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Gaming Goes Cloud: The Rise of High Performance Personal, Virtual PCs

We’ve come a long way from crowding around a CRT television, fighting over a wired controller and basking in the glory of 16-bit colours. 

Now, game graphics are getting practically (and sometimes frighteningly) indistinguishable from real life. However, until recently we’ve still been tied to physical game systems to be able to play. 

That’s all changing with the rise of cloud gaming services, which make operating a high performance system without the need for hardware a reality. In this article we’re going to look at how it works and what are the best options for cloud gaming.

How does it work?

Once people became used to the idea of streaming movies and media, it was a natural next step to look at how other forms of entertainment could work with this model. 

Traditional gaming requires users to buy physical hardware, whether that’s in the form of a gaming PC, or a console (Playstation/XBox/Switch, etc.).

Cloud gaming comes in various flavours but the basic idea is that a virtual rig does all the heavy lifting in the cloud, then streams the game back to you on a device of your choosing. This means you can run resource-heavy games on devices with bare minimum specs.

For cloud gaming to work, services generally utilise three different ways to serve stream gameplay to a local device: video, command and file.

With video streaming, image rendering will occur in the cloud on remote CPUs and GPUs, then the video will be transmitted and decoded on a local device. The speed and quality of the image rendering will be dependent on the strength of the remote CPU and GPUs as well as the internet connection. This is usually what we are talking about when it comes to cloud gaming.

For command streaming, game logic and commands are processed in the cloud but rendering occurs on a local device. This can reduce the overall load on the network as well as latency issues, however it also means you are more dependent on the specs of your local device in terms of what you can run and at what specs.

Finally, file streaming occurs when a certain part of the game is still present on the local device. This is more often used when implementing patches or running media for the game. It is the most dependent on the end-users

Advantages of cloud gaming

1. Game on devices with basic specs

This is the obvious one but using a cloud gaming service means that you don’t need to spend thousands of pounds on a high-end PC or console. As PCs get older, you would have to update or upgrade components, which can be costly exercise. Similarly, once you’re locked into a console, you’re unlikely to change or get a new one until the end of the generation.

With a cloud gaming service, you can expect them to keep their systems up to date, meaning that you can keep running the latest games with great performance (depending on what tier you may be on and, of course, your broadband speed).

While you will need some kind of medium or platform through which to stream the game, this can be relatively device agnostic. You could be using a low-powered laptop or even a mobile phone or tablet. This gives you the power of gaming at your pace and convenience.

2. Sweet silence

Beastly gaming rigs get hot fast, especially if you fancy a bit of cheeky overclocking from time to time. And where there’s heat, there’s typically noise in the form of whatever cooling system you have in place to stop your rig from melting.

Sure, noise-cancelling headphones eliminate this problem, but if you’re gaming into the wee hours and live with other humans, noise can become a factor.

Cloud gaming is typically a lot less noisy than crunching the latest triple-A title on your home rig, which leads us neatly to our next point…

3. Lower electricity bills

Big rigs need a lot of juice to run. How much are we talking? According to Computerinfobits:

A gaming computer requires somewhere between 300 – 500 Watts to operate. This translates to up to 1400 kWh annually and is six times higher than a laptop’s power usage.

Taking this a step further, GoCompare states that the average cost of 1 kWh in the UK is roughly £0.19.

So the average gaming rig costs £266 a year to run.

4. Game anywhere, on anything

As mentioned above, as cloud gaming is device agnostic, it means you can game anywhere. 

So, you can go from gaming for a few minutes after supper at night on your laptop to using your phone at lunch at work. This is where it can truly feel like the future of gaming. It’s up to you to choose how and where you game without limit (aside from a dodgy internet connection).

5. Upgrade shmupgrade

Unlike gaming PCs and consoles which typically have to be upgraded every 3-5 years, in theory cloud rigs should circumvent this.

We say this with some hesitation though. Services like GeForce Now and Shadow have both recently introduced upgraded tiers to their respective cloud gaming offerings. 

These offer a significant improvement in specs, but presumably, the base subscription tiers will undergo periodic incremental upgrades at no cost or the cloud gaming model starts to come apart at the seams.


Disadvantages of cloud gaming

1. Compression and connection issues

To preserve speed and refresh rate, it may happen that the streamed video you receive has lower fidelity than you would like. It certainly may not be the crystal-sharp graphics you could be seeing on your own high-end PC. On the other hand, the video may not be of much less quality than lower or medium grade PCs.

Here in the UK, we’re fortunate that high-speed fibre internet has become ubiquitous. This has gone a long way to making cloud gaming a viable platform. This may not be the case in countries (or areas) that have to deal with spotty or low-speed internet. It’s early days for cloud gaming, but the sad reality at the moment is that unless you live in a country with high-speed and close proximity to cloud gaming servers your experience may be ropey at best.

2. Bandwidth consumption

Even with a high-speed connection, you will have to account for the mass amounts of bandwidth needed to stream at a decent speed and graphics levels. Streaming a game for an hour could see you using 25GB or more of bandwidth.

3. It’s not competition-ready yet

As good and fast as connections have become, competitive gaming is reliant on millisecond response times. Professional gamers cannot afford even the slightest latency between input and action. Unfortunately, even the most powerful cloud gaming services are not at a level where it’s possible to support that kind of connection. But then again, this would be barely noticeable for most people, so it’s not something the average gamer needs to worry about.

Top cloud gaming options

Amazon Luna

Continuing with Amazon’s quest to be involved in every aspect of every person’s life all the time, they’ve launched a game streaming service called Amazon Luna. You can access games across Windows PC, Mac, Fire TV, Fire tablets, Chromebook, iPhone, iPad, and Android phones; meaning you have a huge range of platforms to choose from. It is generally recommended that you get the Luna controller as well though as it reduces latency to Amazon’s servers by talking directly to the cloud.

 

Pricing$4.99-$28,98 (including the Ubisoft package)
PerformanceA single T4 GPU (Amazon might be using multiple) provides 8.1 teraflops of performance and support for Microsoft’s DirectX raytracing technology.
No. of titles supported86 if you get the full package
System requirementsLuna supports Fire TV, PC, Mac, Android phones, iPhones, and iPads via web apps. PC and Mac users can access the platform either via the Chrome browser or the standalone application. 

Read the full spec list here.

Cloud rig specsRuns on a standard version of Amazon’s EC2 G4 server instance running Windows, complete with Nvidia’s T4 GPUs and Intel’s Cascade Lake CPUs.

See Amazon Luna

Nvidia GeForce Now

GeForce Now is an interesting beast. At present (June ‘22) it supports 1,300 games, 100 of which are free. It connects to your existing Steam, Epic Game Store, GOG and UPlay accounts and, if you own titles that GeForce Now supports, it allows you to play those titles on its cloud rigs.

Sounds complicated but it’s dead simple in practice and the specs on its cloud rigs are the best you’re likely to find. For £17.99/month you get access to a GeForce RTX 3080 rig that blasts out 1440p at 120 FPS on any PC or Mac that meets the recommended system requirements. It’s a solid option if graphics fidelity is important to you right now.

HOWEVER, extensive as the library is, it has some gigantic gaps. Activision has removed all of its titles from GFN. Call of Duty ain’t there. The Resident Evil franchise? Nope. The list goes on. Worse than that, sometimes titles are arbitrarily pulled by publishers and a game that was supported disappears off GFN without a trace. 

This happens across other cloud gaming platforms too (Google Stadia for one) and the good news is that in some instances, you’re still allowed to play the game on GFN despite it being removed, as was the case when they announced God of War will soon be dropped from the service.

 

Pricing£8.99 – £17.99
PerformanceUp to an RTX 3080-level GPU, providing you with raytracing, 1440p 120FPS gaming on PC and 4K HDR gaming with an Nvidia Shield TV.
No. of titles supported1,000+
System requirementsMacOS running 10.13.2 or later. For PC, Dual core x86-64 CPU with 2.0GHz or faster, 

4GB of system memory and a GPU that at least supports DirectX 11. An Android phone, or tablet, with 1GB of available memory, Android 5.0 (L) or later, and OpenGL ES2.0 support or higher.

Read the full spec list here.

Cloud rig specsUnsure

See GeForce Now.

Google Stadia

The less said about Google’s abysmal and practically abandoned attempt at cloud gaming the better. It had a promising start but as this scathing Wired article points out, “the gaming business is brutal. Google doesn’t have the stomach for it.” Ouch.

Playstation Plus

Sony’s subscription service is based primarily around a large library of games, but includes the option to stream titles to PS4, PS5 or PC. It has limits though as it doesn’t include the latest blockbuster titles from the PS5 era. It’s not a bad choice if you’re a fan of the classic Playstation library, but it’s definitely not the best choice when it comes to cloud gaming.

 

Pricing£8.99
PerformanceUnsure
No. of titles supported700+
System requirementsWindows 7 (SP 1), 8.1 or 10, Core i3 2.0 GHz, 300 MB of available storage, 2 GB of RAM, Sound card; USB port.
Cloud rig specsUnsure

See Playstation Plus.

Shadow

The final option is the one we currently recommend. This is more than just a game streaming service. Shadow lets you run a full medium to high-spec PC in the cloud. That means you can use it for all applications, like design or editing, not just to stream your games. 

 

It works across all platforms, including macs; so your access is unlimited. This subscription doesn’t come with any games, but rather links to your existing libraries across the various services. For power gamers, they also offer a booster subscription that improves performance and allows for 4K streaming and ray tracing.

Basically, you’re renting your very own cloud-based PC. You can install anything you want (provided it’s not malicious and doesn’t overclock your rig) and have the freedom to run any PC-compatible titles your gamer heart desires. 

 

Pricing£29.99 – £44,98
PerformanceFull 1080p HD, up to 144fps or at 60 fps in 4k resolution
No. of titles supportedAs you’re in effect renting a virtual PC, you can download and use all the games you own on Steam, GOG, Origin, Uplay, the Epic Games Store, etc.
System requirementsIntel Sandy Bridge range (2011), Core™ i7 / i5 / i3, Pentium™, Celeron™, Xeon 1.60 GHz

AMD AM2+ range (2008), Athlon™, Sempron™, Phenom™, Opteron™. 2 GB RAM. 

For Mac, x86-64 (Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Intel Core i3 / i5 / i7, or Xeon) M1 chip (Apple Silicon) running OS X Sierra 10.12.2 or higher.

Read the full spec list here.

Cloud rig specsGeForce GTX 1080, Intel XEON™ 3.5 GHz CPU, 12GB ram, 256 GB SSD, Windows 10 operating system. 

Upgrade option (offered from Summer 2022): NVIDIA GeForce RTX™ 3070-class

or AMD’s latest RDNA 2 based GPU, AMD EPYC™ 7543P (WIP) 2.8 GHz (up to 3.7 GHz) CPU, 16 GB ram, 256 GB SSD.

See Shadow

How high-end PCs in the cloud work can work for business

From an IT perspective, it’s been fascinating to watch the rise of consumer grade cloud PCs. While there’s always a conversation to be had around the benefits between on-site and cloud-based infrastructure, there is no doubt that virtual set ups can bring a huge amount of value and efficiency.

The cloud is now longer a place to simply store data, it has become a critical business feature used in applications, workforce management as well enterprise functions. The fact that we’ve reached a level of reliability and stability on the consumer side that supports cloud gaming is an indication of what we can accomplish on the business and enterprise level.

If you’re interested in having a discussion around your cloud or virtual PC needs, we can help. Get in touch at info@relltek.com or call us on +44 (0) 203 0922 787 for a chat.

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