It’s the season of major computer hardware releases, with everything from new laptops and PCs to new graphics cards and processors.
And as we saw with our recent Nvidia GeForce RTX 4090 and Intel Core i9-13900K reviews, this new crop of gaming hardware is more powerful than we could have imagined before we got our hands on it all and tested it. But there is one thing that is also undeniable: the best graphics cards are increasingly more expensive than the average consumer in even the wealthiest western nations can afford, much less gamers in the global south – assuming they aren’t simply ignored by major product launches entirely.
In many ways, this is at the heart of the disappointment around the end of Google Stadia. For all its faults, it did allow gamers who were priced out of the best gaming PCs to play games like Cyberpunk 2077, and experience these games along with the fortunate few who managed to grab one of the even the best cheap graphics cards during the past couple of years.
With the shutdown of Stadia, one might draw the conclusion that cloud gaming itself had failed, but I think that would be a serious mistake. Cloud gaming’s success was always going to be tied to the speed of a user’s internet connection, and despite a frustrating delay, the rollout of 5G networks around the world will finally put cloud gaming services in the position to succeed.
Cloud gaming is primed to be 5G’s ‘killer app’
Every cellular telecommunication network generation had a single app or service that came to define it, the so-called “killer app.” First-generation mobile technology brought wireless voice communications to the masses, while the second-generation networks of the late 1990s and early 2000s gave us SMS texting. 3G networks powered the social media revolution on smartphone devices, and 4G LTE networks empowered streaming media like Spotify and Netflix.
What 5G’s killer app will be remains to be seen, but David Cook is all-in on cloud gaming. Cook is the CEO of Radian Arc, a cloud gaming infrastructure firm that’s partnering with AMD to lay the foundation for making cloud gaming a practical reality worldwide.
“We would sit in these meetings with the telecom operators, and they had all made huge investments in 5G,” Cook told me earlier this year, “And there were some very interesting applications that they would talk about, such as drones and self-driving cars. I would always smile and say, ‘yeah, I don’t see many of those out the window though I do believe it’s an important use case, but what we do know is that everyone is playing games’.”
When cloud gaming services like PlayStation Now, Google Stadia, and Nvidia GeForce Now first launched several years ago, even the best home internet services with wired fiber optic connections struggled to deliver the kind of experience that gamers were hoping for. Network bottlenecks would often cause games to lag or graphics quality to suddenly plummet, which has really caused cloud gaming adoption to stall. With 5G though, there is a much greater opportunity to take advantage of the significantly less congested 5G frequencies and provide a smoother gaming experience without sacrificing quality.
Improving AAA gaming access globally
There are literally billions of gamers around the world, and the market is only going to grow in the years ahead. But not all gamers have the same opportunity to enjoy the best PC games the way many of us take for granted. Many, if not most, gamers don’t even have a PC or console to play on, instead needing to rely on their phones or dedicated gaming cafes where they can play modern AAA titles using better hardware than they could buy themselves.
This is reflected in the economics of video games itself. Mobile gaming is far and away the largest segment of the global video game market – it’s not even close – whether you’re talking number of gamers or the revenue these games bring in. But gamers the world over aren’t playing Candy Crush over Elden Ring because they don’t care about the deeper gameplay experience that a modern PC or console game can provide, it really does come down to access.
“In territories like Latin America, Southeast Asia, India, and Africa, the use case is more mobile, but gamers still would love the ability to get access to better graphics and games on their mobile devices,” Cook said. “And same with the game publishers, the game publishers would love to have more creativity and more functionality in those games and be able to get that out across a wider range of mobile devices.”
Laying the groundwork for the cloud gaming revolution to come
And while the physical interface a gamer might use to play could be anything from a smartphone to a Chromebook or even an older gaming PC, the key is to offload the actual hard work of rendering a game somewhere else and simply output the video to a network connection rather than an HDMI or DisplayPort cable.
Transmitting the visual output of a server to a client device is something we have been doing for literally decades, but gaming has been held back by the real-time, low input latency required to play a modern video game. 5G networks are the first telecom infrastructure that can provide that kind of responsiveness and network stability - all you have to do is look at the remote surgeries performed in recent years using 5G networks to see that.
All that’s missing now is the physical servers to actually run the game you’re playing remotely, but it won’t be missing for long. Already, companies like Radian Arc are moving GPU servers into telecom network centers to lay the groundwork for a proliferation of cloud gaming services.
“What we see is quite a difference in the market need in North America, Australia, or western Europe than what we see in places like Southeast Asia. Recently, one of our partners in Central Africa was literally on the phone, and the closest server they could reach, even for traditional mobile gaming, was in South Africa,” Cook said. “So getting these GPU servers inside some of these smaller telecoms, we suddenly open up a whole new world of functionality, on both sides with the consumers and the publishers.”
Getting gamers to the cloud
With the demise of Google Stadia and the fairly tepid adoption of cloud gaming services in the past few years, convincing gamers to make the move to cloud gaming is a genuine challenge. Many are going to be coming in with prejudice, prefering physical hardware they can hold, while others might have tried it in the past and been turned off by the experience.
Cook believes there’s a secret weapon in cloud gaming’s arsenal though: the telecom providers themselves.
“When we walk into a telecom,” Cook said, “we walk in and say we want to put the POP (point of presence) inside your network so that we can all have the benefits of low latency, scale, cost benefits, etc., 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. Part of that marketing plan does include a controller, and that controller can be quite different. So, what you’ll see in a lot of those markets is an Android set-top box for the living room and we can run an application on that set-top box and create a similar game console-like experience.
“One thing that telecoms are really good at is selling those kinds of bundles,” Cook said, “selling hardware plus a data plan, or hardware, plus a data plan, plus a gaming plan, which is a really unique value proposition.”
This distributed, localized telecom network approach might be an unexpected asset for cloud gaming. Google Stadia was a single cloud gaming provider, so its demise was a significant blow to the cloud gaming industry. If Google or Nvidia are the sole providers of cloud gaming services, then cloud gaming will always be held back by the level of commitment to the project that a small handful of companies have.
By going through the telecoms most people already use, you might not get the kind of extensive catalog that Google could leverage, but you end up with more cloud gaming providers overall, which should help speed its adoption.
“So if you’ve got the GPU inside of the telecom network, you can really take advantage of scale. The new AMD GPUs can run twelve games per GPU. They’re very energy efficient, about 30% less power on a per-user basis. All those things really ought to make cloud gaming the potential killer app for the 5G rollout.”