Google Stadia might be gone, but 5G secures cloud gaming’s future

It’s the time of year when a lot of new computer hardware is released, including processors, graphics cards, and even new laptops and PCs.

This new generation of gaming hardware is more potent than we could have anticipated before we got our hands on it all and evaluated it, as we just discovered with our Nvidia GeForce RTX 4090 and Intel Core i9-13900K evaluations. The greatest graphics cards are becoming increasingly out of reach for the typical consumer in even the wealthiest western countries, let alone gamers in the global south – assuming they aren’t just completely neglected by big product launches.

This is largely to blame for the disappointment felt in relation to Google Stadia’s termination. Despite all of its flaws, it did allow gamers who couldn’t afford the top gaming PCs to play games like Cyberpunk 2077 and enjoy them alongside the select few who were able to get one of the best inexpensive graphics cards during the past several years.

One might infer from Stadia’s shutdown that cloud gaming as a whole had failed, but I believe that would be a grave error. The success of cloud gaming was always going to depend on how fast a user’s internet connection was, and despite a disappointing delay, the global implementation of 5G networks will finally position cloud gaming services for success.

Cloud gaming is primed to be 5G’s ‘killer app’ 

Every generation of cellular telecommunications networks had a single app or service that came to define it—the dubbed “killer app”—that came to define it. Wireless phone communications were made widely available by first-generation mobile technology, while SMS texting was introduced to us by second-generation networks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. On mobile devices, 3G networks fueled the social networking revolution, and 4G LTE networks fueled the growth of streaming services like Spotify and Netflix.

Although it’s unclear what the 5G “killer app” will be, David Cook is 100% behind cloud gaming. Cook is the CEO of Radian Arc(opens in new tab), a company that provides the infrastructure for cloud gaming and is collaborating with AMD to build the groundwork for cloud gaming to become a widespread reality.

Cook told me earlier this year that “we would sit in these meetings with the telecom providers, and they had all made tremendous investments in 5G. And there were some very exciting applications that they would talk about, like drones and self-driving cars. Although I think it’s an important use case, I would usually smile and say, “Yeah, I don’t see many of those out the window, but what we do know is that everyone is playing games.”

Even the greatest home internet services with wired fibre optic connections struggled to provide the kind of gaming experience that gamers were looking for when cloud gaming services like PlayStation Now, Google Stadia, and Nvidia GeForce Now originally launched many years ago. The slow acceptance of cloud gaming can be directly attributed to network bottlenecks, which frequently cause games to lag or graphics quality to unexpectedly decline. But with 5G, there is a lot more potential to use the considerably less crowded 5G frequencies and offer a smoother gaming experience without compromising quality.

Improving AAA gaming access globally 

There are literally billions of gamers worldwide, and the market will continue to expand in the next years. However, not every player has the same chance to experience the top PC games in the same way that many of us do. Most gamers, if not all, don’t even own a PC or console, so they must rely on their phones or special gaming cafes where they can play new AAA games on better gear than they could afford at home.

The economics of video games themselves reflect this. Whether you’re talking about the number of players or the amount of money these games generate, mobile gaming is by far and away the largest part of the worldwide video game market. However, players all around the world are choosing Candy Crush over Elden Ring because availability is more important to them than the richer gameplay experience that a contemporary PC or console game can offer.

“The use case is more mobile in regions like Latin America, Southeast Asia, India, and Africa, but gamers would still prefer to have access to better visuals and games on their mobile devices,” Cook added. The same is true for game publishers, who would adore having more innovation and functionality in their games and being able to distribute them across a wider range of mobile devices.

Laying the groundwork for the cloud gaming revolution to come 

The nearst server they could access while one of our partners in Central Africa was on the phone recently was in South Africa.

The key is to offload the actual labor-intensive work of rendering a game to somewhere else and simply output the video to a network connection rather than an HDMI or DisplayPort cable, even though the physical interface a gamer might use to play could be anything from a smartphone to a Chromebook or even an older gaming PC.

We have been transmitting the visual output of a server to a client device for a very long time, but gaming has been constrained by the real-time, low input latency necessary to play a contemporary video game. You only need to look at the remote surgeries carried out in recent years utilising 5G networks to know that 5G networks are the first telecom infrastructure that can give that level of responsiveness and network stability.

Currently, the only thing needed to run the game you’re playing remotely are physical servers, but that won’t be a problem for long. To prepare for the expansion of cloud gaming services, businesses like Radian Arc have already moved GPU servers into telecom network centres.

“What we observe is that market needs in regions like Southeast Asia are very different from those in North America, Australia, or western Europe. The closest server, even for conventional mobile gaming, was in South Africa when one of our colleagues in Central Africa recently called, according to Cook. Therefore, by integrating our GPU servers into some of these smaller telcos, we immediately expand the capabilities available to both customers and publishers.

Getting gamers to the cloud 

Convincing players to switch to cloud gaming is a real problem in light of Google Stadia’s failure and the relatively slow uptake of cloud gaming services in recent years. Many will be coming in with preconceived notions and preferring tangible hardware they can hold, while others may have tried it in the past and been unimpressed.

Cook, though, thinks that the telecom companies themselves are a secret weapon in the arsenal of cloud gaming.

In order for everyone to benefit from low latency, scale, cost benefits, etc., Cook said, “when we walk into a telecom, we walk in and say we want to put the POP (point of presence) inside your network. But we also sit down with them and actually come up with a marketing plan to say, here’s how you market these games to this user base – kind of team up with them on that. A controller is included in that marketing strategy, and this controller might take many different forms. As a result, you’ll see an Android set-top box for the living room in many of those markets. By running an application on this set-top box, we can simulate the experience of a game console.

Selling these kinds of bundles—hardware plus a data plan, or hardware, plus a data plan, plus a gaming package, which is a really special value proposition—is something that telcos are really strong at, according to Cook.

This localised, dispersed telecom network strategy may prove to be useful for cloud gaming. The loss of Google Stadia, the only cloud gaming provider, dealt a severe blow to the sector. Cloud gaming will always be constrained by the level of dedication that a select few firms have to the project if Google or Nvidia are the only service providers.

While using the telcos that the majority of people now use may not give you access to the same kind of expansive catalogue that Google might, you do wind up with more cloud gaming providers overall, which could hasten uptake.

Therefore, if you have a GPU inside a telecom network, you may really benefit from scalability. Twelve games can be played on each of the new AMD GPUs. They consume around 30% less power per user, which is incredibly energy efficient. Given all of those factors, cloud gaming ought to be the 5G rollout’s potential game-changer.

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