with Shadow you actually lease your own gaming PC in a cloud. You see what you're getting even before subscribing and the current offer includes a machine packing Intel Xeon processor, a GPU that equivalent to NVidia GTX 1080, and 12 GB of RAM. This isn't so bad and should allow for 1080p@60fps streaming or (for the majority of modern titles) 4K@30fps streaming. The price of 35 Dollars per month, which is pretty expensive. The good thing is that in Europe you can subscribe for 3 or 12 months and pay less (35 Euros for three-month subscription or 30 Euros for 12 months). Strangely, in the US you can only pick one month plan.
This all looks pretty nice but now we have to say a word or two about downsides. Firstly, Shadow is available in the US (and not in all states), France, Germany, Belgium, UK, Luxembourg, and Switzerland but the team behind Shadow promises that the service will soon cover the entire mainland US and more countries in Europe. Next, the service comes with zero free games. Yes, if you want to play games you have to own them, and all major PC clients are supported (Steam, UPlay, Origin, battle.net, Epic Games Store, etc.). So basically you pay 35 Dollars / 45 Euros a month to play games you already own which isn't such a good deal.
On the upside, it seems that the quality of streaming is noticeably better than with other similar services and also, with Shadow you have practically zero input lag which is also great to hear. Next, the service works on virtually any connected device; any laptop or desktop PC (Windows or Linux), smartphone or tablet, a Mac computer, iPad or iPhone, can run Shadow which is pretty cool. Overall, Shadow is a great service for those who don't mind the steep subscription price, who game on daily basis, and who have huge game libraries because Shadow comes with zero free games.
Parsec is a pretty interesting cloud gaming service because it offers much more than simply streaming games to your PC. Parsec is a streaming app and that means it can be used for work, not just for cloud gaming. For instance, if you need something rendered or if your PC isn't powerful enough to run the latest version of Photoshop you can use Parsec for that.
This also means that this is another service that doesn't come with its own library of games - you have to install the ones you already own. But on the upside, the ability to use Parsec for any kind of PC-related work, not just gaming, makes it a solid choice for people who need a powerful PC for gaming AND work but don't have the money to buy it. At the moment Parsec is using AWS server network (Amazon Web Services) meaning there's no flat monthly fee; you pay by the hour and one hour of usage (gaming or work) ranges from $0.50 to $0.80.
When you add storage costs you pay about $1 per hour of usage. And considering the fact that Amazon has excellent coverage of the mainland US and Europe with its AWS server network, Parsec can offer rock-solid 1080p@60fps streaming with basically zero input lag.
The app works on Windows, macOS, Android, Ubuntu, and interestingly on Raspberry Pi 3 which is great because you can create a gaming PC by combining Raspberry Pi and Parsec. Sure, the price per hour is a bit steep but considering that the initial investment is next to nothing (Raspberry Pi 3 can be found for about $35 online), you could get a workstation and a gaming PC that is paid per hour, which isn't so bad.
And since Parsec can be used for running apps aside from simply gaming on the cloud the service is great for content creators and Twitch streamers. The app can be used to run games from your main computer to your laptop (when you're on a trip and want to game or render a video but your laptop is simply too humble for such a demanding task) and it also can be used by multiple users at the same time. This means that you and a friend or two can play any game in hot seat multiplayer even if the said game doesn't support multiplayer.
For instance, you can play one race in Forza Horizon 4 and then give controls to a friend who can play the next race of the championship, or you can play a round of Fortnite while your friend watches you playing and vice versa.
Overall, Parsec looks extremely interesting. It can be used for work, not just for cloud gaming, it utilizes AWS server network meaning reliable coverage and superb performance in most parts of the US and Europe, and it is paid by the hour so you don't have to pay for it if not using it. A solid choice for gamers who also need a powerful cloud performance for work-related tasks and who don't want to pay a fixed monthly fee.
GeForce Now is still in closed Beta but if you manage to get access this one is the best cloud gaming service out there when it comes to streaming quality. Firstly, the connection quality is the best of them all. Streaming is done in 1080p with a minimal amount of compression and in rock solid 60 frames per second. Next, the server network provides excellent coverage of the whole US and Europe and thanks to Nvidia's GRID technology you can expect no input lag, which is really impressive.
While every other cloud gaming service isn't suited for fast-paced multiplayer shooters (like Overwatch or CS: GO), GeForce Now handles those games without breaking a sweat. Really, you have to experience playing a game on GeForce Now because the quality is truly impressive and the lack of any noticeable input lag is praiseworthy. The only requirement is a fast and stable connection (we tested the service on a 50Mb/s connection and everything worked flawlessly).
The downside is that, like many other similar services, GeForce Now comes with the support for a limited number of games and it doesn't offer free games. You must own any game you want to stream. On the upside, if you manage to get access to Closed Beta GeForce Now is completely free! You can play whenever you want how much you want and don't have to pay a cent for it! Just be aware that getting access is pretty hard (you have to wait months, and in many cases you won't even get access) because demand is extremely high.
The service works on macOS, Windows, and Nvidia Shield, and all you have to do is to install the app, sign in, connect your Steam (or any other popular client such as Origin or battle.net) account and play any game you want. At the moment it is unknown when NVidia will release GeForce Now to the public and how much the service will cost once it goes live but based solely on streaming quality and the amount of input lag, GeForce Now takes the throne of the best and most reliable cloud gaming service right now.
In the coming years, we should get a number of new cloud gaming services that should push cloud gaming to new heights. Microsoft is using their Azure network to create next-gen cloud gaming service that will allow gamers to play a huge number of games on any device (smartphones, PCs, tablets, smart TVs, etc.). Their service, called Project xCloud, should go live in the next couple of years.
Next, we have Project Stream by Google. The technology allows for game streaming on any device and the service had a closed Beta test with Assassin's Creed Odyssey and it looks like Google created an excellent cloud gaming platform. Now, all we have to wait is some future Open Beta or the official launch to test it ourselves.
And finally big name publishers, EA and Ubisoft are talking about cloud gaming is the future of gaming so you should expect news about their own cloud gaming services soon. It looks like cloud gaming will become the next big thing for video games. Once we all get fast internet (25Mbit per second or higher) and once server farms become the normal thing video games will definitely move to the cloud.