An Incomplete Guide to Streaming Game Services

Update 6/27/21: This post is woefully out of date at this point and since it’s the top post on the blog I figured I’d better at least acknowledge that. Since Oct ’20 I’ve more or less given up on streaming games. I was all-in on Stadia for a while but, as everyone but me said they would, Google seems to be losing interest in the service, having closed down their game studios. Stadia, if it survives, will be a place to play other publisher’s games and/or a service Google provides to other publishers who want to take advantage of game streaming.

Meanwhile xCloud has been improving. They are now beta testing PC support (via a browser) and have just starting rolling out XSX servers so some games are playing much better than they used to.

I haven’t really been following Luna or GeForce Now, so not sure what state those are in.

Original post follows:

There are so many different streaming game services out now, and they all seem to have their own business model. I thought I’d gather some data on the ones I’m familiar with. Please note in all cases I’m talking about official support. Some of these services can run on hardware other than what I list by side-loading or other work-arounds.

Also, apologies to Playstation Now fans. I don’t use it or know much about it, so I left it out. It’s $10/month and runs on PCs and PS4s and that’s all I know about it!

Amazon Luna

Resolution: 1080P. 4K ‘coming soon’ for selected titles
Where You Play: PC, Mac, Android, iOS and certain Fire TV devices. For PC & Mac you can download an app, or play through a browser.
Monthly Price: $6
$6 is their introductory price. Amazon hasn’t indicated how long the service will be at this price or what its final cost will be.
What You Get:
Unlimited access to a library of 50 games. Amazon says more games will be added over time. They don’t say that some games will leave the service over time, but I’d be VERY surprised if that doesn’t happen. It happens with every other “Netflix-like” service.
Additional Costs:
Amazon will offer “game channels” that bundle some unknown number of games together for an unknown additional cost. The first one will be an Ubisoft Channel.
Amazon Luna Controller, $50 – This is a controller that connects directly to your WiFi network which is supposed to reduce input lag.
Personal Notes:
This service just came out and is in paid early access. I don’t have a lot to say about it yet but the buzz is that it needs some optimization before it becomes a real contender. The initial library of games is OK but not great. A few AAA titles but a lot of smaller indie games, some that I’ve never heard of.

GeForce Now

Resolution: 1080P (4K coming soon…but has been for quite some time)
Where You Play: Nvidia Shield, PC, Mac, Android, Chromebooks
Monthly Price: $0
What You Get:
Nothing, you have to provide your own games from Steam or Epic Game Store. Not all games are supported. Sometimes games that are supported are removed. Free users are limited to playing in 1 hour sessions, I believe.
Additional Costs:
Founders Edition, $5/month – Founders get priority access to a session (free users sometimes have to wait in a queue), longer session lengths, and for some games, RTX support
Personal Notes:
My experience with GFN has been all over the place. There are several different servers you may connect to and so in one session you may get a game running beautifully at high settings, and the next time you log in it can only manage medium because you happened to connect to a worse server. My biggest issue is with logging in to things though. Every time you play you need to log into Steam or Epic (and you can’t copy/paste your password) which seems like no big deal but can become a headache over time. If you happen to have an Nvidia Shield, it will upscale games to 4K.

Google Stadia

Resolution: 1080P
Where You Play: Chromecast Ultra, Chrome Browsers, Android
Monthly Price: $0
What You Get:
Nothing, you have to buy your games from the Stadia Store. Once you do, you’ll have that game forever, or until Google pulls the plug on Stadia
Additional Costs:
Stadia Pro, $10/month – Pro users gets 4K resolution and surround sound, discounts on Stadia Store games, and anywhere from 4-6 free games/month that you can access for as long as you’re a Pro subscriber. (I think Google actually promises 1 game/month but for the last 6 months it’s been 4-6). Google offers a 1 month free trial of Stadia Pro.
Stadia Premium Edition, $99 — This is a bundle of a Chromecast Ultra and a Stadia Controller to use with it. The controller connects to your WiFi which is supposed to reduce input lag.
Personal Notes:
Stadia has been my best game streaming experience. Games run really well and are optimized for the service. The downside is that a game has to be ported to Stadia and the ports vary in quality. For example The Division 2 looks and plays better than it does on my local gaming laptop, (using Stadia Pro so it is in 4K) but other games seem to run at console-level graphics settings. If you want to play with a controller, for example on your TV, all games are guaranteed to support that.
There’s a lot of worry that Google will ‘pull the plug’ on Stadia and our purchases will be lost, but I don’t think that will happen given that there ARE purchases attached. In the same way Google Play movies and Android apps are here to stay, I think Stadia is too (the fact that they own game studios working on titles for Stadia also makes it seem less likely it’ll get canceled.)

Microsoft xCloud

Resolution: 720P
Where You Play: Android devices
Monthly Price: Included as part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which is $15/month (though you can often find deals/discounts)
What You Get:
150+ Game Pass games. First party games are permanent in the Game Pass library, third party games are constantly being added and leaving.
Additional Costs:
Personal Notes:
xCloud currently runs on Xbox One S hardware which puts a lot of limits on how well games run and in particular, load times. Load times are far worse on xCloud than on any of the other services listed. On the other hand, for Xbox owners, being able to go from playing on the local Xbox to picking up where you left off on your phone during lunch hour at the office is a nice benefit.
In 2021 Microsoft is supposed to update their data centers with Xbox Series S|X hardware which should really improve this service.
Also worth noting you can stream from your Xbox to your Android device. This is called remote play and is free, though games have to be installed on your Xbox.

A Month of Stadia

Streaming game service Google Stadia has been available for about a month now and I thought I’d recap what’s been happening with the service

The launch was a mess and it unfortunately set the tone among “influencers” who decided that Stadia was going to be their “negative videos draw eyeballs” topic for a while (I’m sure Anthem breathed a sigh of relief) but at this point most of them seem to have moved on.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The elephant in the room is performance. While Stadia works really well in terms of lag/latency (for me at least), we’re constantly left scratching our heads when it comes to graphics quality. Stadia offers 10.7 teraflops of processing power, we are told, but generally speaking the graphic quality of games seems to land right around that of an Xbox One X (6 teraflops).

So if you have a PS4, Xbox One S, or a Switch, Stadia can offer you a graphics upgrade. Those of us with reasonably powerful PCs, Xbox One Xs or PS4 Pros are looking at a cross-grade situation, and gamers with high end gaming PCs are looking at a downgrade.

This leads to a lot of “What does Stadia offer me?” questions from serious gamers and the answer is, frankly, “Not very much.” Stadia is reasonably portable; you can play on a cheap laptop at a coffee shop, or on a selection of phones (or basically any device that you can run Chrome on) but it requires a steady Wi-Fi connection. It’s hard to justify purchasing a game twice just to be able to play at a coffee shop, particularly since Destiny 2 is the only cross-save game on the service, as far as I know.

There’s also the issue of the still very small library of game titles, but presumably that issue will sort itself out over time. The price of games keeps springing up as an issue but I’m not sure how fair that is. Borderlands 3 is $38.99, for example. That’s a “Pro” deal but everyone on the service now is a “Pro” so… Anyway price controversy sometimes seems to be based on perception as well. For example Darksiders Genesis launched on Steam for $30 and on Stadia for $40 which caused an uproar, but the price on Xbox and PS4 will be $40 when the game launches. People seem to think of Stadia as another place to play PC games, rather than a separate platform, so they expect pricing parity with Steam. (Why a game is more expensive on consoles is a valid question, but that’s a question for the publishers, not the platform holders.)

With all the bad news out of the way, Stadia seems to be a hit with a certain segment of the community. If you hang out on the Stadia or particularly the StadiaDadia sub-reddits you’ll find a community of “used-to-be” gamers who’re getting back into the hobby thanks to Stadia. The no-fuss, no-hardware Stadia experience appeals to these people who have no interesting in spending money on a console or gaming PC.

At launch Stadia was ‘missing’ a lot of features. I put that in quotes because it seems like some of the missing features are really “features that game developers haven’t taken advantage of yet.” For example last week Ghost Recon Breakpoint launched on Stadia and it’s the first game to support “Stream Connect.” This allows you to let other players see your stream.

In other words, say you’re in a 4-man fireteam in Breakpoint. You could have 3 picture-in-picture windows showing you what the other three members of your team are currently seeing. The idea is that this allows tightly coordinated actions to take place. I could see it being useful as a teaching tool as well.

Other missing features weren’t dependent on developers, and these are slowly being rolled out. We can finally buy games through a web browser, and the Achievement System (or at least, a first pass at it) came out last week.

So what about me? I confess I’m pretty disappointed in the graphical quality of games. I was hoping Stadia would be an improvement over the Xbox One X and/or my mid-tier gaming PC; sadly it is not. It’s hard to justify buying a game on Stadia at this point; why fracture my game collection? These days I’m back to reaching for the Xbox controller rather than the Stadia one most of the time. I DO really love the load times of Stadia games (Destiny 2 loads SO much faster than on the Xbox or Steam) and it’s kind of cool to buy a game and be playing it literally seconds later.

I still have hope for the service in the long term, but with Xbox Series X and PS5 coming out in less than a year I think Stadia needs to get better fast. Or maybe Google is content to gather in all the folks who can’t be bothered with having a bulky console in the entertainment center.

Bottom line: if you’re reading my blog you’re probably a serious enough gamer that you have hardware that can offer a better experience than Stadia currently does; I really hope that eventually changes.

The Stadia launch

Yesterday was the day Google Stadia launched. I guess I’ve seen worse product launches, but not many.

So here’s the deal. Back in June Google urged gamers to pre-order the Stadia Founders Edition in order to start playing Stadia as soon as possible and (potentially more importantly), to be able to reserve your Stadia name. The promise was that codes to reserve names would be sent out in the order that pre-orders were received. So the earlier you pre-ordered, the more likely you were to get your name.

My story isn’t so bad. I pre-ordered that day, within minutes of the pre-order page going live. I paid an extra $14 for expedited shipping. Here we are on Launch Day+1 and I still don’t have my Founder’s Edition. Meanwhile people who ordered in August got theirs first thing in the morning yesterday.

However I DID get my code shortly after noon yesterday and was able to reserve my username. Also since Stadia isn’t really hardware, I was able to use the service via Chrome on a PC. More on that in a minute, but I hope that $14 I paid for expedited shipping bought someone a nice lunch because it sure didn’t get me expedited shipping!

Other people had a much worse time. Plenty are still waiting on codes, or Founder’s Kits, or both. Over on Reddit folks are sharing when they got their codes vs when they pre-ordered and it is pretty clear there’s neither rhyme nor reason to how the codes are being sent out. I saw folks getting very upset that a person who pre-ordered much later than they did got their code first and snagged a username that a June 6th pre-orderer was hoping to get. People are rightfully pissed.

Of course this will all pass. But that isn’t all that is wrong with the launch. The service is just not ready. You can play games, there’s a Friends list and that’s about it. All the whiz-bang gee-gaws that Google promised, like being able to launch a game directly from a YouTube video, are MIA. You can take screenshots and record clips, but when you do you can ONLY view them on your phone, with no way to share or export them. Lots of little “Uh, wut?” issues like that.

Also for some reason a LOT of people got the idea that you paid for Stadia and got access to a whole library of games. I’m not sure where that came from but I think it was from dodgy game journalism. It isn’t the case. There are 2 tiers of Stadia. A free tier (not available yet) and a $10/month Pro tier (you get 3 months of that with the Founder’s Edition). The Pro tier is similar to Playstation Plus or Xbox Live Gold. It gets you 1 or 2 free games per month, discounts on game purchases and (in theory) better quality streams. The free games for this month are Destiny 2 and Samurai Showdown. Beyond that, Stadia offers a digital store offering mostly full price games.

So I wish that was all the bad news, but it is not. Despite all of Google’s talk about the processing power of the Stadia servers, (10.7 teraflops!) games seem to be running at pretty modest settings. I had hoped Stadia would be the way I could play PC games at max or near-max settings; games that my laptop couldn’t handle. So far, at least, that has not proven to be the case. The Stadia version of Destiny 2, according to Bungie, runs at roughly the same as middle PC settings.

So Stadia… dead in the water, right? Well, maybe not. Fact is, it works. When you push all this cruft aside and try to play a game, it works really well, at least from Chrome. Yes Destiny 2 looks prettier when playing through Steam, but my laptop’s fan is screaming in protest the whole time. Playing Destiny 2 on Stadia feels kind of magical. I open a browser window to, (leaving open the the dozen programs I have running) click an arrow that looks like the Play arrow on a YouTube video, and I’m in the game. The laptop’s fan is silent. Loading times are much faster than on my local machines. If Stadia introduces lag (and it must) it isn’t enough for me to feel. I tend to get motion sick with too much input lag (before I got my new TV with a low input lag, I couldn’t play FPS on consoles without getting queasy) but Stadia is totally comfortable.

So there is hope. And in fact the ideal audience is already happy. Over on the Stadia sub-reddit there’s a group calling themselves “Dadias”. These are folk who used to be gamers but got married, had kids, and don’t have gaming PCs or modern consoles because they don’t game enough for them to be worth the investment. These guys & gals last played games on a PS3 (or earlier) and they LOVE Stadia. They love that when they’re playing on the TV and the kids want to watch a show, they can just switch seamlessly to a laptop (or even a Chromebook) and continue playing. They didn’t have to clear a $250-$300 console purchase with the spouse, or clutter up the living room with an ugly box. I think these people are the near-term audience for Stadia.

IF Google actually invests in this service and gets the graphics quality up, then Stadia could be a contender for me in years to come. When some new PC game comes out and my laptop can only run it at medium settings, and Stadia can run it at high, I’ll probably buy the Stadia version rather than upgrading my PC. I just don’t anticipate this happening much before 2021.

That’s the possible future. For today there’s not a lot of reason for you to get Stadia if you have a gaming PC, PS4 Pro or Xbox One X. Those systems all run the games better than Stadia is running them today. (If you have a base PS4 or Xbox One, then the Stadia versions would probably be an upgrade for you.)

Oh one last note. A lot of journalists are comparing Stadia to Microsoft’s xCloud and pointing out that XCloud is a better deal. Keep in mind the xCloud is running on Xbox One S units back in the data center and it only runs on mobile phones for now. The output is 720P. Stadia is definitely more powerful than that. We also don’t know what the pricing of XCloud will be. If all you want to do is run games on your tiny phone screen than yes, xCloud is probably the way to go. But for monitors and big-screen TVs you’re probably going to want more power. At some point I suppose xCloud will transition to Project Scarlet units but that won’t be for a few years yet. I just think it is too early to call a winner between these two services.