Cloud gaming hasn't gotten off to the most auspicious start, but that's entirely understandable. It's been less than three years since the launch of Google Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming, and less than once since the latter joined Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Compared to the time (over a decade) audio and video streaming have had to mature, cloud-based gaming services are still mewling newborns.
Despite that, they're expected to not only handle the same level of downstream traffic as an HD-quality video, but they're expected to do so while also transmitting the player's all-important controller inputs back upstream -- with enough immediacy that they can't tell those commands are being processed by a server across the globe, rather than a console across their living room.
Early cloud gaming efforts have, when taking all of these obstacles into account, done pretty well for being so young. That relative success hasn't always translated into raw subscriber figures, however. Google's Stadia, for example, remains somewhat of a niche service. Meanwhile, NVIDIA's GeForce Now cloud gaming subscription managed to wrack up 14 million subscribers, at last count.
Then there's Microsoft. One of the juggernauts of the console gaming space long before cloud-based anything, Microsoft owns what is arguably the most successful gaming-as-a-service product on the market: Xbox Game Pass.
Game Pass does offer $9.99 per month tiers that provide local gaming via either PC or Xbox consoles. The most important tier when looking to the future, however, is its $14.99 per month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription. This is where subscribers gain access to Xbox Cloud Gaming, which is Microsoft's attempt to let you play AAA-quality titles on an increasingly broad range of devices.
To date, that list of supported devices has included Xbox consoles; PCs (Windows via app or web browser and Mac via web browser); Android phones and tablets; and Apple iPhones and iPads (via web app). Now, a new and extremely important category of product is being added to that list thanks to Samsung: televisions.
People will, generally speaking, take the easiest route to their goal. When that goal is playing video games, the easiest route can still be pretty complicated and quite expensive. To date, playing most cloud-based games on your living room television would have required hooking up an external device, like an NVIDIA Shield or PC, to your TV via HDMI. Either of these would obviously add hundreds of dollars to the cost of entry and would require the technical know-how to complete said hookups.
The just-announced deal between Microsoft and Samsung promises to take the bar for entry and slam it to the ground by reducing the needed devices to nothing more than the television itself and a controller. You don't even need an official, Xbox controller, though you can use one. A slew of inexpensive, third-party Bluetooth controllers will work just as well with the new Samsung Gaming Hub, where the first-ever TV-based installation of Microsoft's Xbox Cloud Gaming will live.
As a partner for Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass and Cloud Gaming ambitions, Samsung seems, at least on paper, to be about the best they could have chosen. The company currently dominates the global TV market, accounting for 19.8% of all TVs sold in 2021, according to Statista. The closest competitor is LG in a distant second place with 12.8%, by volume.
Combine this level of TV sales with the 25 million Xbox Game Pass subscribers (not all of which are on the Ultimate tier, to be clear), and you have a convergence that promises to put a dirt-cheap entry point to cloud-based gaming in front of millions more users over the course of the next year.
It certainly has the potential to, but many obstacles that have plagued cloud-based gaming ambitions from the start still remain. The new partnership between Microsoft and Samsung offers solutions to some of these problems, while others are a bit murkier. Let's look at a few of the most pressing matters:
This is one of the biggest benefits of cloud gaming as a whole. Back when streaming music was in its ascendancy, many providers attempted to capture new subs by pointing out that you'd be spending more on music if you bought just one album per month than if you subscribed to their services, which gave you access to millions of albums. The logic holds true here as well, with games swapped in for albums. However, the initial cost of entry for game streaming hardware has continued to be a harder pill to swallow for some.
This new partnership drops that cost to a bare minimum. Obviously, to game on a TV, you'll need a TV. If you choose any of the compatible Samsung smart TVs or monitors from its 2022 lineup, all you'll need aside from it is a controller. Microsoft's official options can be had for as little as $40-$60, with alternatives from well-respected third-party brands like 8BitDo going for even less. For that matter, you can even use a (believe it or not) Playstation 4/5 controller you've got lying around, essentially dropping the extraneous hardware cost to $0.
Cloud gaming's other biggest benefit is how easy it is to use. Ideally, you should be able to game from anywhere, on a variety of devices, with little to no setup required. Unfortunately, the reality has frequently failed to match those ideals in these early days, especially for those hoping to game on a TV. The aforementioned need for a connected PC or other game streaming devices has undoubtedly turned many less technically-savvy gamers away. And the need to wrangle web apps and browser-based deployments on platforms that don't willingly provide first-party support (I'm looking at you, Apple) can often be a trial.
Samsung's willing participation in this partnership means users will only have to sign in to the Xbox Game Pass portion of the Samsung Gaming Hub to get started. No workarounds needed, and no external connections required.
This partnership promises, at least in theory, to provide one of the quickest, easiest, and cheapest ways to flop down on the couch and get your game on. The big question is: How close will the experience be to gaming on a physical Xbox?
Early cloud-based gaming efforts have been all over the map in terms of performance. Some of been so laggy they're completely unplayable, while others have been almost indiscernible from a locally-installed game. The reasons for these wild swings in performance vary greatly and depend on a slew of variables: the processing power of the end user's hardware; the resolution of the target display; the speed and latency of the user's broadband connection; whether they're on Ethernet or Wi-Fi; the genre of gaming being played -- all of these factors and more can have a huge impact on the gameplay experience.
We won't know for sure how well Microsoft and Samsung will be able to account for all of these until we get our hands on the Xbox Cloud Gaming service running on a 2022 Samsung TV on June 30. However, the pair do have about the best chance possible to get it right. As mentioned above, Samsung is a willing, cooperative partner in this endeavor. This means Microsoft should have no trouble locally installing any required software or apps, working collaboratively with the hardware maker in question (Samsung) to smooth out lag and latency issues, while providing frequent updates to improve individual game and overall performance.
But, even with all involved parties being fully on board, can modern broadband networks and cloud-based gaming technologies truly create an experience close enough to "the real thing" to finally push cloud-based gaming to mainstream status? If you can prove the answer to that, Microsoft, Samsung, and just about every other company in gaming would very likely want to have a conversation with you.
In order for this duo to be at the forefront of the first wave of legitimately widespread cloud gaming adoption, they need to successfully court two very important, but very different groups: casual gamers and competitive gamers.
In many ways, this will likely be the easier of the two groups to capture. Years ago, casual gamers were often dismissed by game developers and hardware makers. They were undeservedly seen as being irrelevant to the industry, having their tastes for mobile games and simpler titles dismissed by the AAA studios, who were targeting only the most hardcore gamers via PC and console.
Then, something funny happened. The industry realized not only are there far more casual gamers out there than there are competitive gamers, but these casuals have just as much money to spend as their more serious counterparts.
Mobile gaming is a perfect example of this. It was once seen as a throwaway portion of the gaming market, more for kids that couldn't afford a "real" console or PC. Now, it has surpassed the PC and console gaming market to dominate the global market with $93.2 billion in revenue in 2021, according to gaming industry analyst Newzoo.
How did this shift occur? Well, the mobile games powering these sales have a low cost of entry; are available on a piece of hardware most of us already own (smartphones); and require little to no technical expertise to get up and running. Seeing any parallels?
If Samsung and Microsoft manage to make playing console-quality games just as easy and inexpensive as mobile gaming, there's no reason they can't reap just as many benefits as their smartphone-based counterparts.
Additionally, casual gamers also tend to be more accepting of the idiosyncrasies that more competitive customers might not accept. That bit of lag that ruined your competitive Halo Infinite match? Not likely to do much to hamper the chill RPG session your friend was enjoying. Your top-tier Forza Horizon 5 race performance is suffering from controller latency? The social Among Us player next to you will probably just shrug and wonder what's the big deal.
To be clear, Microsoft, Samsung, and anyone else that wants to succeed in the cloud-based gaming space should, of course, attempt to eliminate the lag, latency, and any other technical hiccups that might ruin the gaming experience for more serious gamers. While they might be a rarer breed than their casual counterparts in sheer numbers, competitive gamers are often the most loyal, outspoken, and influential members of the community. You're not likely to see a top-performing, competitive Fortnite streamer being too accepting of lag spikes, for example.
Casual gamers can, however, provide a stop-gap source of revenue to keep cloud-based gaming alive and well while the kinks continue to be worked out. But they should never be seen as the end goal for the industry. Just like online video streaming eventually evolved from the 240p, incessantly-buffering mess it once was to the 4K, HDR-enabled tech today, so too will cloud-based gaming inevitably evolve from its current teething period to a technology that might eventually replace physical PCs and consoles in the same way Netflix has replaced your DVD collection.
So many of the technologies we now rely on have had "that" moment, the one we look back on years later, as the singular turning point when a product went from being niche to being essential. Apple unveiling the first iPhone, Netflix winning its first Oscar, Facebook introducing the original Oculus Quest -- these are all moments when a new or still-unproven technology finally proved to its naysayers that it was time to sit down and pay attention.
Of course, I can't say for sure whether the union of Microsoft and Samsung will serve as "that" moment for cloud-based gaming. I will say that it has the best chance yet of any single moment in cloud gaming history. Microsoft's clout in the gaming space combined with Samsung's broad reach in the home entertainment market provides all the right ingredients to create the never-before-seen special sauce that convinces enough of the market that cloud-based games are here, and they're ready to play.
June 30 isn't too far off. If Microsoft and Samsung leverage the moment just the right way, it could start what will be one hell of a ride for cloud gaming enthusiasts. If they don't, I'm sure Sony will be all too happy to take a crack at it after them.