How big is cloud gaming going to be?
Judging by the amounts of money being thrown at it, it’s going to be huge.
In January, Microsoft announced it was buying Activision Blizzard – makers of Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and several other massive games franchises – for a staggering $68.7 billion. That’s around eight times what it paid for Skype in 2011, and getting on for three times what it paid for LinkedIn in 2016. Why? Because when you have 25 million Game Pass subscribers to feed, content is everything.
Whether it’s Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming (part of the Game Pass subscription), Sony’s PS Now, Nvidia’s GeForce Now or Google Stadia, many of the world’s biggest tech firms are betting heavily on cloud gaming, letting wide-eyed consumers choose from a huge library of titles that they don’t even need a console to play. Samsung is even building GeForce Now and Stadia into its new range of smart TVs. With little more than a games controller and a screen, players can dive into AAA titles in glorious 4K detail, without ever having to wait for a massive update to come down the pipe before they can start playing.
However, these cloud gaming services could put a big strain on broadband networks. In addition to all the demands of regular gaming – low latency, no packet loss, minimal jitter – the streaming services also need to stream the game itself. 4K game streaming can demand 35Mbits/sec on its own, let alone all the other traffic that will be passing over ISPs’ networks during peak hours. Cloud gaming services are here and dragging in millions of eager players, but can the broadband providers deliver the performance that gamers demand?
Many of the biggest tech firms are betting heavily on cloud gaming, letting gamers choose from a huge range of games
Game Latency Comparison by Country and ISP
How latency hits games
The chart above shows the level of latency recorded in games across multiple ISPs in two different countries: the UK and Singapore. The charts reveal how the location of game servers can have a massive impact on latency, with Singapore gamers suffering across multiple popular titles, because servers are distant. Cloud gaming services will suffer similar problems.
What gamers need
Before we examine the demands of the new cloud gaming services, let’s take a look at the performance metrics that matter to players of regular console and PC games. Not least because cloud gaming services will have to deliver on these, too.
“Regular gaming’s demands are pretty straightforward,” said Jamie Mason, head of measurement support at SamKnows. “They need low latency, low amounts of packet loss and low amounts of jitter. The responsiveness of the network is far more important than the actual speed of downloads,” he said, especially for 3D action games – anything where you press a button on your controller and expect to see a gun fired or a footballer shoot for goal almost instantaneously when you’re playing online. Any noticeable lag ruins the gaming experience.
The stability of the connection is crucial. Most online games use the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) to handle their communication of data over the internet. “UDP is an internet protocol that doesn’t ask you to retransmit packets,” said Jamie. “If you have a brief interruption to your connection, you just carry on. There’s no attempt to ensure you get every last piece of information about what’s happening in the game.”
That means that any packet loss will likely interfere with the game, but allow you to keep playing rather than become hopelessly out of sync with the virtual world. “What you don’t want to happen is for a single lost packet to result in slowdown, some waiting around while your game client catches up with what’s going on. There might be a brief instance of lag where your screen might freeze for a second, or more likely you’ll see a quick bit of speeding up of something that’s happening in the game world, and then you’re back to life as usual playing the game.” Nevertheless, these moments are very noticeable and frustrating for gamers, and even a short stutter in an online game such as Call of Duty or Fortnite can be a matter of virtual life or death.
Game clients will predict what you’re going to do and this can make it seem like everything is fine
Since no broadband network is perfect, and gamers get enormously frustrated when a slight interruption in their connection has in-game consequences, the games makers deploy all kinds of smoke and mirrors to alleviate patchy network performance. “You might press your button to shoot and, if you have really high latency, you might not see that actually happen on-screen until half a second later and that feels bad to gamers,” said Jamie. “You want the delay between you pressing a button and an action happening to be as small as possible.”
“However, there are a lot of ways in which games these days mitigate this. For example, game clients will predict what you’re going to do and this can very cleverly make it seem like everything’s fine.”
In a sense, the game actually deceives the player. The gamer’s screen will very quickly update to reflect the fact you’ve just pressed a button, even though the communication with the game server hasn’t been completed, or maybe hasn’t even been initiated at that point. “You see one thing on your screen, but other players might actually see something else; there’s a kind of fakery going on,” said Jamie.
Moving into the cloud
So, we’ve established how regular games installed on consoles or computers work, and the stunts they pull to ensure the gamer gets a smooth experience. How does that differ for cloud gaming services, where very little is processed locally?
First, it’s worth underlining the many different ways in which the games streaming services reach players. Let’s take Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming as an example. Subscribers can play an enormous library of Xbox console games (and soon to be PC titles) on a wide range of different hardware. You can play via a smartphone app, with a games controller connected via Bluetooth; you can play via a web browser on almost any computer, again with a controller connected wirelessly or plugged into the PC; or you can play on an Xbox games console, streaming the game instead of downloading and installing it on the console itself.
Sony’s PS Now, Nvidia’s GeForce Now and Google Stadia offer a similar range of hardware options to players, and that range of hardware is continually expanding.
As we’ve mentioned previously, Samsung announced at CES 2022 that it would integrate GeForce Now and Google Stadia in its new range of smart TVs. Microsoft has dropped heavy hints that it too will offer a streaming device that you can plug straight into the TV, in a similar vein to the Nvidia Shield TV used to bring GeForce Now to TVs currently.
In other words, the cloud gaming services support a huge range of different hardware and a variety of different connection technologies: 4G, 5G, the various forms of Wi-Fi and Ethernet.
Samsung announced at CES 2022 that it would integrate GeForce Now and Stadia in its smart TVs
Although not essential for regular gaming, a decent amount of available bandwidth is a pre-requisite for cloud gaming. Microsoft’s system requirements state that you’ll need a data connection with a minimum of 10Mbits/sec for Xbox Cloud Gaming, with some devices demanding 20Mbits/sec for the best quality. Google stipulates you’ll need a connection of 35Mbits/sec or greater to achieve 4K streaming on Stadia. Bear in mind that this isn’t the overall connection speed, but what you’ll need dedicated to the gaming service alone.
It’s a lot more demanding than a video streaming service, according to Jamie Mason. “A 4K game stream is going to require a lot more bandwidth than a 4K Netflix stream since there’s only so much that compression can do on-the-fly,” he said.
Mitigations are harder to come by, too. As we’ve discussed in previous issues of Spotlight Magazine, companies such as Netflix and Disney+ can bring copies of their most watched content closer to the consumer via content delivery networks (CDNs).
This isn’t possible with cloud gaming – it’s not a fixed file that’s the same for every customer, but an ever-changing dynamic game world that may also be reacting to the actions of other online players. You can’t just put a copy of League of Legends on a local server like you might The Mandalorian. “Part of the problem here is that cloud gaming is reactive,” said Jamie. “The cloud servers involved are basically games machines. They have graphics cards in them, they are processing at all times, they’re calculating what’s happening, they’re processing the game world and they’re having to respond to the user’s actions.”
A 4K game stream is going to require a lot more bandwidth than a 4K Netflix stream
Peak hours demand
There’s another complication here. Peak-time congestion can be bad enough in many homes when you have multiple people streaming video and music. If cloud gaming takes off, it will put a heavy extra burden on both the broadband providers and home router equipment.
“At peak hours, everyone is trying to use the internet, everyone is trying to use their favorite streaming services, and everyone wants to be gaming as well,” said Jamie. “Any kind of problem is going to be magnified.” “It isn’t a worry for the ISPs at this stage,” added Jamie. “But if it did become as popular as video streaming, then the ISPs would be faced with the prospect of a very large amount of additional bandwidth usage, a lot of it going out over the internet, which can cost the ISPs.
And it would be competing with the bandwidth usage that they’re already getting for streaming services. Any sort of service interruption is immediately noticeable when it comes to cloud gaming, and the ISPs can’t afford a rise in latency while they handle all this data being processed.”
Despite the challenges Jamie lists, one remarkable fact remains: if you’re on a solid, high-speed and preferably wired connection, cloud gaming works. And the experience keeps getting better.
In 2019, Google Stadia’s vice president of engineering, Majd Bakar, told Edge magazine that “we think in a year or two we’ll have games that are running faster and feel more responsive in the cloud than they do locally, regardless of how powerful the local machine is.” That might be a bit of a stretch, but there’s no doubt cloud gaming performance has improved markedly since the services first began to emerge a couple of years ago.
For example, Nvidia is in the process of rolling out support for RTX 3080 graphics across its cloud gaming network, which is a top-end graphics chip for gaming PCs. GeForce Now RTX 3080 members will benefit from streaming at up to 1440p resolution and 120 frames per second on PCs and Macs, or in 4K HDR at 60 frames per second, if they use Nvidia’s Shield TV device. What’s more, Nvidia claims, that will outperform even the latest generation of consoles.
If you live close to a major metropolitan, we’d like you to be about 20 milliseconds or less of network latency
“On an Xbox Series X on a standard television today, your total latency for Destiny 2 is about 93 milliseconds,” said Andrew Fear, senior product manager for GeForce Now at Nvidia. “If you compare that to a GeForce Now RTX 3080 membership streaming at 120 frames per second, your Destiny 2 latency – total latency, not network latency – is 56 milliseconds. So, literally, when we stream it over the cloud, we can allow you to play faster than even on an Xbox or your normal [PC] graphics system. For a lot of people, it [cloud gaming] is as good or better than what they’re playing on right now.”
Outperforming consoles isn’t only a matter of using the best gaming hardware in the data centres. (Fear describes the “Superpods” used to deliver the RTX 3080 tier as “a supercomputer in the cloud, but we’re using it for gaming”.) It’s also a matter of – like Netflix – bringing those data centres closer to the user. Even if streamed games can’t be cached in the same way a Netflix movie can, Nvidia can still reduce latency by bringing the processing closer to the customer.
“We are working with our data centre partners, as well as infrastructure peering networks, to make sure that we have really low latency for users in those major metropolitans,” said Fear. “Our goal is that, if you’re close to a major metropolitan, we’d like you to be about 20 milliseconds or less of network latency.”
Strain on the networks?
Cloud gaming companies such as Microsoft and Nvidia are making massive investments in content and infrastructure, but there’s no doubt that their bandwidth-heavy services are going to put further strain on broadband networks.
BT recently justified putting up its broadband prices by almost 10% on the fact that customers’ data usage had increased considerably in recent years, up 90% since 2018. If cloud gaming does become mainstream, it will rapidly accelerate data consumption even further. Nvidia’s Andrew Fear claims broadband providers aren’t fearful of the extra burden. “Actually, I think it’s the opposite,” he said. “If you think about internet providers today, they’re always looking to upgrade, sell you the next-generation package, and they’ve been looking for ways to explain to people the reasons they need a faster internet connection.”
“LG Uplus operates an internet service in Korea. It wanted a way to showcase the reasons it built this superfast network, and cloud gaming is a perfect market for that,” Fear added. The same applies to the 5G providers.
However, SamKnows’ Jamie Mason thinks it’s “inevitable” that broadband providers will seek compensation for the extra demand being placed on their networks. “If you are an ISP which has predicted usage for the next two years, and all of a sudden cloud gaming becomes popular and all of your predictions are blown out of the water, trying to resolve this issue could be really expensive.”
“I think ISPs would look at that and say ‘if you’re making a lot of money from extra things such as cloud gaming, then maybe it’s about time that we had some of that as well’.” It might not only be in Call of Duty where the battles lie ahead for cloud gaming.