The hype has risen and fallen for cloud gaming a few times in the past, but it’s never been hotter than right now. Google’s announcement of its Stadia platform is the strongest statement of intent yet from a company with the resources to be a major player, while Microsoft’s xCloud service is set to be revealed soon.
The usual questions over bandwidth requirements and business models remain, of course. Google isn’t telling anyone what or how you’ll pay for games on Stadia. Many people still prefer to buy physical games over digital downloads, too, even if they’re lucky enough for internet speeds or caps not to be an issue. And particularly in the United States, with its huge landmass and distributed population, poor internet connectivity can definitely still be an issue.
But it’s not like this technology is out of reach everywhere. I live in Japan, where fast internet access is ubiquitous, and I’ve played various big-name AAA games that run entirely on the cloud. This has been going on for a while — Square Enix launched a streaming version of Final Fantasy XIII for the iPhone in 2015, for example. And now, game publishers in Japan are beginning to pair cloud gaming tech with what could be its perfect device. The Nintendo Switch isn’t powerful enough to run many recent high-end games on its own hardware, but it is a self-contained portable system with all of the controls you’d expect to find on a full-sized console controller. And, of course, Wi-Fi.
The Switch in Japan should be a best-case scenario for streaming
Capcom was the first to stream a AAA game to the Switch with a version of Resident Evil 7 last May, but that was well over a year after the game originally hit shelves. The biggest release so far is Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which hit the Switch eShop in Japan on the same day as retailers started selling their PS4 and Xbox One copies — giving players a rare chance to experience a AAA game for the first time via streaming technology. (It’s worth noting that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was also the title used for Google’s Project Stream test last year, suggesting that Ubisoft is particularly open to bringing its games to streaming platforms.)
Both Odyssey and Resident Evil 7 run on Taiwanese company Ubitus’ GameCloud streaming technology; Ubitus has been around in Japan for a while, originally launching a cloud version of Dreamcast classic Sonic Adventure for NTT Docomo in 2011. With the popularity of the Switch and the prevalence of high-speed internet in Japan, this should be as close to a best-case scenario for game streaming as yet exists. So, with Stadia and xCloud looming, I decided to play Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for myself and see where the current state of the art is at.
The benefits of cloud gaming for a system like the Switch is obvious. There’s no way the system’s mobile-class hardware could render software like Odyssey with anything close to the fidelity of a PS4, and the 45-50GB game wouldn’t even fit on a Switch game card or its internal storage. Indeed, you could make the case that the GameCloud version of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the best-looking game on the Switch.
My biggest surprise was how responsive the game felt. Assassin’s Creed isn’t exactly Street Fighter III, but its combat system is fast enough that any unpredictable lag would make the game unplayable. And yet that hasn’t been a problem for me. By Japanese standards, my home internet setup isn’t impressive — I have a 100Mbps fiber-optic connection and three Google Wifi access points — but playing Odyssey on the Switch feels about as good as a PS3 game with occasionally uneven frame pacing. Which is to say that while I wouldn’t want to play something like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice this way, I think it’s good enough for a lot of games.
However, Ubitus seems to have prioritized that responsiveness over image quality, even more so than other cloud gaming platforms. Sometimes Odyssey looks great, but in dark scenes, or when you’re moving quickly, or when there’s a lot of foliage — the same moments that would likely pose problems for a video on YouTube, in other words — the quality breaks down. The colors also look oddly flat throughout. And you’ll need to make sure you’re close to your router, because even my mesh network met its match in the Switch’s notoriously weak Wi-Fi performance when I tried to play on the roof.
Poor image quality isn’t unheard of on the Switch, of course. Countless games from Doom to Xenoblade Chronicles 2 dynamically reduce their resolution to maintain performance, sometimes with alarmingly blurry results. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey usually looks better than those cases, particularly when played in handheld mode, because the source visuals are clearly of high quality and the perceptible resolution doesn’t drop as low. But it just feels strange to play at first — it’s like you’re in control of a Twitch stream rather than a game that’s being generated in front of your eyes.
$80 for a 730-day rental
Still, it is undeniably cool to have a portable version of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey that I can play in bed. I wouldn’t buy it over the PC or console versions myself, but for people that only have a Switch, I don’t think it’d be a terrible purchase… except that the pricing is just nuts. The cloud-based version of the game sells for the standard version’s MSRP of 9,072 yen, or about $80, and that doesn’t even mean you own it — that one-off price just gets you 730 days of access.
I really don’t know a Switch owner that would be okay with this price structure for an expensive game that requires a good internet connection and comes with a two-year expiry date. It’s possible that there are Switch-only owners who are specifically very interested in this one game and would rather check it out than buy a PS4, but I feel like most people who are specifically interested in Assassin’s Creed should probably just buy a PS4. The advantage of cloud gaming is that you don’t have to buy expensive hardware; I’m not sure many will be swayed by high prices to rent software.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s cloud version feels like a technical achievement; at times, I even forgot that the game wasn’t running on local hardware. The low latency is impressive, the image quality seems fixable in the short term, and overall I could definitely see myself checking out games over the cloud at least on a trial basis. But there’s no way I could recommend anyone buy a full-price streaming-only game that self-destructs after two years, however good the technology.
Seeing what the collaboration between Nintendo, Ubisoft, and Ubitus has achieved in Japan, it’s hard for me to question the long-term potential of cloud gaming, at least for some titles. I also believe that Google and Microsoft have the technical chops to make their services work for a significant audience. The hard part will be figuring out what price is worth paying.