I have seen the future of gaming on my dying MacBook Air. Even though it’s six years old, most of its vents are clogged with gunk-dust, and it’s a grizzled survivor of the Great Tea Spill of 2017, it can now run most PC games with the specs maxed out and somehow not burst into flames. This is all thanks to a new-ish cloud streaming service that will most likely change gaming as we know it.
Cloud streaming is a form of remote computing, one that allows you to broadcast a game from very powerful computer to your own. Your keyboard/mouse inputs control everything on the distant screen. On your own system, you only need enough power to handle video playback, and a fast internet connection. Overall, think of it as outsourcing your computer power.
Specifically, the cloud service I’ve been using is Nvidia’s GeForce Now. It’s currently in beta, and free if you manage to snag an invite, plus the cost of whatever games you buy and access through your Steam account. Based on one guerilla test of its technical capabilities conducted by a valiant Redditor, it seems to be able to beam the power of a high-end gaming PC directly onto my MacBook.
It’s one of several similar services being developed by a number of corporations that are tossing unsettling amounts of money and resources at the idea, fighting for potential future dominance. If you sort of casually follow gaming news, you’ve probably already heard of Google’s offering, called Stadia (currently with a Nov 2019 release date), or Microsoft’s xCloud (coming sometime in 2020). Plus many others with names that sound made-up, like Cloudzen’s GameCloud, Rainway, and something called LOUDPLAY (AHHH!!!!).
So far, I’ve used GeForce Now to stream Apex Legends, Fortnite, Mordhau, Rust, CS:GO, Hitman 2, and The Forest. They all perform surprisingly well. Mostly, it feels weird to be playing anything on an old shitty laptop. Games typically require pretty intense hardware to run smoothly. And yet my MacBook, which usually starts melting down if I have too many browser tabs open simultaneously, never flinches. In fact, it’s eerily quiet.
Still, there are a few issues. Probably the most nagging involves playing games on the tiny, limited MacBook Air keyboard. The F1-F12 keys, for example, are already assigned to standard Mac OS functions, like increasing screen brightness and raising/lowering volume. Most PC games use these keys for other purposes (like, say, selecting building pieces in Fortnite). Every time you load up a new game, you have to change all the bindings. Ignore it at your own peril. Since my “volume up” key (F12) triggered an in-game screenshot function, I accidentally took hundreds of megabytes of useless images.
Oh, and there’s lag. This was mostly my fault — I was playing on the far reaches of my WiFi router’s range — but it still wasn’t as bad as one would expect. Nvidia requires a connection of at least 15Mbps, and recommends using a wired ethernet connection or a 5GHz connection. When I played closer to my router, things would usually run way better. I didn’t get a chance to test the wired connection, but I imagine it’d probably solve the problem.
The lag has an interesting aesthetic character. Unlike typical game lag, with the stuttering that looks like a flipbook with random pages glued together, this lag resembles a Netflix stream when your internet connection is shoddy — the image quality will randomly drop and become pixelated, distorted by compression artifacts, the audio scrobbled. It’s kind of trippy.
As it is now, with all of the various glitches, cloud services seem to be best for people who want convenience, or for people with Apple computers / laptops who don’t feel like buying a whole new rig, or casual gamers who don’t want to invest a ton of money and time into a half-assed hobby.
Still, this kind of thing could be a democratizing force for PC gaming, which is typically limited to enthusiasts with ~$1,000 to burn on a dedicated desktop machine. It’s possible that this means console dominance might also gradually decline over the years, or at the very least change significantly from the current Giant Box Every Five Years model. The fact that Google Stadia comes with a controller seems to suggest that we’ve got some kind of odd PC/console hybridity to look forward to (or to complain about on Reddit).
Perhaps the most unsettling issue is, if the majority of gamers switch over to cloud streaming full time, there would likely be some deleterious environmental effects. A recent study suggests that music streaming has a pretty high carbon footprint, as it turns out that operating giant data centers burns a tremendous amount of energy. Game streaming could be just as bad, if not worse.
The experience has unexpectedly served as a gateway (pun regretted) drug for PC gaming.
There’s also a limited number of compatible games on each platform (for GeForce Now, the full list is here), and there are occasionally some glaring absences. It took months for Apex Legends to arrive, for example, because EA has its own streaming service. As various companies begin competing for dominance, platform-exclusive games will likely become more common.
Despite the high specs, there will also probably be an upper limit on the quality of streaming content. Blame bandwidth constraints and video compression. Whether or not that’s a big deal, well, just look at how angry that superdark Game of Thrones episode made everyone.
If streaming is indeed the future of video games, it might create some interesting reverberations across the tech world. Like, if all a computer needs to play games at max res is a decent screen and a good internet connection, then the form of our devices won’t be as physically limited by hardware constraints. Most obviously, and boringly, this probably means more powerful devices in increasingly thinner packages.
But less boringly, it means a laptop or a phone could potentially be shaped like anything. Not just excessively skinny, but bendy or even blobby. If this sounds ridiculous, consider that the market for boring phones has slowed down and manufacturers are already looking for new gimmicks, such as foldable phones. Does this mean that our hardware manufacturers might start experimenting with form again, like cell phones in the 2000s? Hopefully! Give us spring-loaded earpieces, lipstick shaped bodies, and whatever this is. In terms of gaming, who knows, it might mean devs could more easily experiment with bizzaro controls (like cranks!).
This is all absurd, caffeine-induced hypothesizing, of course. Mostly, I’m just stoked to be playing games on my decrepit MacBook Air. The experience has unexpectedly served as a gateway (pun regretted) drug for PC gaming. At some uncertain point in the future, I’m going to build my own custom machine, whenever my laptop is finally overwhelmed by gunk-dust and bursts into flames, leaving behind a toxic pile of ashes.