Game streaming services have existed for years, but none of them have been perfect. We might be reaching the point where streaming is as good as local gaming with big companies like Microsoft and Google gearing up to launch cloud gaming products. Still, streaming a game from a distant data center could cause unavoidable lag. Microsoft’s xCloud demo at E3 has eased some fears, but Google has yet to prove itself in early demos.
Rendering games in a data center is the easy part. With custom servers and powerful compression, a cloud service can beam you 4K video of the game that looks as good as what you’d get locally. The trick is balancing quality and speed so the game feels responsive. If there’s too much input lag, your performance will suffer even if the image is crystal clear.
At E3, Microsoft had a demo of its xCloud game streaming service. It gave attendees the chance to play games like Gears of War 4 and Halo 5: Guardians on a phone, but of course, the games weren’t running on the phone. They were running on a server about 400 miles away. According to testing by Ars Technica, xCloud exhibits only 67ms of input lag. They tested that by using 240 fps video to measure the amount of time between pressing the A button and seeing the result on the phone’s screen (16 frames later). That’s a refreshing change after the highly questionable demo in March.
If you were playing a game locally on the Xbox One, input lag is only a little shorter at around 60ms. In either case, that’s very good latency. In a similar demo of Google’s Stadia streaming platform in March, testers noted 166ms of latency in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. That’s compared with about 100ms in the same game on a gaming PC.
These tests are not a direct comparison. They were completed under different conditions and with different games. Neither of the services are ready for public use, either. However, it does show that Microsoft is currently capable of streaming a game at lower latency than Google, and it’s effectively the same as playing locally. What we don’t know is how either of these services will scale once people start using them. You’re not going to convince people to buy games on your cloud streaming platform if it only works most of the time.
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