Let's start with the overwhelming benefits of gaming via the cloud. It's a service where you don’t need an expensive, high-end PC or console to play the latest games. Just an app, a very decent internet connection, a screen of some description and a means to control the on-screen action. That may sound like voodoo, but there's actually some clever technology going on here.
The games you're playing are installed on your providers (hopefully) powerful PCs on the server-side. All the calculations and heavy-lifting is being done on their machines, plus there’s no agonising wait to download or update a game before you get started. All you need do is press ‘Play game’ and the phantom PC with the cutting edge hardware will stream from the datacenter straight to you. You'll receive the usual screen output, just delivered to your device while your control and/or keyboard inputs are rapidly fired back.
Vortex Cloud Gaming
Available on the Microsoft store for PC, mobile devices and Xbox One, Vortex promises high-quality graphics no matter what hardware you have and instant access, too. Staring like a goon at some download progress meter – a notable pain in the butt when it comes to the Xbox platform -- is a thing of the past. Just click and play.
You get a pretty decent library of games with a $9.99 a month subscription which limits you to 100 hours of gaming. There are over a 100 games by my count and the collection expands and contracts with monthly updates. As a general guide, you can drop into well-known titles like: Fortnite, Team Fortress 2, World of Tanks, Dota 2, Paladins and tons of licensed indie games. Sadly, “Premium” games like GTA V and PUBG will have to be already owned by you and whichever game you go with will be piped over at a respectable-but-not-amazing 1080p, 60fps.
Requirements are a pretty low hurdle. You need Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile or an Xbox and 42MB of space for the app. From there a paltry 1GB of video memory and a Core i5 processor will get you gaming comfortably. The toughest requirement, for rural Aussies at least, is a connection that is a minimum of 10Mbps. This is doable if you have fibre to the curb (FTTC) NBN which is roughly 100Mbps down/ 40 up (mileage varies wildly of course).
Those of you after better visuals really ought to check out the 2560x1600, 60fps offered by Nvidia's newly-Oz-ified GeForce Now service. There's also an Ultra Streaming Mode that can increase this stream quality on your Mac or Windows PC from 60FPS to 120FPS or higher.
If beta tests are to be believed, GeForce Now is the current king in terms of visual quality and low-latency, but there's a downside to all this. At the time of writing, $25 a month only allows you to play 20 hours of gameplay on a virtual PC with the “power” of a GTX 1060, or 10 hours on a machine fitted with a more decent GTX 1080. You also need to couple that considerable cost with the fact that this is a BYO games setup -- you'll need to fork out for those Steam or Uplay purchases and then link your account to use them.
While GeForce Now is an impressive technical feat, I still wouldn't recommend it to hardcore gamers out for some high-level pew pew. Even with optimal settings, the service introduces some latency to your input. Something like single-player demon slaying in Doom won't be a problem, but milliseconds in Destiny 2 Crucible PvP can result in your arse being handed to you. All that said, this is the service I'm currently pinning all my future hopes on.
Parsec: Takes local multiplayer online
Parsec is interesting service in that it turns any local multiplayer game into an online game. There's no need to occupy the same couch anymore for a bit of (emulated) Smash Bros, thanks to an online matchmaking system that emulates classic 1v1 single-screen gaming with a mate.
As a host, you have granular permissions available to accept connections, give friends access to specific games, block access to other applications, and determine the exact input devices each person has access to on your computer. You're looking at ultra-low latency stream at 60 fps and virtual controller management for any number of players, thanks to a highly dynamic bandwidth algorithm.
Currently the Parsec client supports Windows 7+, MacOS 10.9+, Android, Linux and Raspberry Pi 3. And the overwhelming good news is that the Parsec software is free to use. The company may eventually charge for premium features like Discord does with Nitro, but the core streaming functionality will remain free.
You know what? The road to decent cloud gaming in this country has been a rocky one and casualties have occurred. Most notably, a promising service provider named LiquidSky pulled out of the game in mid-2017 after 2 years of beta testing. The reason given for this odd turn of events: the company had to “re-allocate servers from several underperforming regions”. According to some official forum members, that tactical retreat was communicated poorly to paying customers. Basically, a lovely cumulonimbus of decent cloud gaming was there one day and then it dissipated into thin air the next.
Other users said they were rudely shifted from a Sydney-based server to a Hong Kong or (!!) Californian one overnight – hardly the <500km required for an optimal, low-latency experience. As to whether or not LiquidSky will ever return to these shores, a community manager stated that “in the future, we do intend on eventually adding servers back in those regions where the conditions are right to have them back”.
Major setbacks sure don't help the cause but there is hope for a brighter cloud gaming tomorrow...
What other services are there and what hope do we have of getting them Down Under?
Where cloud gaming goes in this country from here is a little foggy. It's telling that major players like Sony continue to be standoffish with our region. The PlayStation Now service has been going great guns overseas since 2015, streaming an increasing number of PS3 and PS4 titles to UK and US gamers. Sony Australia has been more or less silent on when it'll roll out down under.
The brightest star on the horizon has got to be the amorphous being that is Google's Yeti, a cryptid that may leap from nowhere to the top of the cloud gaming totem pole (if rumours of its existence are accurate). Details are vague at this point – this could be a game streaming service delivered via Google's Chromecast devices or even a Google-made gaming console. Watch this space.
EA cloud gaming service
At E3 2018, EA put on a decidedly average show when it came to games but one tidbit of technology news stuck out. EA announced its own Netflix-style streaming service which will give you access to the publisher's extensive library.
Xbox streaming network
At the same E3, the head of Xbox Phil Spencer teased Microsoft's own streaming service. Spencer stated "[Microsoft's] cloud engineers are building a game streaming network to unlock console-quality gaming on any device". Xbox was one of the first consoles to experiment with the cloud when it announced Crackdown 3 would leverage the cloud for destruction physics in the MIA shooter's multiplayer mode.
Is there a silver-lining in sight?
Who knows, as conditions improve in Australia we may yet draw the attention of a growing number of overseas cloud gaming services. GameFly and Shadow have seen success in the US and UK markets – they need only set up a decent data centre over here and we'd be in business. Whatever the case, cloud gaming is coming and (when done right) is a technology too convenient and cost-effective to be stopped. All Aussie gamers can do at this point is keep watching the skies.