Game streaming isn’t new. Way back in 2008, OnLive was one of the first versions of the technology. And there was Shadow, which gives access to an entire gaming PC – and is still around. Despite being around for more than a decade, the technology still feels in its infancy. Even with the likes of Google, Sony and Microsoft now involved.
There’s been plenty of high and lows along the way – from OnLive and Shadow failing to take off to Nvidia GeForce Now getting a recent boost with support for the service coming to Google Chrome. Then there’s Google Stadia, which just announced it will be closing its first-party game studios. Google launched Stadia with grandiose talk about the future of gaming. A few months later, the bombast has been replaced by pragmatism. From console killer to “nice to have” streaming solution for the console-less or those who like to jump from device to device.
The future of game streaming remains uncertain. Both Xbox and Amazon Luna remain in their own versions of a beta stage, with the former providing an impressive product already and the latter yet to fully launch. Naming conventions aside, game streaming is available right now. Here’s how to get the most out of it.
Choosing a game streaming service
If you’re looking for an all-encompassing game streaming service – buying and playing your games via one product – Google Stadia is the one to go for right now. And while the future of Stadia looks extremely uncertain following the recent announcement, the service wasn’t at a stage to release any games from its first-party studios. So the silver lining is it hasn’t had any obvious impact, even though fans may well dream of what might have been.
You don’t actually need to pay to sign up to Google Stadia, or necessarily buy any hardware, but you will need to fork out for the games and access to 4K HDR, free games and more via Stadia Pro (£8.99 per month). While you can go all in on Stadia, the service is particularly handy if you don’t see a reason to spend the case on a fully fledged console – simply buy the odd game and use any standard Bluetooth-enabled or wired controller you have access to. The likes of Cyberpunk 2077, Destiny 2, Doom Eternal and more are available to get your teeth into.
If you do want to play on a TV, get a Stadia controller, get a Chromecast Ultra – the whole shebang – you can buy a Stadia Premiere Edition for £90. The price is still much cheaper than the most popular consoles but it is encroaching on the £250 price of the Xbox Series S and the even lower price you can get a last-gen Xbox One S for – which can still play many modern games.
Our review from the Stadia’s launch stated the service had “huge potential” and, having used the service myself, I certainly agree. The sleek interface and ability to switch seamlessly between playing on a Chromecast Ultra and your phone worked brilliantly well.
However, it was connection issues, pricey games and a limited library that felt like the initial stumbling blocks. Those latter two qualms still stand more than a year on, however enhanced Wi-Fi standards and improving internet speeds have certainly gone some way to helping alleviate some of the pain of connectivity stutters – but latency does undoubtedly still remain a hurdle to overcome.
Nvidia GeForce Now
The next game-streaming service that might grab your attention, particularly if you already have an existing library of PC games, is Nvidia GeForce Now. Unlike Google Stadia, it isn’t what you’d describe as “all encompassing”. Instead, GeForce Now is used by logging into your existing PC gaming libraries – like Steam and Epic Games Store – and providing you with access to a streaming platform to play them on. As such, Nvidia’s game streaming service makes its money via a subscription fee. Not every game offered on PC is available on GeForce Now but Nvidia does offer a handy catalogue to help you find out if your desired games are supported.
For device compatibility, GeForce Now presents an interesting range of options. The service is available on Windows PC, macOS, Android TV and Android phones – the platforms you’d expect. Thankfully, Nvidia has recently filled a Chrome-shaped hole in its ecosystem and it also has an ace up its sleeve – iOS and iPadOS support. Unlike Stadia and Xbox Cloud Streaming, you can use this service via the Safari web browser on both iPhone and iPad – a great option for Apple fans who may have felt left behind thus far.
You can use GeForce Now for free but you’ll be limited to one-hour play sessions and may sometimes be required to wait in a queue. Paying for priority access will also get you access to streaming with ray tracing enabled. Monthly memberships are currently sold out but you can purchase six months for £24.95 right now.
Having played Nvidia GeForce Now in its early stages, it offered one of the most stable streaming experiences – opting to measure expectations in terms of the resolution you could play games at and analyse your network’s capabilities ahead of use. Playing at 720p on a connection of just 15MB/s, the service felt almost indistinguishable from usual console play. However, the GeForce Now interface is certainly the most clunky of current products and the lack of support from certain large game studios mean the selection of games still has some notable gaps.
Xbox Cloud Gaming (Beta)
Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce Now aren’t the only services in town and Xbox, in particular, looms over them with the encroaching rollout of its platform – previously known as Project xCloud. After a preview period as Project xCloud, you can now give Xbox’s streaming service a go in the form of Cloud Gaming (Beta), which comes as part of an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription and barely feels like a beta at all. There’s no browser option just yet, instead, only being usable on Android phones and tablets. However, the service does already offer over 100 games, matching much of the appeal of a standard Game Pass subscription on your Xbox.
At £10.99, many may see the appeal of just getting an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for Cloud Gaming once it exits its beta stage but, as part of a package of traditional gaming when paired with an Xbox console, the offering becomes even more enticing. Google Stadia has struggled to get a strong variety of games on its platform and justify itself as a standalone product while GeForce Now has had its own difficulties with getting developers on board – Xbox seems to have solved these issues already.
Xbox Cloud Gaming still feels like it’s just getting started and with discussions already being had around its service comes to browsers, iOS and the possibility of a standalone Chromecast-like dongle, it seems like it will only go from strength to strength. Those waiting for a streaming product that is worth going all in on should keep an eye on Xbox.
Sony PlayStation Now
It is quite the indictment on Sony’s PlayStation Now service that it plays a minimal part in a discussion about game streaming, given the popularity of its consoles. PlayStation Now has been ticking along for several years now without much fanfare, having not offered an appealing selection or level of performance when it launched and lacked any significant push or relaunch since. PlayStation Now costs £8.99 per month and is available on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC – lacking the mobile benefits game streaming offers. The service runs somewhat independently of your PlayStation Network account, providing access to a streaming library of PS4, PS3 and PS2 games, rather than allowing you to stream games that you buy or featuring more modern titles.
Sony has shown a reluctance to offer any kind of subscription service similar to Xbox Game Pass, preferring to charge a premium for its blockbuster products. So it seems a similar product from Sony isn’t on the horizon. However, bringing a more accessible version of PlayStation Now to market with streaming access to PS5 games seems like an inevitable step.
The lack of care and attention Sony appears to have paid to its streaming service is evident in its performance, too. Never have I had a play session using PS Now which I’d describe as enjoyable, wavering between unplayable to on the cusp of being fine.
Of course, game streaming isn’t just limited to these more prominent initial players. Amazon Luna was the most streaming product to rear its head, providing a similar style service to Google Stadia, however, that still remains in an early invitation-required beta stage. Luna has already announced it will feature popular games like Control and Metro Exodus while looking to differentiate itself from Stadia by borrowing a feature from Prime Video – channels. There’s a Luna+ subscription with a mixed selection of games then you’ll be able to sign up to channels, like Ubisoft+, for an additional monthly fee to get access to specific game-makers game libraries.
Shadow by Blade
Game streaming stalwart Shadow is still alive and kicking but may remain an unknown quantity to many. Shadow stands out amongst other rivals by simply offering an entire gaming PC up for streaming access. This means you can use the service for more than just gaming, letting you use a high-end Windows PC for anything you fancy. Access to this cloud PC is all that the service provides however so, like GeForce Now, you will have to purchase your games from separate services like Steam and Epic Games Store.
Shadow offers a great level of flexibility, being able to stream a Windows 10 PC to your Windows, macOS, iOS and Android devices. However, value for money might be a sticking point for some. Prices start at £12.99 per month and offer access to a gaming PC with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card – a GPU that came out in 2016. You’ll also be waiting a while to access the service too. Subscribe now, in February 2021, and you’ll get access to your dedicated cloud PC from around October 2021.
Gaming on a Chromebook
One of the immediate benefits of game streaming is not needing to shell out hundreds of pounds on expensive hardware. Instead, the internet is your hardware. Nowhere is the cost saving more evident than with a Chromebook. Chromebooks can be picked up for upwards of £100 and, as all of them can run Google Chrome, all of them are capable of some game streaming.
From Google Chrome, you’ll be able to access both Nvidia GeForce Now and Google Stadia. Stadia has long been available in Chrome, while GeForce Now remains in beta – but still usable. Do be aware of what Wi-Fi and Ethernet standards your Chromebook supports as this could limit the internet speeds you can reach, while both services also recommend at least 4GB of onboard RAM for its GeForce Now game streaming service.
Once you meet those very low requirements, gaming on a Chromebook really is as simple as signing up to these services, playing games you already have access to or buying some new ones and booting them up. You can either go keyboard and mouse or attach a controller via Bluetooth or a wire (depending on the ports you device offers).
How to stream games properly
Game streaming still has one particularly high hurdle to overcome that will prevent it from taking off among the most hardcore of gamers – latency. While game streaming is great for dipping into even the most cinematic and, usually, hardware intensive AAA games, those who love to dabble in competitive multiplayer games will be put off by any kind of input lag (the time between pressing a button on your controller and the corresponding action occurring in the game).
Competitive shooters aren’t rife among game-streaming services. Google Stadia only offers the likes of PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, Destiny 2 and The Division 2. Nvidia GeForce Now’s competitive selection is a bit more vibrant, being headlined by Fortnite, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rainbow Six Siege but missing games like Overwatch.
However, for the competitive games that you do want to give a go (and this also applies to getting improved latency across all games), ethernet is your best friend. If you’re using a streaming service on a PC or laptop then you’ll either when to use an onboard Ethernet port and a separate Ethernet cable to jack into your router (a dongle may be required). If you’re playing Google Stadia via a purchase of the full Stadia Premiere Edition kit then your bundled Chromecast Ultra will come with an Ethernet port on its power adapter – you’ll just need to get a cable.
If you really have to use Wi-Fi, both Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce Now advise using the 5GHz Wi-Fi band rather than 2.4GHz. You can set this up via your router settings, if you have a router that supports 5GHz. Aside from Ethernet and Wi-Fi, internet connection speed is obviously pivotal too. Google Stadia advises you have at least 10MB/s download speed while GeForce Now requires at least 15MB/s. Don’t take a chance on streaming services if you don’t surpass these criteria, as you’ll have an extremely frustrating time.
Aside from Wi-Fi, you might think game streaming is an ideal opportunity for you to play out and about but, as of yet services still focus on playing over Wi-Fi. Even with the advent of 5G, services have yet to promote official support – with its current state limited to experimentation and some very mixed results.
Adam Speight is a product writer at WIRED. He tweets from @_adamspeight
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