Imagine this scenario: it’s been a long, busy week, and all you want to do is unwind with your favorite game with your one hour of free time before weekend errands and plans consume your life. You hit the power button, hear the calming whir of your top-of-the-line hardware as it hums to life, and relax into your seat. Your screen brightens with the menu, titles glowing on your screen, but just as you begin to scroll to find the game you want to play, the notification hits you: system update required. How annoying. You run the update and the system reboots, eating into precious gaming time, but finally the update is complete and you can still squeeze in some gameplay. Wait, no. Now the game itself has a massive patch update that needs to be downloaded before it can be played. By the time that’s done, you only have fifteen minutes left. Not worth it. Dejected, you go scroll through TikTok instead of doing the thing you want to do.
THE NEXT STEP IN GAMING
Gaming is an ever-evolving hobby. Every year, there are breakthrough advancements allowing games to process faster, graphics to look more realistic, gameplay to be more fun overall. These come so quickly that hardware can barely keep up, requiring constant updates and modifications to be able to run newly released games. It’s a necessary part of gaming, and part of what keeps the community a fun and engaging place.
Keeping up with the astronomical rise of computing technologies requires more than just a bigger processing chip or hard drive – at least, according to NVIDIA, that is. A leader in gaming hardware and software since its 1993 inception, NVIDIA tackles computing challenges, producing top-of-the-line systems that push the boundaries of what’s possible in gaming even further, working to reshape itself, the industry, and society every year. And on February 4, 2020, NVIDIA launched a new program that redefined possibilities: GeForce NOW, a cloud gaming subscription service.
Cloud gaming is still relatively new in the industry; the first of its kind, OnLive, launched in 2010, but the majority of services, including GeForce NOW, Amazon Luna and Stadia, have only launched in the last three years. There are only seven such services currently available, because many companies are still refining the technology needed to make it a reliable and efficient option for gamers. But what technologies are needed? What exactly is cloud gaming? How does it work?
GeForce NOW, or any other cloud gaming service, is most easily compared to Netflix or any of its competitors, because all of these services stream content directly to whatever device the user chooses. However, unlike Netflix, GeForce is doing more than streaming content – it’s giving players access to a high-powered virtual GPU. In so doing, cloud gaming effectively cuts out the need for players to continuously purchase new hardware to support their gaming habits – the cloud-based platform is assuming storage space and processing power typically provided by a PC, Xbox, PlayStation, or Switch.
HOW CLOUD GAMING WORKS
Another area where cloud gaming and streaming models like Netflix diverge, and where some of the confusion around how cloud gaming works happens, is around user input. When watching Netflix, the streamer is able to receive signals from someone’s remote and react as they scroll through the menu and select what to watch, and that’s it – now it’s all on Netflix to deliver the content. In cloud gaming, however, that’s just the beginning. Games are interactive, so the system and the player are engaged in a back-and-forth signal exchange. GeForce NOW streams games to a player’s screen, the player hits a button on a controller, GeForce NOW reacts, starting the cycle over again. Hardware is ingrained into the very thought of gameplay; it’s natural that the process of cloud gaming would be a little confusing, even for the most experienced Netflix binger. It’s a new idea that’s redefining what gaming can be, and companies like NVIDIA have worked hard to make that possibility a reality.
The technology behind cloud gaming is fascinating. The cloud gaming platforms set up powerful servers, which are used to store and run games as needed. Then, when a player logs on and selects a title, the server renders the gameplay, compresses and encodes the image into video, and remotely streams it to the player’s screen. Then, when a player gives input to the game via controller, touchscreen, keyboard or mouse, those commands are sent back to the server which computes and executes the actions in the game. When a cloud gaming service like GeForce NOW is performing well (and it usually does), this massive exchange of information happens instantaneously.
When a company sets up a cloud gaming platform, they need two things in spades: servers, and bandwidth. Large-scale data centers have to have enough storage to hold all of the games in the cloud gaming platform’s library. Part of the appeal of cloud gaming is that these servers allow players to have the experience of gaming on a premium rig, like a GeForce RTX 3080, without needing to buy and maintain hardware. Additionally, the hardware needs to be able to handle actually running the games for every single subscriber concurrently online, not to mention sending a stream of that gameplay to the user’s screen. This is where internet bandwidth comes into play; cloud gaming services require an immensely strong signal in order to provide a smooth gameplay experience. Think of a home router, and how it can struggle to provide service if one too many devices joins the network. Now multiply that to hundreds of thousands of people playing high-performance games at once. That is what GeForce NOW does.
HiIgh bandwidth is also hugely important because one of the major hurdles to cloud gaming is data usage and latency, known in the gaming community as lag. Low bandwidth translates to more communication time between a player and the server; if this happens, players will see a significant delay between hitting a button on a controller and seeing the action carried out in-game. At best, this is frustrating; at worst, it could mean an immediate loss in an online multiplayer experience. This was the biggest issue with the first iterations of cloud gaming ten years ago, but now technology has progressed to a point where it’s no longer a reason not to get into cloud gaming. According to a 2020 article by PC Gamer, GeForce NOW’s lag is less than its competitor Stadia. Additionally, NVIDIA’s blog is full of articles ready to help gamers reduce latency and maximize gameplay experience.
TOP OF THE LINE GAMING EXPERIENCE ON ANY DEVICE
But that’s just on the technical side – time to talk about cloud gaming from a player perspective. GeForce NOW runs on a web browser or through their app, making it playable on almost any device with a screen. Because the cloud gaming servers are always on, they are constantly updating both their software and any updates ported into the games they carry. This helps maximize gameplay time, as players no longer need to wait to install a hardware update or reboot their system. GeForce NOW’s servers also store games and their data for players, saving subscribers precious gigabytes on their hard drives. When using a cloud gaming platform, players do need a controller or keyboard to input commands, but GeForce NOW is compatible with pretty much any input device someone would want to use. Players need strong bandwidth as well, or can risk running into some of the same problems detailed above, namely high latency. However, most internet packages should be able to handle cloud gaming, and Nvidia’s blog has a number of tips and tricks to maximize bandwidth and limit lag.
NVIDIA’s GeForce NOW model is quite unique. Rather than offering a limited library of content that’s only available when using that service, they connect to game stores like Steam, Epic Games Stores, Ubisoft Connect, GOG, and more. This means members are buying and playing full PC versions of games. If they ever leave the service, they still own the PC version of the game that they can play locally on compatible hardware. This also allows the service to host a library of over 1,000 titles for its subscribers to choose from, with nearly 100 free-to-play titles. GeForce NOW offers a three-tiered subscription system, each with increasing perks and options to choose from. The first is actually free, giving players access to the full library, the processing power of a basic gaming rig, standard access to the gaming servers, and one hour session lengths. Its priority service comes in at $9.99 per month, giving players a virtual premium gaming rig with RTX capabilities, priority access to servers, six-hour session length, and the option to run the games at up to 1080p at 60FPS. The highest-performing tier, the RTX 3080, is $19.99 per month and lets players game on a GeForce RTX 3080 rig, get exclusive access to the RTX 3080 server, have eight-hour sessions, and run on Mac or PC at up to 1440p at 120 FPS and 4K HDR on SHIELD TV – the company’s streaming media device.
Other cloud gaming services follow a more traditional model, with users paying a monthly subscription fee for access to the platform, but with added fees; with Stadia, for example, subscribers have to purchase games from their store on top of the monthly fee (kind of like how Disney+ has people pay extra for early access to movies).
Looking at cloud gaming from a bird’s eye view, it’s clear that not only are cloud platforms the future of gaming, they also propel accessibility forward. Thanks to NVIDIA, the barrier to entry for gaming has never been lower, creating an opportune way to diversify player pools, especially in the esports scene. For example, one of the games offered on GeForce NOW is League of Legends, one of the most popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games in the world. However, the thought of playing competitively is laughable unless someone is able to afford a top-of-the-line gaming PC. With a GeForce NOW account, that same player can now hit the Rift and experience gameplay on the equivalent of a premium rig for the mere price of a subscription.
Hand in hand with that accessibility is affordability. It is a truth universally acknowledged that gaming is expensive; at the time of this writing, new AAA games can cost anywhere between $60 and $70, and DLCs can be up to $40. Indie games are more cost effective, but can add up quickly after multiple titles are purchased. Then there’s hardware, ranging from $200 to well over $1,000. Not to mention most games require an online subscription just to be able to play – even if it’s a single-player game. Cloud gaming can significantly reduce the cost to players, first by eliminating the need for expensive hardware, then by giving gamers access to a massive library of titles for no cost beyond the subscription fee.
By hosting a library of PC titles, including most of the top free-to-play games, and being an affordable option for players, GeForce NOW also makes games themselves more accessible. This is likewise true for indie games. Often, smaller development teams create their games for only one platform; adapting their programming to meet the needs of different consoles require more time and resources than is possible or worth, limiting the title’s potential audience. Cloud gaming libraries, especially expansive ones like GeForce NOW, make it easier for those games to reach more players.
THE MOBILE GAMING REVOLUTION
There’s one other important area of accessibility: mobile gaming. It’s a part of the industry that has also seen explosive growth in the last few years as phones have evolved to be able to run games far more complex than Candy Crush or Temple Run. Gaming on the go opens up a realm of possibilities – play a quick game of Fortnite on your lunch break, or get lost in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt during a family road trip. However, not all games have mobile options, and the ones that do usually consume an absurd amount of energy and storage space. Being able to run GeForce NOW from a web page or app can get players access to the games they want to play, and give them a better experience to boot – as much as mobile games have progressed, they can’t replicate the experience of dominating Outriders with PC-quality graphics at 120 FPS.
Cloud gaming also opens up new possibilities for extending a game’s potential lifetime. In the current system, when gaming technology advances, it can only support older games to a limited extent. This is where the term “backwards compatibility” comes into play, which essentially means someone can play a last-gen game on their new-gen console, but they will still get the old-gen experience. Eventually, as the new-gen becomes the old gen, the old gen will become obsolete, unplayable by the current system. In the cloud, those games can stay evergreen
Imagine once again you’re sitting down to game after a busy week, but this time you’re using NVIDIA’s GeForce NOW. You turn on your device, settle in, log into your account, and away you go – no updates, no downloads, just time to do the thing you’ve been waiting all week to do: game.