It’s not often you find something that people do just for fun to be tremendously impactful from both a revenue and technology perspective, but that’s exactly the case for the many options that people are going to have for playing games over the internet.
In fact, cloud-based gaming is expected to be one of the most important trends of the new decade. Not only does it offer the potential to drive large amounts of income for many different companies, the technical demands required are going to have a big impact across a number of different areas. Everything from cloud-based computing services, to 5G and other wireless network infrastructure, to individual device components and architectures are now being optimized to enable high-quality, cloud-based gaming services.
It’s not hard to see why. Gaming has become a huge global phenomenon, and interest in gaming across multiple devices has grown tremendously—a point that my 2019 study on Multi-Device Gaming made abundantly clear (see “PCs and Smartphones Duke it Out for Gaming Champion” for more). As a result, companies are eager to create solutions that can tap into the enormous interest in gaming in a way that gives consumers more flexibility (and better performance) than they’ve had before.
Not surprisingly, graphics chip leader Nvidia has been involved with several of these efforts, but none as directly as its own GeForce Now game streaming service, which just became generally available across the US and several other nations around the world starting today. The basic idea with GeForce Now—which has been in a private beta period for several years—is that it enables people to play high-quality, graphically intensive PC games across a range of different devices including PCs, Macs, Android Phones, Nvidia’s own Shield device, and certain smart TVs via an internet connection. (Support for Chrome-based devices is expected later this year.) Importantly, the games are running on cloud-based servers in Nvidia’s (or a few regional partners’) own dedicated data centers and are powered by the company’s high-end GeForce GPUs. As a result, the quality of the gaming experience is nearly what you’d expect it to be on one of today’s best dedicated gaming PCs. However, you can achieve that quality consistently on any of the different device types—even on older devices without any dedicated graphics acceleration hardware. Plus, you have the ability to start a game on one device and then pick up where you left off on another one, a capability that my previously mentioned research suggests is eagerly prized by many gamers.
Technologically, Nvidia is leveraging its ability to virtualize GPUs in its data centers and is using a variety of compression techniques and screen-sharing protocols to deliver remote access to its super-powered cloud-based computers. One nice improvement that the company is bringing to the GeForce Now service with its public launch is the ability to support its RTX real-time ray tracing technology (in games that use it). Until now, that capability has only been found in their highest end graphics cards, like the RTX2080, so this should bring it to a much wider audience.
Nvidia is taking an interesting, and different, approach to the games available on the GeForce Now platform than some of the other cloud-based game services that have been announced. Because it’s actually running PC games on PC hardware, it allows customers of the service to play their existing library of PC games—they simply have to provide proof of ownership of the title and they can access it via their GeForce account. In addition, there are hundreds of free-to-play games, and consumers can use their existing PC game store accounts. Also, because it’s all being stored and run in the cloud, game patches and driver updates (two common banes of PC gamers’ existence) are taken care of automatically, without any interventions on the user’s part. In other words, Nvidia is trying to make the process of using the service as seamless as possible for both casual and hardcore PC gamers.
From a pricing perspective, the company is providing two options with its public launch. You can have an unlimited number of up to 1 hour gaming sessions for free, or you can sign-up for the $4.99/month Founders account (the first three months are free), which gives you priority access to the service, lets you have up to 6-hour sessions, and turns on the RTX ray-tracing support.
In some ways, you could argue that GeForce Now is a bit of a risky business proposition for Nvidia, because, if enough consumers find the service to be sufficient for their needs, they could end up buying less dedicated gaming hardware. Plus, given the high cost of building out and maintaining the data centers necessary to run GeForce Now, especially in comparison to its very low pricing, it seems like profitability could be a challenge—at least initially. Ultimately, though, Nvidia seems confident that GeForce Now won’t replace dedicated gaming PCs for hard-core gamers and could even entice more casual gamers to better appreciate what high-quality PC gaming experiences can enable, which may in turn get them to purchase their own dedicated PC gaming rigs as well. If that proves to be the case, it could end up being a nice bit of incremental revenue as well as a technological showcase for what the best of PC gaming can offer.