As video games have evolved since the 1970s, the way we play those games has evolved in very distinct ways. We went from playing in arcades to playing in living rooms to playing against each other over the internet.
Today, cloud gaming services are poised to become the next wave in gaming that will have a widespread effect on the industry. Cloud-based gaming would not only change the way we game, but it could also make consoles and gaming PCs obsolete. In the same way that consoles sent arcades into extinction, will services like Xbox Game Pass, NVIDIA GeForce Now and Google Stadia end the console wars for good?
Right now, platforms like Google Stadia still need a lot of work to truly threaten Playstation or Xbox, but the tides are changing fast.
What Is Cloud Gaming?
Cloud gaming is nothing new, and has been around in various forms since 2008. But the influx of these new services is the byproduct of available technologies finally being able to deliver on the promise of the core idea, which is using the power of cloud-based servers to run a game, and streaming it in a manner similar to Netflix or Spotify.
Of course, you’re still in full control of the game, but in its idealized form, cloud gaming will allow you to play the latest games with the best graphics without needing a $500 console or $2000 gaming PC.
While these services are still working towards that ultimate goal, they’ve at least proved that the idea is viable enough to deliver a quality experience. In fact, with Cyberpunk 2077 having an extremely rough launch on the PS4 and Xbox One consoles, the general consensus is that the best way for most people to play it is through Google Stadia. That said, there are inevitably some tradeoffs to consider.
While some cloud gaming services, such as Stadia, can stream in 4K HDR, won’t be quite as good as if you were running the game on your own hardware that had the same specs. And while these companies have made huge leaps in cutting down the amount of input lag you will inevitably experience, games will not be as responsive as if you were running them from your own console, which makes cloud gaming not as great for esports and competitive multiplayer games.
But for single player and casual multiplayer games, the general consensus is that these cloud gaming services are now close enough when it comes to replicating the console or PC experience that the average gamer probably wouldn’t notice a huge difference (and even if they did, it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker).
The other thing to consider is that cloud gaming has only improved since it first arrived more than a decade ago, and it’s bound to continue improving. So if you want to get a taste of the future right now, take a look at the best cloud gaming services available in 2021 and the unique things each has to offer gamers.
1. NVIDIA GeForce Now
BEST CLOUD GAMING SERVICE OVERALL
While there is still no perfect cloud gaming service and they’re all works in progress to varying extents, NVIDIA’s GeForce Now is currently the best cloud gaming service due to the fact that you can play games in 1080P across a wide range of devices (mobile devices, computers, TVs), there’s a free-to-use subscription tier, and you fully own the games you play. It’s also the only way you can currently play Fortnite on an iPhone.
The way GeForce Now works is that you must own or buy all the games you play through the service, but it links up with the Steam, Epic and UPLAY stores so that you verify that you own the PC version of the game before you install it to the GeForce Now servers. That means that if the game isn’t supported by the service in the future, or GeForce Now eventually shuts down, you aren’t left with nothing to show for it. Additionally, GeForce Now is compatible with a wide selection of current games so you’re not just stuck streaming a bunch of games you may have already played five years ago.
But it isn’t without its drawbacks, and the biggest one is that your individual gaming sessions are time-limited. Free members with standard access can play for an hour at a time before they have to disconnect. And those who pay $24.95 for a six-month Founders subscription with priority access will still be limited to a six-hour session before having to disconnect. While you can reconnect as many times as you want, you will have to enter into a queue for your next chance to play If there are a lot of people on GeForce Now at the same time, that means you may have to wait a while. But of all the services right now, this is the most fleshed-out of the bunch.
Best Games: Cyberpunk 2077, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs: Legion, Death Stranding, Control, Ghostrunner
6-Month GeForce Now Subscription
2. Microsoft xCloud
Offered as part of the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription, Microsoft’s xCloud is arguably the cloud gaming service with the most promise. However, whether or not it reaches its full potential all hinges on whether or not Microsoft can follow through on its promises to build xCloud out in the coming years. As it stands now xCloud is rather limited: It’s only compatible with Android devices, and because it’s currently geared towards mobile devices, it only streams at 720p. But in the future, Microsoft has plans to offer xCloud on PCs and Xbox devices and offer streaming at higher resolutions.
What xCloud really has going for it right now are the number of quality games that can be streamed through the service. For $15 a month, you can stream more than 200 games, and a decent number of those are top AAA games from past and present; the types of games that would eventually benefit from running on server-grade hardware. What makes us reasonably optimistic about xCloud is the fact that Microsoft is fully invested in its cloud-based technologies at large (its Windows Azure server technology is one of the best around), and the fact that it has explicitly stated that it sees cloud gaming as the future. The foundation has been laid, and now Microsoft just needs to build the house.
Best Games: DOOM Eternal, Control, Forza Horizon 4, The Witcher III, Nier: Automata, Dragon Quest XI S
3. Google Stadia
BEST 4K CLOUD GAMING SERVICE
When Google first revealed its Stadia cloud gaming service to the world, it made some big promises. Not only would it offer lag-free 4K HDR game streaming, but it had the backing of the biggest game studios and would come with a YouTube-powered platform that could allow you to hop into a game with your favorite content creators and pro gamers. Fast forward to a year after its launch and about the only thing Stadia has delivered on is offering solid 4K HDR game streaming on a number of devices including phones, tablets, laptops and TVs.
That in and of itself is an achievement (even if it uses a whole lot of bandwidth) but, that doesn’t amount to much if the game selection is thin. And when it comes to these services, Stadia probably has one of the smaller libraries, even if it offers Cyberpunk 2077 and a handful of other recent AAA titles. While a base Stadia subscription is free, you need a $9.99/month Stadia Pro subscription to get access to 4K HDR streaming and a handful of free games. But even with a Stadia Pro membership, you will have to pay full price for the AAA titles that are most worth a Stadia subscription. And this raises another concern: If Google ever decides to pull the plug on Stadia, what happens to your ownership of those games? For now, this is a purely hypothetical scenario, and Stadia is still the only option when it comes to the best cloud gaming services that can provide 4K HDR game streaming.
Best Games: Cyberpunk 2077, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, DOOM Eternal, Red Dead Redemption II, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Google Stadia Pro
4. PlayStation Now
GREAT FOR PS3 GAMES
PlayStation Now has been around longer than any cloud gaming service on this list, first launching in 2014, but since then, it hasn’t made the strides you might have expected it would given the head start it had. And it even took some steps backward, such as removing support for game streaming via a smart TV app. Still, for what it is, this isn’t a bad service considering it only costs $60 a year and gets you access to more than 800 PlayStation games past and present that you can stream from a PC, PS4 or PS5.
The biggest benefit to signing up for PlayStation Now is if there are old PS2 and PS3 games that you want to play, since newer PlayStation consoles can’t run those titles natively. But if you want to play newer games in the cloud, you’d be better served by a service like GeForce Now or Stadia.
Best Games: Horizon Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption, Metal Gear Solid IV, God Of War, Sly Cooper Collection, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
12-Month PlayStation Now Subscription
5. Amazon Luna
Given that Amazon Luna isn’t yet widely available to the public, it’s hard to accurately judge where this stacks up to the competition, but here’s what it promises. The plan is for Luna to offer 4K game streaming, with deep twitch integration so that you can interact with your favorite streamers through the games themselves. Amazon is also promising that 100 games will be available at launch, but have not provided many details on what the launch lineup will look like. Furthermore, those who are subscribed to the $15/month Ubisoft+ subscription service can stream many of Ubisoft’s top titles from the cloud.
But for now, Luna is still very much in beta mode. Currently available for $6 a month if you’re granted early access, the base service doesn’t have much in the way of AAA titles, although you can stream Control. Given that Amazon has been dabbling in the gaming space since 2014, this is definitely a service to keep an eye on, but it’s still way too soon to have any expectations for it one way or the other.