Cloud gaming: What you need to know

Published: October 10, 2013 03:45 PM
A tester plays a game streamed from the Nintendo Wii U console to the GamePad controller.

"The cloud" and "streaming media": If you pay attention to tech news, you've heard these terms. And if you play video games, you might know these technologies could be introducing a whole new way to play, called cloud gaming.

What it is

Cloud gaming simply means that instead of running from a disc or hard drive, your games are streamed via the Internet to your gaming device—for instance, to a game console (such as the Xbox, PlayStation, or Wii) or to a mobile device (a smart phone or tablet, or a PlayStation Vita, for example). So ideally, you can play anywhere you want—in the living room, the back yard, or even when you're traveling.

How it works

Playing a streaming video game works similarly to watching a movie on Netflix: As long as you have an Internet connection, you can access and play the game you want. The game is stored "in the cloud"—on an external server hosted by the cloud-gaming service. And cloud storage keeps your saved games safe, even if your console crashes.

As with streaming movies, the quality of your gameplay (seamless graphics, responsiveness to commands) depends on Internet speed and network strength. And it may be more difficult to control the content that children can access, and who they play against or communicate with online. The concept may dismay some veteran gamers, too, as they can't sell or trade cloud-based games. 

Why it matters now

Services such as OnLive have been streaming games to customers for several years, with only moderate success in terms of popularity and how well they work. Another model would have you stream games wirelessly from your PC or game console, to play them on another device, such as a tablet or hand-held console. Bigger companies—including Sony and Valve—are now getting in on the action. Whether they have more success remains to be seen.

Sony recently acquired a company called Gaikai for its cloud-gaming capabilities. The company will help Sony create a PlayStation cloud service so players can stream early-generation games to newer consoles—and that’s big news, since the soon-to-come PlayStation 4 is not backward-compatible with PlayStation 3 games.

You’ll also be able to stream games from your PS4 to Sony’s handheld device, the PlayStation Vita. You can do the same right now with the Nintendo’s Wii U, which lets you play many games on its tablet-like GamePad controller.

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While a release hasn’t been confirmed for the U.S., Sony has also announced a streaming box that connects directly to a TV—the PlayStation Vita TV. This device basically function like the handheld Vita, letting you play some Vita games (not all will be compatible) and also play games streamed from the PlayStation 4. The Vita TV would be less expensive than another PlayStation 4, but you could still play all your games in a different location by streaming them from the PS4.

Some of this is speculative, but overall it seems clear that Sony wants to create a PlayStation service that will let consumers play their games on multiple devices. It’s hard to imagine that Microsoft doesn’t want in on the streaming-game action too, especially considering its fairly new hardware line of phones and tablets.

Valve—the company behind the popular PC gaming service Steam, which saves games you buy from it online—announced a new Linux-based OS that will run on “living-room devices” and make it easier to stream games from your PC.

It also announced its own hardware: Steam Machines, which are customizable boxes that connect to your TV so you can play Steam games much more easily in your living room, and a new controller that will work on any device that you can play a Steam game on.

These have the potential to become serious competitors for traditional consoles: Like the Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii U, they connect directly to your TV. Also, Steam offers some of the blockbuster PC-game titles.

Bottom line

The concept of playing high-quality games directly on your TV or mobile device without the need for a bulky console or a PC is exciting. And it would be great not to take up storage space with game discs. Last but not least, there's the instant gratification of being able to play a new game as soon as you want to.

The quality of streaming games needs to be significantly improved for this to become a reality, though. Some of the newer trends in cloud gaming hint at big changes down the road. And some of these new ideas may provide the next step to making the concept of playing video games anywhere a reality.

—Matt Ferretti

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