On my previous post, I wrote about my thoughts on game streaming services as a whole. Since them, Microsoft launched the xCloud, which is their take on game streaming and they also bundled it with Game Pass Ultimate. If you are not familiar with the subscription, it includes 100+ games which you can download and install on your PC or Xbox One (and soon Xbox Series S/X) and play as much as you like, as long as you are subscribed to Game Pass Ultimate. It also includes Xbox Live Gold so you can play online. And recently EA added all of their games in there!
So all in all, with one subscription, you have 100s of games to play which get new games all the time (as a matter of fact, all first party new releases always get added on launch date – and since Microsoft recently bought ZeniMax, the parent company of studios behind Doom, Wolfenstein, Elder Scrolls and many more) expect to see many many more added in the coming months. Some games are also removed from time to time, Netflix style, but you always have stuff to play no matter the screen you have in front of you.
Getting back to streaming, Microsoft has launched their Android client so you can use and Android device, paired with a bluetooth Xbox controller, to play most of the games mentioned above.
I have already played for some hours using both WiFi and 4G connections on my phone and I can attest to the following:
-The streaming is superb. Seriously, the encoding they use seem to be custom tailored for games and I have not seen any serious issues on either type of connection. Even when packets are dropped, because they will, the system seems to compensate in a way that does not impact the gaming session.
-I stand behind what I said about latency and “master race” PC gamers. You will NOT get high resolutions and high frame rates here. So games that do not rely on these, and would run fine at 30fps anyway (e.g. A Plague Tale), are you best bet here. Of course, forget competitive gaming on these systems.
-Convenience is awesome. I have fired quite a few sessions when I was not near a PC or console, and tried many games I never installed on either and I had an awesome time every time. Comparing the experience to either the PC or the Xbox One X it was of course inferior, but given the small screen and the fact that I was streaming it for convenience in a situation where the alternative would be Candy Crush, this is a good trade off.
-It will never replace gaming on a real gaming system. Never, ever. But that is ok, because the target audience is NOT hardcore games. When you DO have a choice, you will, and you should, pick the alternative. The streaming service is a very nice alternative to have though.
So should you get xCloud? Well, that is the best part! It’s included in Xbox Game Pass Ultimate which was an awesome offering even before that! Just keep in mind that if you don’t have a gaming PC or an Xbox One (or better) console it might not be the best gaming experience compared to these. I would highly recommend getting at least a cheap Xbox Series S + Xbox Game Pass as the best way to play the Xbox Game Pass games. Just keep in mind that xCloud is included only in the Ultimate version and not the Console only or PC only versions.
So here are a few random thoughts about tech that allows gamers to play games on a device that is different than the one actually running the game, over the network. This article is about the tech and services that currently exist and my thoughts on viability and their future. What this article is not is streaming services that stream OTHER people playing:)
There are two distinct use cases for game streaming.
The first one is streaming games from a device in your household to another. An example of this is Steamlink which allows you to stream your Steam library from your (normally powerful) gaming PC to another, normally much less powerful device that has an advantage over the gaming PC, in the form of portability (e.g. streaming to your phone over WiFi from your PC being able to play with the same quality – albeit a smaller screen – in another room or in the garden) or location (e.g. streaming to an Apple TV which is connected to a huge ass TV and game there instead of your PC monitor). This service started as a hardware package, the Link hardware, but has lived on mostly on mobile devices.
Obviously this scenario is free, since all of the equipment used, the machines and the network between them, is already in place and you already own licenses for the games you play. This scenario is also the best performing, since latency is normally low (with a wired connection or 5GHz WiFi), network jitter is low and bandwidth is a non issue.
The second scenario is some form of gaming-as-a-service in some form. Depending on the service provider, this might include the whole package (servers and games) being streamed to any of your devices over the internet for a subscription fee (for example Playstation Now). Other service providers may require you to already own a license of the game you want to stream (e.g. Geforce Now) or even buy a license on the service itself (e.g. Google Stadia). Microsoft’s Project xCloud is a hybrid service, since it will provide both a way to stream the games you own on the Xbox from your own Xbox console to another device over the internet for free as well as stream games you don’t own from xCloud’s servers (which are Xbox consoles in server racks) for a subscription fee.
I have tested a few of these services over an excellent internet connection (I have a 10GBps fiber at home) as well as local streaming (over gbit LAN and 5GHz Wifi). As things are right now, I think that the usefulness of these services depend on what the expectation of each users are.
If you are a hard core gamer, who can feel the difference of a few fps and demands a 144Hz monitor because 60Hz is just not fast enough for your superior gaming reflexes, just STAY AWAY from ANY streaming software. No network, no matter how fast, will ever be faster than your PCI Express bus and its connection to your monitor. So, if you are the kind of gamer who will pay 500+ for a GPU that gives them 10fps more than what they had before, this tech is not for you. Companies know that, and you are not their target audience anyway.
BUT, it also depends a LOT on the game and companies know that too. Games that do not depend on lightning reflexes and can tolerate 100s milliseconds of delay without altering their core experience do just fine over the network. Examples include games that you can enjoy in 30fps, like the Assassin’s Creed series (it’s not a coincidence that Google Stadia was showcasing its service using Assassin’s Creed Odyssey). This also include non-real time games, like puzzle and strategy games. If this is your thing, by all means go ahead and enjoy these services.
So what is the target audience of these services? It’s two groups of people: casual or semi-casual gamers, who enjoy games like the ones I mentioned before and non-gamers who never invested in any gaming hardware, or did so a long long time ago and would like to play some of the latest games, without doing it now. A small fee is a small price to pay and I guess that services will be adding new games all the time.
The analogy of game streaming has been seen before at least twice now. The first time was with audiophiles. People who invested in hi fi equipment and were obsessing with vinyl analog sound were not the target audience of the MP3 or even CDs. Both are lossy audio formats which is a big no-no to audiophiles. The seconds was of course video streaming services like Netflix. When the internet became capable enough, Netflix provided LESS quality than 4K blu-rays but this was the price to pay, as in the case of audio, for the thing that people seemed to value more than quality.
And that is convenience.
In both cases, convenience won over quality.
Will this happen to game streaming? Well, it depends. Gaming is a weird thing, since “good enough” which was what audio and video streaming was, may not be enough. Gaming requires a feature that none of the others did, and that is low latency. Gaming is interactive, the input of the player and the feedback they get from the game is a crucial thing when playing a game. In local gaming, this is almost instantaneous, the player presses a button, the gaming equipment registers it, incorporates it into the game logic and shows the results on the screen/VR headset etc. This takes almost no time.
Game streaming adds at least 3 things to the mix. The first is the time it takes for the input to be transmitted to the equipment that actually runs the game. The second is the compression of the game video, the third is the delay of the transmission of this video back to the player. These delays are added on top of the existing ones, like game graphics rendering and game logic calculations that exist in every game.
Latency is one thing, while the streaming of the actual game graphics is the second. Video compression technology has evolved a lot since MPEG but uncompressed video will always be better, as long as video compression is lossy.
So are gamers ready to accept these compromises? Some of them are, some non-gamers definitely are and these people may well enjoy game streaming. But many many gamers are more demanding than that. The “PC Master Race” will never go for it if they have to compromise on their experience.
In any case, it seems like there is an audience for these services since we see them multiplying. Tech also gets better so the compromises may be even less important in the future so stay tuned while we all see how all this plays out.
Every time I decide what the perfect Game Boy is, something happens and I reconsider. The same can be said for many retro systems, because there seems to be an endless stream of hacks, addons and mods for almost anything from the 80s, 90s and 00s nowadays.
Previously (see here), I had considered the GBA SP 101 with a new shell and fixed shoulder buttons to be the perfect Game Boy, since I love the form factor and the screen was lights ahead the GBA SP 001 and of course the original GBA non lit screen. Since then, I modded the original GBA with a very nice backlit screen that improved things dramatically and made it very playable in all lighting conditions, on par with the SP 101.
This display is hands down the best one yet. IPS colors, 5 brighness levels (and it gets REALLY bright on the highest one), 4x the pixels of the GBA resolution, resulting in no distance between pixels, very fluid (no tearing like previous Funnyplay displays), infinite viewing angles and the display is laminated to the glass, so no dust between the glass and the screen ever and the screen seems to pop. Oh, and the price is very competitive compared to backlit aftermarket displays.
I am really struggling to find anything bad about this mod, but if I had to I would say that it may use a bit more battery. And that’s about it.
The display came in a nice orange box that kept everything safe. In there you will find the display itself, a ribbon cable with a small circuit board and a very thin wire. Oh, and a square white foam that you have to put behind the screen.
If you plug the display on the ribbon cable and plug the ribbon cable where the old SP 001 (or SP 101, works there too) display was, it just works. So if you don’t care about the different brightness levels, you are done.
I modded my only SP 001, which looked like this before the mod:
Modding was relatively easy. The hardest parts was trimming the back cover of the display to allow it to fit and soldering the thin cable to enable the brightess button to switch between the 5 brightess levels.
You have to trim only one side as shown below, and don’t forget to put the foam behind the screen before closing.
For the easy soldering part, which you should do after you pass place the display, connect the ribbon cable and pass it through the opening, the thin cable must be soldered on:
a) the solder point on the ribbon cable itself, as shown here:
b) the solder point marked Q12B on the motherboard of the SP, as shown here:
The soldered wire should look like this (with better cable routing):
This is it. Close everything up and you are good to go.
Now all my GBAs have backlit screens. Funnily enough, the original 101 screen is the worst of them now (on the SP on the left), with the aftermarket backlit taking second place (on the GBA on the right) and of course the new Funnyplay IPS taking first place (on the center SP).
Here are some close ups of the 3 screens. See if you can spot the new IPS (hint: it has 4x the number of pixels, so it’s super sharp compared to the others with no visible gaps between the pixels).
So VR is here, and this time it will not be like like the 80s, or so we are told:) Actually, it is kinda true, since the technology was just not there during that time and the results was for VR to die out fairly soon back then. It was not only that the display technology made people wear something like a CRT TV on their faces:
but also the sensor, 3D graphics and algorithm research did not allow us to pass the threshold that actually fools the brain in a convincing way. This time around, all the pieces seem to finally fall into place so using the Oculus Rift or Vive of today actually accomplishes this goal with today’s technology, which means that if upon launch the technology is already here, there is a bright future for the platform.
There is a but there. The technology is one thing, the adoption of the new platform is another completely. At the moment of writing this, you need a fairly expensive gaming rig to meet the minimum requirements for VR gaming on top of the actual headset cost. This means that this is a pretty expensive platform to get into and to make things worse there just aren’t any “must play” games out there that would justify the high cost of admission. Most of the software is actually bite-sized “experiences” and the deeper games could actually be played on a normal monitor like always.
Like any new platform, there is the circular problem of user base and software availability. Game devs will make games, if there are customers to play them and the customers will get on board if there are games to play. This is why at the point there is a high-risk gold rush happening, with developers that believe in the medium to want to be there when mass adoption finally occurs. Another path some studios are taking is creating special versions, or simple updates to existing games to support VR. This works well on only a few titles, and namely titles that assume players are sitting on the same spot in the virtual world anyway (such as driving, space or flying simulators) since VR game design differs significantly from other platforms when it comes to handling motion. Best practices of VR game design dictates that the user must not move much and have full control of the camera view using head tracking in order to avoid nausea and dizziness due to view-movement differences. It is still work-in-progress and some games are trying alternative approaches to movement, such as teleporting to new fixed spots or fast-dashing to fixed spots (like Doom seems to be doing) with more or less success.
Like I said, it’s still uncharted territory and very interesting from an experimenting point but since things settle down, risky from a market point.
I personally believe that products that will make VR mainstream in the end will not be the Rift or Vive but rather Playstation VR or Project Scorpio VR. The reason is not technical, I am pretty sure that PS VR and … errr… PS VR (damn, Project Scorpio is also PS), will have lower specs than a good gaming rig (they always do) but they will also provide an affordable entry barrier for a larger amount of people to actually experience VR games. And this is important, since it will break the circle I described before and make more game devs make decent VR games. Of course, if the VR hype does not die down (and the consoles VR will help there) VR on the PC will also become affordable in time (a GTX 970 for example, which is now the minimum spec for both the Vive and the Rift, has already become VERY affordable due to the introduction of the 1060, 1070 and 1080 from Nvidia) which will eventually make VR gaming on the PC a no-brainer.
So in conclusion, I personally believe there is a future in VR gaming, but it will take a few more years. The wow factor is definitely there, I’ve never seen anyone try a VR headset and not come out impressed by the experience, but the market is very limited. I chose here to to focus on VR gaming and not VR applications which is a whole other discussion altogether. So if you feel lucky, go on and make your VR game, there are lots of incentives from stakeholders to do so and some investors are actually actively betting on the success of VR. But if you want to play it safe, just wait a bit longer so that you actually have an audience for your game.