30 Sep

On September 24th, 2020 Amazon officially joined the market for cloud gaming. Along with New Word and Crucible, this marks Amazon’s third step into the world of gaming, and it certainly is a big one. Their cloud gaming platform, entitled Luna, will launch in the US in October in early access using a subscription model priced at US$5.99 per month. Initially, the system will launch with 100 games, with many more being added as the platform develops and, eventually, spreads its wings to be available more globally.

What is Cloud Gaming?

Although Cloud gaming has piqued popular interest in the past few years, the concept has actually been around and developing slowly since the early 2000s. That said, many gamers have never utilised the service, and know little about it so let’s define it quickly.

Cloud gaming platforms operate similarly to video streaming platforms or remote desktop services. That is, the games are stored and ran on remote hardware and then streamed to the player’s device remotely as video. Player inputs are then recorded through the handler’s software and sent back to the remote hardware.

This process conceptually provides several advantages; meaning players don’t have to download games locally, don’t require powerful devices to play demanding games and can play pretty much anywhere with a strong, stable internet connection.

However, these services have seen huge teething issues, with problems regarding input latency, poor graphical performance, frame rate drops and demandingly high prices to get going—meaning cloud gaming still has a long way to go before truly competing with consoles and computers.

A Brief History of Cloud Gaming

Since the 2000s a number of Cloud gaming services have seen the light of day, but few have really taken off. From independent start-ups like Gaikai, Shadow and the very first publicly accessible service On Live to Nvidia’s GeForce Now, PlayStation Now and, of course, Google Stadia, the form has seen very mixed reviews from critics and users alike.

Early systems struggled the hardest both technically and logistically. GeForce Now, one of the first viable platforms which launched officially in 2015, struggled mainly with pricing models requiring users to pay for a subscription service, alongside games themselves, and has more recently faced the wrath of publishers. For example, many publishers have been pulling their games from the platform amid Nvidia’s recent turn to allow users to install their own games (purchased on steam) on Nvidia’s systems.

Google Stadia was one of Cloud gaming’s big-news stories which gained incredible press on the lead up to its release. Unfortunately, upon release it was met with the dismay of some users by it not quite being the pinnacle that people had hoped. For example, Wired Magazine rated the system 6/10 noting the image quality was particularly “drab”. While VentureBeat heavily criticized the service’s pricing model, especially when compared to PlayStation Now and Microsoft’s xCloud. Although Stadia has come some way since its launch, those early reviews certainly tarnished its reputation.

PlayStation Now is currently the world’s most popular cloud gaming services, but as it ties itself to requiring powerful hardware (PS4, PS5 or PC) it doesn’t yet represent the value of cloud gaming.

Microsoft’s xCloud began beta testing in November 2019 and has recently launched for subscribers of the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate allowing gamers across 22 countries to play over 100 titles on many major Android smart phones and tablets, provided they have access to a high-speed internet connection. Upon the success of this release, Microsoft are set to bring the service to more countries and platforms, homing their sights Australian release for in 2021 and, with luck, iOS compatibility.

All these platforms which have been released to date continue to arm-up and improve their offerings as more and more rivals join the race to be the one to make cloud gaming explode into the mainstream.

Luna & The Future

As just mentioned, Google Stadia, Microsoft xCloud, GeForce Now and PlayStation Now are all ever developing platforms which will extend into the foreseeable future of cloud gaming, wherever that may be. But as well as developing on existing products, there are likely more to come.

In 2019 Microsoft and Sony announced a “strategic partnership” to make use of each other’s assets and knowledge to further cloud gaming. Although the extent of this agreement is still much under lock and key, with both companies now having fully-fledged cloud gaming services it’s clear that this partnership is proving fruitful.

Amazon’s Luna, however, is certainly big news. And as a relative newcomer on the gaming scene but with the funds to propel themselves forwards Luna is an exciting prospect for the medium.

Following its announcement on the 24th, we have learnt much about Luna. First, and most importantly, it aims on providing an extremely low barrier of entry allowing games to be streamed to many devices including the Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd gen), Amazon Fire TV Stick (2nd Gen), Amazon Fire TV Stick 4k, iPhones (via Safari), iPads (via Safari), Macs and PCs, with Android support coming sometime in the future. The service will require a minimum internet speed of 10Mbps (or 35Mbps for 4K gaming).

Along with this wide availability their custom-built Alexa-enabled controller itself hopes to resolve latency issues with the controller being the device that connects to the internet rather than the streaming device itself—similar to the approach levied by Google Stadia.

But with that technical information out the way, the games and gaming experience are obviously the most important factors. Luna boasts that, at least at launch, you will not need to purchase games individually and will instead subscribe, for a monthly fee, to Luna+ or specific gaming “channels” which will provide a number of gaming titles to stream without any additional costs. At launch, Amazon claims they will have 100 titles available, including some mouth-watering offerings like the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and recent classics Resident Evil 7, Control, A Plague Tale: Innocence and many more. Due to amazon’s ownership of the streaming platform Twitch, they also offer seamless integration to that, offering opportunities to stream and watch streams through Luna.

Currently, the length of Luna’s early access is unknown, so it is unclear when/if the service will break out and spread across the globe. But if Amazon manages to succeed where others have failed we may see a tectonic shift in the gaming industry.

Will Cloud Gaming Reach its Potential?

Since its early days the various services offering Cloud gaming have all been in direct competition. While some have succeeded and others have been discontinued, all the platforms to date have experienced their teething issues whether they have been technical, presentational or commercial. Many are uncertain whether Amazon’s Luna will solve these issues, worrying that the service may not live up to its promises which may result in a launch similar to Google Stadia’s and leaving yet another strike against the name of cloud gaming.

However with Newzoo reporting a steady increase in cloud-gaming revenue and projecting vast revenue increases over the next three years, it is possible that things are about to move into top-gear and perhaps by the beginning of the next decade games consoles may even be a thing of the past. But whether that is true or not, I suppose we will have to wait and see.