The Cloud Wars.
The Cloud Wars. Sounds like the subtitle for the new Angry Birds movie, or a really bad spin-off from Star Wars. Fortunately that is not the case. I am talking about the battle between the cloud gaming providers that is now really breaking open.
So far, cloud gaming has been bleating a lot, but little wool. Google had sky-high ambitions with Stadia, but little has come of it to date. The basics are there (and it must be said: it works quite well), but that’s it. However, Google’s promise to bring gaming to everyone through Stadia has failed to materialize. For example, there would be a seamless integration between YouTube livestreaming and Stadia. Not only can users easily stream gameplay to YouTube (without having a decent PC), but streamers could also involve their audience in gaming sessions. That’s just one of the many promised features that are missing, and lately it looks like the team behind Stadia has fallen into an early hibernation.
And suddenly it got busy
Google was able to take their time because of the lack of competition, but that cannot be said now. Microsoft’s Project xCloud is now in open beta for everyone with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, although for the time being you can only use it on an Android smartphone. However, you can be sure that Microsoft is working hard on the way to make xCloud playable on Windows and macOS (there is already an internal test at Microsoft for the Windows application), but also via the browser. The big advantage of Microsoft is clear: you don’t have to pay extra to get started with xCloud. Your Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is sufficient and you get instant access to hundreds of games. Especially now that Microsoft is working with EA and has bought Bethesda, the service is only getting more interesting.
And as if that wasn’t enough pressure for Google, cloud giant Amazon is now also coming up with its own cloud gaming service: Luna. The game is practically an exact copy of Stadia. Just like with Google’s cloud gaming service, you use a special controller that is not connected to your computer, but directly to the internet. This way you lower the input delay. Luna will be available on PC, Mac, Fire TV and web apps for iPhone and iPad. So Amazon is the first to take a proper detour to Apple’s sabotage against such streaming services. Stadia does have an iOS app, but you cannot stream games to your iPhone.
At the moment these are only promising words from Amazon, but we do not yet know how the service works in practice. Americans can currently apply for early access, but it is not yet clear how far Amazon is exactly with their project.
Twitch vs YouTube
Google has a hard time pulling gamers away from Twitch and into YouTube, no matter how hard they try (such as offering stars an exclusive contract). It is certainly not an easy task. Microsoft previously tried to compete with Twitch, but the competition turned out to be too strong. Stadia was supposed to be an extra motivation to bring gamers to YouTube gaming, but now that Amazon is immediately providing Twitch integration for Luna, the YouTube integration is an after-meal mustard.
Interesting business model
Where Luna does differ greatly from Stadia is in the pricing. In principle, anyone can get started with Stadia for free, but you have to purchase the games you want to play separately. This is only possible in 1080p, if you want to enjoy 4K images and surround sound, you have to buy Stadia Pro for 9.99 euros per month. You also get access to a selection of Stadia Pro games.
At Luna you cannot buy games separately, but you pay for ‘channels’. The default channel is Luna Plus, which subscription gives you access to a selection of games including Control, Resident Evil 7, The Surge 2 and more. There will also be specific channels for publishers. For example, a Ubisoft channel is already planned where you can access all of Ubisoft’s games, even on the day they release. So it is similar to Uplay +, but it runs on Amazon’s servers and not your local computer. The advantage is clear that you should not build a catalog on a service that is really just an experiment. You can purchase dozens of games on Stadia, but how long will that service last?
However, Amazon’s pricing also has a downside. Say you only play one Ubisoft game regularly, and that’s for example The Division 2. Let’s say a subscription to the Ubisoft channel costs 7 euros per month (the actual price is not yet known). If you play the game for a year, you will have paid a lot more for the game after a year than if you simply bought it separately on Stadia. However, for gamers who like to try out a lot of games (like Xbox Game Pass), it will be a very attractive model.
Is there still room for Luna?
Time to answer the key question: is there still room for Luna? Yes! In fact, we were waiting for it. Cloud gaming is a hugely interesting technology, but the giants are still resting too much on their laurels. There are now three main services (Stadia, xCloud and Luna) and they all approach it differently in terms of pricing. So it will be especially interesting to see for which pricing is the most successful.
Obviously, it is all hands on deck for Google and Microsoft if they want to take any advantage of their pioneering position. Google should be very soon with news about Stadia (and for example the promised YouTube integration) and for Microsoft it will be important to roll out a desktop version and ideally a browser version as soon as possible.
Who wins the cloud wars?
Bonus question: who wins the cloud wars? My money is on Microsoft. When they can switch quickly enough with xCloud and offer a desktop application (and web version), that simply offers the most interesting model for gamers. Even more: it is an additional reason to step into the Xbox ecosystem and purchase an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription. And if there is one thing that Microsoft really wants, it is that you take out a Game Pass subscription. I can’t wait until you can simply download an application on your smart TV, connect an Xbox controller to your television and immediately play all Microsoft games.
Also for developers, xCloud is the most interesting, as they don’t have to port their games to a platform that has yet to prove successful. Now that is also something that Amazon is tackling well, because Luna runs on Windows systems behind it. That means developers can get their game on Amazon’s service with a minimum of effort.
All eyes may now be on Stadia as the direct competitor, but I think xCloud’s increased availability will be just the thing that takes the cloud gaming world to the next level. And PlayStation? It is clear that they have no vision (yet) with PlayStation Now.
Who do you think is winning the cloud war: Google, Microsoft or Amazon?
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