What Is Cloud Gaming? Google's Streaming Service and Next-gen PlayStation, Xbox Console Rumors Hint at the Future of Video Games

Google has been teasing plans to launch a cloud-based gaming platform at Game Developers Conference 2019. The Silicon Valley giant's pending foray into the gaming space, coupled with ongoing rumors that the next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft could forgo physical media entirely has gamers asking some pretty big questions about the future of gaming. Below, we'll explain how game streaming works, what it means for how we play and a list of major players currently investigating the technology.

How does game streaming work?

In the simplest possible terms, game streaming functions much like video streaming platforms like Netflix, YouTube or Hulu. The content is played entirely on a remote server that essentially stands in for your PC or console. That data is then sent via a high-speed internet connection to a device that supports the service.

While video streaming services have existed for quite some time, migrating that concept to gaming has proven to be a tough nut to crack. Unlike streaming a video, which only involves occasional user control for pausing, playing games requires constant interaction, precision and dozens of button presses per minute. As a result, it's only now that Google and other major companies have begun to figure it out. The idea has been a topic of discussion since the long defunct game streaming subscription service OnLive debuted in 2003, but network lag and performance dips haven't been mitigated enough to make it viable.

The venture made big strides this past October when Google opened up its Project Stream program to select beta testers. Through January of this year, invited participants could stream the newly released Assassin's Creed Odyssey in a traditional Google Chrome browser window on modest PC hardware. While the service was far from perfect, professionals and public alike praised the limited run as a peek into what the future of gaming might hold. Google's recent GDC reveals are the front-facing realization of that test.

How could streaming change gaming, for better or worse?

If game streaming solutions from Google and other companies are able to establish a track record for success, the industry as we know it could change in a variety of ways. Here are a few points to consider.

The Good

  • No more long downloads: If you can stream all your games, say goodbye to waiting several hours to play the latest releases. It'll be ready as soon as you are.
  • Cheaper hardware or no hardware at all: If game streaming is a success, the consoles we buy could be significantly cheaper than they are today or even obsolete. When games are streamed, you don't need all the local high-end technology required to play modern triple-A titles. It means someone like Sony could sell a $50 or $100 stick that just receives the signal. It's also possible support for this could be built into other devices like TVs.
  • Seamless access to games: Just like we can stream movies on our phones, tablets and TVs without interruption, the same is theoretically true for game streaming. If these services work as intended, you could start a game on your couch, continue it on your phone and then finish the mission back at your house. The Nintendo Switch has been a huge success because of its unique ability to play games on the TV and on-the-go. Game streaming evolves that concept one step further because you can theoretically use many of the devices you already own and carry with you.
  • More people can play: If games are accessible on more devices, then more people can play them. This means your friends who are more casual players may be more inclined to join you on a raid. Especially in this multiplayer-centric world, everyone wins when the audience grows.

The Bad

  • Gaming as a subscription: While you may not have to pay up front for the cost of a console, the ideal form game streaming will likely take is that of a subscription service. So, you could be paying monthly for a habit that used to be a bit more pay-as-you-go, allowi?ng you to save money by borrowing games or buying second-hand. The prospect could become especially costly if Sony and Microsoft have their own services with different games, which seems a fairly plausible scenario.
  • Latency: Just because the lag situation has gotten better, that doesn't mean game streaming will always be flawless. If your internet has a lag spike or goes down, you're likely to experience those negative side effects in an obvious way. With streaming, you're more apt to lose or die based on something out of your control.
  • You own nothing: Many players still buy games on disc, which means that even if Sony or Microsoft shuts down its online servers, it's still possible to play God of War or Halo without a connection. With streaming, you're entirely at the mercy of the service provider. That means games you love could potentially disappear forever without warning. We've all seen TV series suddenly removed from Netflix. That can happen with a game streaming service too, rendering your hundreds of hours of play time useless until the game (maybe) returns to the platform in the future. Once your subscription is done, you might end up with nothing to show for it.

The major players in cloud gaming

Google will likely make waves with its streaming tech at GDC,, but there are several other major companies eager to dominate the space. Here are just a few contenders.

  • Microsoft Project xCloud: The minds behind Xbox have been vocal about their support for game streaming, and they already have the subscription Game Pass games library to support it. In fact, rumors suggest there may be a dirt cheap version of the next Xbox designed purely as a streaming hub.
  • PlayStation Now: Sony has been offering game streaming for years via its PlayStation Now service. For as much as $99 per year, users on PS4 and PC have access to a library of more than 750 PS4, PS3 and PS2 titles. As Microsoft steps up its game, Sony's offering will only become more important.
  • Amazon: While details are scarce, a report from The Information suggests Amazon could launch its own game streaming platform as early as next year.
  • Verizon Gaming: Verizon is currently testing a service called Verizon Gaming on Nvidia Shield devices with plans for an Android offering soon. The service features 135 games, but is so new that it doesn't even feature save functionality.
  • EA: Electronic Arts is also dipping its toes in the water with Project Atlas, a vague game streaming platform featuring titles from the major publisher. EA already has a subscription model with its Origin Access service, so it'd be easy to migrate that to streaming. It's just one example of how large publishers might soon sell their games.

While it's unclear just how successful game streaming will become in the near term, there's little doubt this instant content delivery system will eventually be the norm. It may take some time to get all the pieces perfectly aligned, but Google and others seem confident that streaming will revolutionize how the medium is consumed.