How Does Cloud Gaming Work and Is It Worth It?

June 27, 2024 • Devin Partida

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Video games are complicated. Running them smoothly — especially with today’s graphics and physics engines — often requires expensive hardware, and in that way, the hobby’s becoming less accessible. At the same time, cloud gaming is emerging as a promising alternative.

You might’ve heard of the concept from the ill-fated Google Stadia, which shut down in 2023 after just a few years of operation. Since then, though, other, better players have emerged in this space. So, what exactly is cloud gaming, how does it work and is it worth it?

What Is Cloud Gaming?

Cloud gaming is exactly what it sounds like — playing video games in the cloud instead of running them locally. To understand how that works, you’ll need to review a few things about cloud computing.

The cloud isn’t some mysterious digital space floating in the unknown. Rather, it’s a fancy term for storing files or running applications on another computer you access through the internet. Companies like Amazon Web Services, which controls 40% of the cloud services market, offer remote access to data centers — large rooms of high-end computing hardware — for a regular fee instead of people relying on the local hardware they own.

Cloud gaming applies this concept to video games. First, a company like Xbox or Nvidia sets up a bunch of specialized gaming hardware. Then, they let you connect to these computers through the internet to play games for an ongoing fee. That way, you don’t need any fancy consoles or graphics cards of your own to play them.

To put it another way, think of it as renting a high-end gaming PC and a handful of games. Instead of being there in person, though, you’ll use the internet to control it from your own device.

Pros of Cloud Gaming

The biggest advantage of cloud gaming is that it makes gaming more accessible. A gaming PC today can easily cost $1,000 or more, even if you build one yourself. Consoles are more affordable, but shelling out $400 or more plus $60 to $70 for each game still isn’t cheap.

By contrast, many cloud services cost less than $20 a month. Yes, that adds up over time, but it’s easier for some people to afford that than make a big upfront purchase.

Something these services have in common with normal cloud storage is that they’re also scalable and relatively future-proof. As long as you keep paying for it, you’ll always have access to top-tier hardware without expensive upgrades.

You can also use these services from anywhere. Some cloud gaming platforms even work on your phone. Managing your gaming setup is also easier, as you won’t have to worry about upgrades, cleaning or other maintenance issues.

Cons of Cloud Gaming

Of course, cloud gaming has its fair share of downsides, too. Most notably, it’s prone to lag. Even though you may be playing on the best hardware available, your game may still slow down or experience issues because of your internet connection. Internet providers have an average satisfaction rating of just 68%, so that doesn’t bode well for internet-reliant gaming.

The other big issue with these services is that not every game is available on the cloud. You can only play what your specific service offers in their library. Those libraries are growing, but the lack of freedom can still be disappointing.

The loss of ownership has some negative side effects, too. You may not have to worry about updates, but you also can’t change your hardware to suit your specific liking. There’s also the ever-present fear that your service could go the way of Google Stadia and you’ll lose all your games.

Is Cloud Gaming Worth It?

Given these ups and downs, cloud gaming is worth it for some people but isn’t the best way to experience games — at least not yet. Network issues are still too common to overlook and the lack of choice is disappointing in today’s massive market. 

That said, it’s come a long way in a short time. Cloud gaming is good enough if you can’t afford a gaming PC or a new console. It’s also a good option if you travel a lot and want to play your games from anywhere.

The Best Cloud Gaming Platforms Today

You have a few options to choose from if you think cloud gaming sounds like a good fit for you. To help you narrow them down, here are the best cloud gaming platforms available today.

Xbox Cloud Gaming

Xbox Cloud Gaming comes as a side perk of Game Pass Ultimate and it’s the best all-around choice for cloud gaming as a whole. Game Pass comes with hundreds of games, and while not all of these are available to play on the cloud, most of them are. The service also works on a huge range of devices, supporting everything from computers to phones to smart TVs.

At roughly $17 a month, it isn’t the cheapest option out there, but you get all the Game Pass Ultimate features with it. It also won’t go beyond 1080p and 60fps, so it’s not the most stunning gaming experience.

Nvidia GeForce NOW

Nividia — the maker of some of the most popular graphics cards — also has a cloud gaming service. GeForce NOW is unique in that you can only play games you own instead of giving you a library. While that means potentially higher prices, the service supports more than 1,800 titles — far more than any competitor.

GeForce NOW comes in three tiers. There’s a free tier with ads and a one-hour time cap and paid tiers at $9 and $19.99 per month, offering longer sessions, no ads and better performance. This approach makes Nvidia’s option the most cost-effective if you already own enough games.

PlayStation Plus Premium

PlayStation’s cloud gaming platform works more like Xbox’s. You get it as part of the PlayStation Plus Premium bundle, which costs $18 a month and gives you immediate access to hundreds of games. It doesn’t support quite as many devices as Xbox, but you can play on PlayStation or PC.

You can stream some games in 4K on PlayStation Plus, which you’ll need a higher tier in GeForce NOW to do. The catalog of available games isn’t as impressive as some other options, but it is full of Sony exclusives like The Last of Us and God of War.

Is the Future of Gaming in the Cloud?

Cloud gaming isn’t perfect yet, but it paints a promising picture of gaming’s future. It could make big titles and high-end experiences more accessible while the rest of the industry trends in the other direction.

Whether it’s worth it today depends on what you’re working with. Expect some performance issues if you try it out, but that may be okay if you can’t otherwise afford to play some of these games. As technology improves, these services will only get better, too.

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