The state of game streaming in 2021

With so many options available, here’s an overview of the multiple game streaming models on the market

Does anyone remember OnLive? That was the first time I caught wind of game streaming, all the way back in 2011, when the idea of playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution on a cloud-based computer rather than your native device was remarkable. It’s when I first started to wonder how long we’d be gaming on physical consoles and computers for.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good enough internet connection to make the most of it back then – in fact, it quickly became clear that OnLive was just too ahead of its time. We may still be approaching that digital future, but we’re still a long way off yet. No one cloud streaming service has really taken the mainstream market by storm.

OnLive would ultimately close but it does have a lasting legacy. The service inspired our current wave of modern game streaming services after the sun set on the ambitious project in the mid-2010s.

OnLive actually sold a lot of its assets and patents to Sony, who launched PlayStation Now in 2014, its own cloud gaming subscription service that, to this day, lets players stream retro and contemporary PlayStation games on modern PlayStation devices and PCs via the internet.

Ico
Ico. Credit: Team Ico

As it has matured, PlayStation Now has become a handy means to brute force backwards compatibility on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. Right now, it’s the only way to play stone-cold classics like Ico, Ape Escape 2 and Red Dead Redemption on a current-gen Sony console. That’s probably what it is best known for at the moment, and it’s what I’ve been using it for on my PlayStation 5 and PC.

Given its identity as a window to the past, it would be difficult to call it a runaway streaming success, but like Remote Play, the service is mechanically reliable and full of serious exclusives you can’t get anywhere else. New focus is being given to PlayStation Now as Xbox Game Pass thrives, too – April 2021’s library additions include high profile titles like Marvel’s Avengers and Borderlands 3.

Speaking of Xbox Game Pass, one facet of the subscription behemoth is Project xCloud, Microsoft’s own streaming service which is in its preview phase at the moment.

Having tried it at E3 2019 (woof!) I can say that it works surprisingly well, but the fact it’s Android-only at the minute is the major limiting factor. You can play top flight games like Forza Horizon 4 and Control with the service, and Microsoft has recently extended access to backwards compatible Xbox and Xbox 360 games. It has huge potential, but xCloud is still in its infancy for now. It’s safe to assume it will become a major player when iOS and Windows users get access in the near future.

Google Stadia is another major player in the field, despite the fact it doesn’t have the best reputation at the moment. It has struggled to secure exclusive content since its launch in 2019, but the technology is undeniably there. You can access it on most devices now and it’s buttery smooth – in fact it was one of the better ways to play Cyberpunk 2077 at launch…

But Google recently shuttered its first-party Stadia development studios, which paints a grim picture for the platform’s future. I don’t think it’s going anywhere just yet, but as more contenders enter the fray – even Amazon is wading in with Luna – Stadia is going to need a unique selling point, beyond its snazzy UI and publishing partnerships.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Credit: Eidos Montréal

One of the most interesting services in the field at the moment is Nvidia’s Geforce Now, which operates a little differently to the rest. Its library is modest but free to use if you own the games within it, which it streams to you via a virtual computer, accessed over the internet. However, it opts for a more democratic approach to game streaming, connecting to Epic Games Store, Ubisoft Connect, Origin and Steam to leverage your existing libraries, rather than making you pay to access the games you already own elsewhere.

Say you own Outriders, Disco Elysium or Valheim on Steam, but you want to continue where you left off on another system. GeForce Now gives you that option. Once you sign up you can access GeForce Now on any internet-connected device – your phone, tablet or laptop, for example. All you have to do is log into your Steam, Epic Games Store, Origin or Ubisoft Connect account and you can keep playing your games in another room or another city at no extra cost.

I’m using it to finish Disco Elysium on my iPad Pro with the touchscreen and the experience is airtight – I didn’t have to tweak anything. The game hasn’t been officially ported to iOS just yet, but it may as well have! My internet connection is modest but gameplay is smooth, and the fact it’s free and can track your existing save data makes it an attractive introduction to the world of game streaming. It’s especially handy if you want to get out of your stuffy room and play the games you own on another screen without losing your progress.

Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium. Credit: ZA/UM

If it’s something you end up using, there’s also a paid priority access plan that extends the length of your sessions from an hour, upgrades your queue priority and enables Ray Tracing. If your internet connection is stronger than your gaming rig, it seems like a solid way to check out the latest most demanding titles without having to upgrade in the middle of a shortage, and you won’t have to buy any new titles.

The game streaming market has quite the storied history already, but even so, it feels like it’s just getting started. As Sony gets serious with PlayStation Now and Xbox gets ready to take xCloud to the mainstream in 2021, the medium is only going to grow in importance. Competition is heating up, and as we hash out who the major players are and what they’re bringing to the table, we’re going to learn how big the proverbial town is, and who can fit inside of it.

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